On Feb. 8, a Pasadena, Calif., company called Free-PC announced it would give away 10,000 Pentium-II computers to customers willing to accept a constant display of advertising in the margin of the computer screen. Within a few weeks of the company’s announcement, more than a million people had signed up for the offer.

Free-PC’s proposal is similar to that of ZapMe! Corp., which gives away 15 computers with satellite-based internet access to schools in exchange for advertising in the left-hand corner of the monitor. The offers mark the emergence of a business model that has privacy advocates concerned and school leaders debating the merits of accepting technology gifts that come with strings attached.

Unlike ZapMe!’s program, Free-PC’s offer targeted consumers, not schools. To qualify, candidates had to fill out an online profile to determine how desirable they would be to potential advertisers. The online form collected personal information such as telephone number, address, eMail, date of birth, household income, hobbies, and interests.

While ZapMe! doesn’t collect personal information in exchange for computer equipment, it does take into account a student’s grade level–supplied when the student logs onto the network–to dish out age-appropriate advertisements.

The concept of free computers presents an attractive offer for consumers–particularly for cash-strapped schools in search of technology. But despite the fact that advertising supports a host of free services already–including much of the internet–many educators argue that the business model employed by companies like Free-PC and ZapMe! should have no place in schools.

“The students are in school to get an education, not to be exploited for advertising purposes,” said Gary Marx, executive director of public relations for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). “Whatever the medium, that’s the ethical approach that we need to take in our schools.”

Significant demand

Like Free-PC, ZapMe! has had an enthusiastic response to its offer. “Within the first 100 days, we received over 11,000 inquiries and 5,000 signed applications,” said Frank Vigil, ZapMe!’s president and chief operating officer. “This tells me that the demand for our service is significant.”

Already, ZapMe! has installed its “netspace” service in 65 schools. The company hopes to implement it in 2,500 schools by the end of this year.

Participating schools receive a satellite dish and server that are connected to the ZapMe! network through satellite signals and land-based lines. The schools also get a printer and 15 Pentium-II computers running Windows NT Workstation 4.0 operating systems.

According to Vigil, the ZapMe! network is about much more than just free PCs. It also delivers high-speed (2 Mbps) multimedia educational content via satellite. Some of the content is supplied by other companies, and much is taken from the web. The content is selected and reviewed by ZapMe! editors and K-12 educators for its usefulness and appropriateness to the K-12 classroom, Vigil said.

In return for the ZapMe! service, the school must supply the power and space for the network, plus a standard phone line. Schools also have to sign a contract promising to use the network at least four hours per day, allow evening use of the computers for community service and training, and help select the ZapMe! content by making recommendations to the company.

ZapMe! is supported by corporate sponsors who pay the company to deliver their educational content and brand image. Sponsors’ corporate logos appear in the lower left-hand corner of the ZapMe! browser.

“There’s clearly a market need out there that we’re trying to fill,” Vigil said. He pointed to the huge funding gap that exists between most schools’ technology needs and the resources available to fill them. “ZapMe! is available to all students equally, so we can help narrow that gap,” he said.

Targeted ads

Even to casual observers, it’s clear that advertising already abounds on the web. In fact, advertising supports several outstanding web-based educational services that otherwise would cost money to access. But Marx and others draw a distinction between “incidental” and “targeted” advertising.

“If students are exposed to incidental advertising through browsing the web, that’s different,” he said. “But when it’s targeted–‘We’ll give you free computers if you’ll agree to give us a captive audience’–then it’s not just incidental.”

The kind of advertising that ZapMe! displays is called “brand imaging,” and it’s intended to develop brand recognition and loyalty among teens.

“We provide equipment and 10,000 of the best educational web sites at a price that schools can afford–no cost,” Vigil said. “Clearly, it’s not at no cost to ZapMe!…We believe we’re able to do it in a non-obtrusive manner that’s appropriate for an educational environment, and students appreciate that these companies are out there helping them learn, giving them these tools.”

The brand imaging always appears in the same place–the lower left-hand corner of the browser–so it doesn’t sneak up on students, Vigil said. Also, ZapMe! encourages sponsors to develop educational messages rather than straight sales pitches in their advertisements.

“We wouldn’t accept an ad for ‘burgers, fries, and cokes for $1.99,’ for example,” Vigil said. “Instead, we might ask the sponsor to provide a message about the environment.”

According to the Center for Commercial Free Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Oakland, Calif., such advertising is even more insidious because it blurs the line between advertising and education.

But Ted Maddock, technology coordinator for Mt. Diablo High School in Concord, Calif., disagrees. Mt. Diablo has been using equipment provided by ZapMe! since May 1998, when the school agreed to beta test the network, and Maddock believes the ZapMe! ads are more innocuous than the banner ads that appear on most commercial web sites.

“ZapMe! is controlling the content of its ads, so there’s no ‘bait and switch’ where clicking on a banner ad takes you someplace you shouldn’t be,” he said.

Besides, sheltering students from advertising isn’t the answer, Maddock said: “Part of our job is to teach them how to discern for themselves what is of value and what’s not.”

If not for the offer of free computers and internet access, Maddock added, it’s unlikely that students at Mt. Diablo would have such easy access to technology.

Free-PC

http://www.free-pc.com

ZapMe!

http://www.zapme.com

American Association of School Administrators

http://www.aasa.org

Center for Commercial Free Public Education

http://www.commercialfree.org