'Free' computers come with strings
Can cash-strapped schools afford to say no to advertising in the classroom?

National Post - Monday, February 22, 1999

Katrina Onstad National Post

"Armrests are not for resting arms," says Mrs. Grimwood to her tidy rows of 10th grade "keyboarding" students. It's an old-fashioned sentiment, a typing teacher edict left over from the days before mouse pads and butterfly keyboards. But at Meadowvale Secondary School in suburban Mississauga, Ont., Mrs. Grimwood's students -- Nike logo on a jacket here, DKNY sweatshirt around a waist there -- sit in the blue glow of brand new IBM Pentium computers, as a 27-inch TV suspended in the corner throws out images of last fall's Quebec election. This classroom of the future comes with a price tag, however, which soon dances across the TV screen: a Nintendo ad.

The presence of advertising in classrooms is the main reason for a meeting tonight at Meadowvale's library that's sure to be heated. Parents, teachers, students, and community members will debate whether all this equipment -- and the corporate sponsorship it requires -- has a place in schools.

The tape playing in the corner is a promotion for the Youth News Network (YNN), a privately owned network that hopes to broadcast a daily program of 12 minutes of news and two 1/2-minutes of advertisements, into high-school classrooms across Canada. Meadowvale has been a test case since last fall, when the school received $218,000 of equipment -- a big satellite dish on the roof can be seen from the street -- including the 25 computers Mrs. Grimwood's students are using.

By June, the school must decide whether to sign a five-year contract, and educators nationwide are watching closely: In January, YNN's parent company, Montreal-based Athena Educational Partners (AEP), sent out 2,300 glossy brochures and tapes to Canadian schools, bidding them to sign up for "a national distance education network" launching this fall.

It's not the first time Canadian schools have heard the call of YNN. After tentatively signing up a dozen school boards in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec, and Nova Scotia in 1992, teachers' unions and school boards -- under pressure from groups like Alberta's Parents Against Commercial Television in Schools, and the Canadian Association for Media Education Organization (CAMEO) -- squashed the deal. YNN resurfaced in 1996, but no schools stayed beyond the pilot stage. The Conference of Catholic Bishops publically rejected the program for Ontario's Catholic schools.

This time around, YNN has upped the ante, promising schools $100,000 worth of equipment, along with maintenance and teacher training. In a pre-emptive strike against anti-advertising criticism, AEP has set up an educational advisory board to monitor YNN's content, including ads. But what YNN really has on its side is timing. With education cut to the bone across the country, schools are more susceptible than ever to the lure of "free" new technology.

"If I could have the equipment without ads, I'd take it, " says Laurie Pedwell, the principal of Meadowvale Secondary. "But that's just not possible. And the net result is, this program is positive for kids."

Mrs. Grimwood's keyboarding class, says Pedwell, should be in another lab, but those computers are out of order, as they often are. For Pedwell, the YNN deal is a business decision; for others, the question is bigger.

"There are some who have the mindset that any any kind of corporate involvement in the classroom is suspect. That's an ideological position and one we're not prepared to debate," says Rod MacDonald, president of AEP.

Chris Worsnop, a retired teacher who taught in Meadowvale's district for 20 years, finds MacDonald's attitude "alarming." "Who is he to set the perimeters of the debate?" asks Worsnop, also a member of CAMEO, who will attend tonight's meeting. "YNN isn't about learning, it's about delivering a captive audience to the advertisers, and we need to talk about that. YNN takes up valuable teaching time and turns students into consumers. Once it's in there, the kids have to watch it. They can't turn it off."

The 244,000 teachers of the Canadian Teachers' Federation are working towards an official policy on the most recent YNN proposal. "We're opposed to corporate involvement in the classroom, just like last time YNN came forward," says CTF president Jan Eastman. "What accountability do they have? It's a for-profit company that usurps the teacher's role. Microsoft is a partner -- does Microsoft know more about teaching than our teachers?"

YNN takes its lead from Channel One, the U.S. network that's broadcast into more than 12,000 schools in America. Forty per cent of American students watch 12 minutes of programming -- and two minutes of ads -- on Channel One every day. A 1998 study by the University of Wisconsin calculated that Channel One costs $1.8-billion a year in classroom time -- six school days a year -- with $300-million in ads.

CAMEO calculates that students will spend six days of the school year watching YNN, with one entire day devoted to ads. As Worsnop points out, tax dollars -- the ones that fund education -- will buy YNN your kids' time. "There's no such thing as a free ride," says Worsnop.

In Canada, commercial-free alternatives to YNN do exist, including Cable in the Classroom, a consortium (CBC Newsworld, YTV, MuchMusic, and others) that allows classrooms to view their programming without ads.

The YNN newscast itself is fairly innocuous, with peppy graphics and light content. And the ads are typical of anything shown during Dawson's Creek: Moustache milk, Honey Pops, an anti-smoking ad. This fact -- that the ads are nothing kids haven't seen before -- is often used to prop up a distressing argument: Kids are already exposed to so many ads, another two minutes won't make a difference. In fact, oversaturation should be an argument against ads in schools. With corporate logos on their bodies, and billboards and strip malls near Meadowvale, it seems imperative that there be some place, a few hours, where kids aren't a target market.

But in the eye of this upcoming storm, the students are the only nonplussed actors. Says Robert Socha, 15, "We see ads all the time at home." And watching the news at school? "It's better than doing work."

Copyright © Southam Inc. All rights reserved. Optimized for browser versions 3.0 and higher. "National Post Online is a production of Southam Inc., Canada's largest publisher of daily newspapers."