Disentangling the real and potential risks of advertising in schools

CC BY 2.0-licensed Education by Sean MacEntee.

If you have ever attended a high school football game, you’ve likely spotted ads for the town dentist’s office or the small local bank on the field’s scoreboard or, stepping into the school hallways, you might see a sprawling corporate ad across student lockers. Yearbooks, school bulletins, theatrical playbills and report cards have traditionally hosted these kinds of ads. Take a turn into the cafeteria, and you may encounter more indirect product placement in the form of vending machines installed by major soda companies. In the classroom itself, brands like Kaplan and Nestle have in the past contributed to district wide curricula design, while some fast food and other retailers have integrated advertising with incentive programs for schools.

There is a history of study and critique of these more traditional advertising practices from advocacy groups concerned with limiting student exposure to advertising on primary and secondary school grounds. But as advertising has gone digital, these conversations have turned to student data collection, privacy, and concerns over the role of advertising as revenue in the business models pursued by education technology companies whose products are used in schools. Several high profile cases, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s complaint against Google Apps for Education and India-based mobile ad firm InMobi’s violation of COPPA, have eroded trust that companies will keep to their obligations towards student privacy standards, even as many companies have signed public pledges promising to adhere to fair practice. However, fears about newer practices remain general rather than specific. When and why data is shared with third parties is often opaque to parents, teachers, and privacy advocates, leaving them without the necessary information to gauge the risks that digital advertising might pose for students. Claims linking student data collection and third party data sharing to addressable (also known as targeted) advertising remain speculative.

A new primer from Data & Society’s Enabling Connected Learning initiative identifies four factors that are contributing to the increasing complexity of the field, and argues for greater clarity in disentangling the potential from the real harms of digital advertising:

When it comes to displayed ads and data collection, the spatial boundaries of the school have become more porous. While older forms of advertising, like brand-sponsored curricula, have been tightly controlled and negotiated through contracts and agreements with districts, with the advent of digital advertising, students interact as users with commercial websites during school hours. A history assignment might send a student to browse The New York Times at the computer lab (and they may at the same time engage in personal browsing of social media like Facebook). What this entails is that advertising has increasingly become part of the conditions of access to educational resources on commercial websites like online dictionaries. These sites don’t face the same regulatory restrictions for data collection and advertising as applications with a primarily educational focus. In short, they display ads and collect visitor data like any ordinary website.

At the same time, there is a lack of transparency to groups such as parents over how student data is being used. While companies have contracted and advertised in schools for over a decade, their exclusive agreements and products are much more clear-cut than the convoluted “terms of service” authored by tech companies, which are continuously modified as services are upgraded. Out of this opacity have emerged anxieties over the profit motives of these companies and, from a legal standpoint, raise questions about how regulatory oversight can be adapted to the shifting nature of these forms of agreements.

Although numerous laws and policies already exist to regulate what marketers can do with student information, legislation on student data and privacy continues to be unclear and difficult to navigate. Legislators face an increasingly complex tangle of national and state laws as well as policies that have not been rewritten for the latest data-driven advertising methods. As a result, policymakers often set broad and unclear rules for how to regulate and enforce proper practices, which is confusing for advertisers because standards and expectations are unevenly applied and unclear. While the current legal structure allows for businesses to collect student data, they are primarily expected to self-regulate their use of that information, and face legal and financial ramifications only if they are investigated by the FTC or other agencies.

Finally, debates have conflated concepts and practices when it comes to the purposes of data collection and how it plays a role in advertising. Crucially, concerns tend to be evoked around addressable advertising, which is targeted to a particular person based on data analysis to help determine preferences and likelihood of buying a particular product. But evidence is lacking that advertising models in schools have shifted away from the traditional approach of contextual advertising, which is more generally aimed at an audience by means of placing ads in strategic locations. There is often an assumption that there is a direct and necessary link between student data collection, third party data sharing, and addressable advertising.

Technology has reshaped how data is collected and has introduced new pathways for enabling advertisers to reach students. This paper serves as a guide for disambiguating the field, a necessary starting point in the task ahead of wrestling with the complications of new technologies and old regulations.

Full primer available here.

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