Schools now routinely direct children online to do their schoolwork, thereby exposing them to tracking of their online behavior and subsequent targeted marketing. This is part of the evolution of how marketing companies are using digital marketing, according to a new policy analysis.
In the National Education Policy Center’s 18th Annual Report on Schoolhouse Commercialism Trends, Learning to be Watched: Surveillance Culture at School, Faith Boninger and Alex Molnar describe how schools facilitate the work of digital marketers. Google, for example, subscribes over 30 million students and educators to its Google Apps for Education (GAFE) and tracks students when they shift to Google applications not explicitly part of the GAFE suite (e.g., YouTube). Facebook tracks whenever its users browse to any page housing a “like” button, and uses that tracking information in its ad targeting systems.
The policies that enable and encourage these practices connect today’s children and adolescents to monitoring and to marketers. Moreover, because digital technologies enable extensive personalization, they amplify opportunities for marketers to control what children see in the private world of their digital devices as well as what they see in public spaces such as streets, ball fields, and schools.
Schools’ embrace of digital technology augments and amplifies traditional types of education-related marketing, which include: (1) appropriation of space on school property, (2) exclusive agreements, (3) sponsored programs and activities, (4) incentive programs, (5) sponsorship of supplementary educational materials, and (6) branded fundraising.
These practices, Boninger and Molnar explain, threaten children’s right to privacy as well as their physical and psychological well-being and the integrity of the education they receive. Constant digital surveillance and marketing at school combine to normalize for children the unquestioned role that corporations play in their education and in their lives more generally.
The report offers a number of recommendations, including that policymakers enact enforceable legislation rather than rely on industry self-regulation to protect student privacy, and that they eliminate the perverse incentives that encourage parents, teachers, and administrators to sacrifice student privacy in order to be financially able to provide educationally necessary school activities.