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Asleep at the Switch: Schoolhouse Commercialism, Student Privacy, and the Failure of Policymaking--The Nineteenth Annual Report on Schoolhouse Commercializing Trends, 2017

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As schools continue to integrate technologies into every aspect of school life, those technologies are being harnessed to amplify corporate marketing and profit-making, extending the reach of commercializing activities into every aspect of students' school lives. Although marketers' school-focused efforts are often billed as "innovative" and "out-of-the-box," many of them are little more than repackaged marketing strategies that over the years have been seen again and again. Schools' increasing reliance on education technology has intensified the kind of school-focused marketing that has been studied for years: (1) appropriation of space on school property; (2) sponsored programs and activities; (3) exclusive agreements; (4) sponsorship of supplementary educational materials; (5) incentive programs; (6) fundraising; and (7) digital marketing. However, in addition to the traditional goal of providing brand exposure, education technology now engages students in activities that facilitate the collection of valuable personal data and that socializes students to accept such surveillance as normal. This year's report focuses in particular on how technological advances, the lure of "personalization," and lax regulation foster the collection of personal data and overwhelm efforts to protect children's privacy. For-profit entities are driving increasing reliance on education technology with the goal of transforming education into an ever-larger profit center--by selling technology hardware, software, and services to schools; by using technology to reduce personnel costs; by creating brand-loyal customers; and increasingly, by turning student data into a marketable product. The goal of profit-making, in turn, may often distort and diminish the quality of education children receive. The dominant beliefs currently associated with technology and economic development are leading schools and districts to change their policies, pay huge sums of money to private vendors, and create systems for divulging vast amounts of children's personal information to education technology companies. Education applications, particularly those that attempt to "personalize" student learning, are powered by proprietary algorithms that may harm children as they implement theories of learning without policymakers or teachers being able to examine how they work or how student data are being used. By adopting these applications and encouraging or requiring that students use them, schools effectively funnel children into a "surveillance economy" that harvests their data for profit while encouraging them to adopt an individualist, consumerist worldview. In this context, policymaking to protect children's privacy or to evaluate the quality of the educational technology they use ranges from inadequate to nonexistent. (A list of notes and references is included.) [For the previous report, "Learning to be Watched: Surveillance Culture at School--The Eighteenth Annual Report on Schoolhouse Commercializing Trends, 2014-2015," see ED574730.]


Boninger, F., Molnar, A. & Murray, K. Asleep at the Switch: Schoolhouse Commercialism, Student Privacy, and the Failure of Policymaking--The Nineteenth Annual Report on Schoolhouse Commercializing Trends, 2017. Retrieved March 21, 2023 from .

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