Product Placement in Learning Environments

Technology companies have a long history of placing their products inschools and other learning environments. The reasons vary. Placement isdone through in-kind donations, competitive grants, achievement awards,and funds earmarked for technology projects. Most of the companies seetheir products as ways to enhance education, and many will claim therevolutionary or transformative nature of their wares. All of them hopeit will be a prelude to increased market-share.

One of the earliest examples of this in American schools was the Keystone View Company which manufactured stereographs and the hand-held viewing devices as well as projectors. The images were stereoscopic images of every place and activity imaginable.(1) Printed on rigid cardboard, these collections of high quality photographs were found in many homes, libraries, and schools. The company's education department was formed in 1898, and they enlisted famous poets like Carl Sandburg as well as notable educators to serve on their advisory board. By 1922 the company claimed that every school district in towns over 50,000 had what they called a Keystone System. One picture shows a class of young children, each one gazing into a stereopticon.

Marketing literature promised that learning would be greatly improved once schools integrated this technology into their lessons. This promise of technology improving learning is echoed by company after company up to the present day.
After the stereopticon, the typewriter was marketed as a device that would transform the writing skills of young students. There is a study from the Bank Street School of Education dating from the 1930's that makes the same promises about student "transformation" that later showed up in the literature of education marketing departments of computer companies.(2)

One of the first examples of the use of computers in public spaces was started by Bob Albrecht of the People's Computer Company. PCC was not a company but a cooperative publication that started in the early 1970's. Albrecht had written some books for DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation was acquired by Compaq in 1998) and traded the work for a PDP-8, one of the first mini-computers that was owned by end-users and not just large companies or organizations. Later, PCC split off into a separate non-profit called Community Computer Center and worked out a deal with DEC for a PDP-11. Atari also made some donations of equipment. If "DEC" and "Atari" don't ring a bell, I recommend you read the Wikipedia (3) entries for these companies. In the 80's DEC was the second largest computer company in the world with 100,000 employees.

I worked for nine years at Apple which was the first computer company to donate computers to schools in a methodical way. My own role was running a grant program for public access centers and multimedia projects in libraries, museums, and later, community networks. This operated out of the Advanced Technology Group and was not tied to marketing. Donations were made for research, but of course it increased the good will toward the company by supporting unusual projects such as preserving indigenous languages, putting photo archives online (pre-Web days), and just providing access to the Internet in the early days of the public interest in the network.(4)

Other departments of the company had much more ambitious and well-funded projects to donate to schools. The most important was Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow that is no longer supported by the company but still remains influential in education circles.(5)

Frequently, company supported research is highly suspect, but the legacy of this program remains strong even today. The Apple Community Affairs department pioneered the donation of computers in nonprofits (NGOs) and in 1997 to community technology centers. CTCNet in the United States received support for outfitting a number of labs in local CTCs. Finally, education marketing would make donations to influence future sales, and these were directed strategically at schools, researchers, education ministers, and other decision makers. I remember one marketing executive who was angry because I would not make a grant to University of Southern California library in order to clinch a big sale of Macintoshes on campus, but I was able to maintain relative independence in how I awarded equipment and software. My donations were not tied directly to making sales, but in a general way they were meant to influence opinion about Apple in the sectors where we donated (community networks, libraries, indigenous groups).

The above description demonstrates that different parts of a medium-sized company have different goals for their donations. This holds true for companies like IBM, HP, and of course Microsoft. All are meant to promote brand loyalty and sometimes dependence on a product line.

Smaller technology companies in manufacturing and telecommunications have used the promise of providing equipment and support for schools in some developing countries as a way of getting favorable treatment from the government authorities for the establishment of a branch of the enterprise or service. It is not bribery but just a way to get the bureaucracy or licensing agency to move and to differentiate the company from more "mercenary" competitors. In some cases the schools were asked to accept equipment that was expensive to maintain and use to full capacity, even if there was no initial charge.

At the 2003 CTCNet conference Gifts In Kind international "The World's Leading Charity in Produce Philanthropy" was distributing new software for free to non-profits affiliated with CTCNet. Last year they donated almost $800 million in products including computers, software, office equipment, automotive parts, personal care products, and building materials. They also provide discounted services for ICT training and web design. There is a small registration fee that varies with the non-profit's budget. I asked the representative what the motivation was for the many companies that donated though Gifts In Kind.

First of all, there is the tax deduction. Some want to do good, and this is a way with low administrative costs for the companies to help.
Toshiba, the giant Japanese hardware company lost a $2.1 billion class action suit (while admitting no guilt in the matter), and the public is benefiting. Toshiba products are being donated through the Texas-based Beaumont Foundation to schools, libraries, individuals, and non-profits in the United States.(6) However, it's an equipment-only program, and by now everyone knows the other costs for training, integration, and support can exceed the cost of hardware and software.

In the past few years the large technology companies have shown a great deal of interest in developing countries.We have the high profile of HP's Carly Fiorina at the Digital Opportunity Task Force(7) that was formed prior to the rapid deflation of the Internet bubble and subsequently the shrinking of the much touted e-inclusion program. This program was influenced by C.K. Prahalad's article on selling to "the bottom of the pyramid" which tries to make the case for Western companies to open new markets for products and services to the poor. The phase used by several companies including HP is doing well by doing good. This line of reasoning is criticized by some as the reaction of companies in countries with stagnant and declining markets looking for new markets.

Many industries have too much production capacity so there is a strong motivation to establish new in order to "move more boxes" as we in the computer industry used to say.


In January 2003 I was asked to help with a survey of telecenters (community technology centers) in a number of countries. Microsoft had engaged a large non-profit working in the development industry, Academy for Educational Development, to do a rush job. I serve on an advisory board for an AED/USAID consortium called Dot-Com Alliance and was also working on an AED project in Uganda at the time. The deadline for the research was before I returned from Uganda, so I did not take part. I did see queries from researchers posted on development and telecenter mailing lists, and I assumed the results would find their way into the Microsoft report.

In early June 2003 I received an inquiry from Julie Schoknecht at Catalyst Alliance (an page 126 Accenture-sponsored non-profit). She said that her consulting group and World Links were doing a survey of telecenters and related networks around the world and wanted to interview me. Of course, as a consulting firm they did not intend to pay other consultants for their time, so I ignored it. A week later I began receiving inquiries from colleagues around the world about a Microsoft-World Bank initiative. It turned out all to be related. I replied to the Catalyst Alliance and World Links contacts to set up a phone interview. World Links was a pet project of World Bank director James Wolfensohn. It has been spun off into a separate organization with a competent board that has managed to raise a lot of money to support its school technology programs around the world. The man who directed it is returning to the World Bank. The main activity of World Links has been setting up computer labs and training programs in high schools in developing countries. In Uganda and Zimbabwe, among other countries, some of these school computer labs have also been running as telecenters to provide fee-based services for people other than students.

They hope this will be a model that will work elsewhere to make the other school
projects "sustainable." World Links has received different kinds of support from Microsoft in the past: $1 million in software, and more recently a large contract to do training (in Microsoft products), and now this telecenter research project.
In talking with the women gathering data for Microsoft, I shared what I knew about the status of community technology in some of the regions they are covering. They have divided the world into nine regions, and we only talked about Western Europe and Latin America. In Latin America and Europe some experts did not want to talk with them or declined to serve on an advisory board for the big initiative Microsoft was planning. The central board members helped plan this at a meeting in Paris earlier in 2003. It included people from North American aid agencies,World Bank InfoDev program, the World Economic Forum (the folks who meet in Davos), MIT's Media Lab, and World Tel, an ITU spin-off.

I told the World Links and Catalyst Alliance consultants if they had been more open about who they were working for, they would have a better response. "We had to sign NDAs," they replied. An NDA or Non-Disclosure Agreement is a favorite instrument of technology companies when they are going to reveal secret information to an outside party including partners, journalists, and financial analysts. Non-Disclosure Agreements are a standard way of trying to protect company secrets, but in a world where transparency is needed and in short supply (just look at the World Bank's rhetoric), the lack of transparency in this project has raised suspicions about the aims of Microsoft and the group.

People approached me with pointers, rumors, documents, and fears about what will transpire when Microsoft teams up with World Bank organizations and other national aid organizations. This article is not meant to betray any confidences or spread rumors, but those of you involved in telecenters and community technology centers should find ways of discussing this openly before the project is rolled out with great fanfare. This project will entail a lot of money for community technology learning centers/telecenters. There will be grants, annual prizes, and publicity for the community technology movement.On the business side there is telecenter software recently developed by Microsoft (in Spanish at least) which will be distributed for free at first and will be tested and improved just as happened with Explorer. There are, of course, alternatives to this software, but the parties who have developed it will not have the resources to publicize it in the same way as Microsoft does.

The points everyone should think about: what are the tradeoffs when you accept equipment and software donations from certain groups or companies? Of course you are expected to use the software. Most companies hope it will lead to great sales. A deep discount for the first version of an Office suite can lead to an organization that pays for upgrades and brings in more profit in the long run. Many places in developing countries continue to use pirated software, but some want their operations to be legal, yet they are not sure they can pay even the reduced license fees for commercial software.


Bill Gates is a very public figure, and he has spoken out on a number of issues besides Microsoft. Most forcefully he has committed a vast proportion of his wealth to solve very serious health problems, especially those where the market has failed and little research was being done to combat malaria and of course AIDS. In the interview with Bill Moyers on Public Broadcasting he said, "So we should be doing the things that the normal approaches can't do, whether it's approaches to the AIDS vaccine or malaria or delivery systems.We've got to be out there and accept some kind of failure rate."(7)

He also related his experience in Soweto, South Africa, where he saw computer centers as a low priority in that community compared to dealing with AIDS, and that has driven the bulk of his philanthropic efforts. At the same time he sees the link between improving information flow with ICT donations and health problems because he funds very large programs for public libraries to provide access and training at no cost to people in Colombia, Guatemala, Chile,Mexico, as well as the U.S. and other developed countries, but it is much smaller than his philanthropic efforts for world health.


Microsoft has some of the most popular applications in the world, but it is also challenged by the open source software movement, and the company has strategies to stop or inhibit the spread of this model for software development and support. Their statements on the subject have ranged from Steve Ballmer's comment likening open source to "cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches," to claims that Microsoft likes and embraces open source. Microsoft backs a lobbying organization called Software Choice which was formed to persuade legislators not to pass laws that required the use of just open source products.(8) Open source as a way of working and sharing ideas fits very well with the community telecenter movement. This sort of ICT-enhanced collaboration may be more important that the code generated by the project.Will telecenters using and promoting open source clash with the axis formed by the cluster of organizations planning this Microsoft project? World Links claims that the program will not penalize telecenters that happen to be using open source solutions, but the evidence in other parts of the Microsoft/Open Source battlefield makes me skeptical.

In an April 2002 speech delivered to the Government Leaders' Conference in Seattle, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates likened the concept of open source to anti-capitalism. Warning developing countries against using software based on the Gnu Public License (GPL), Gates said those who put development time into it are denying themselves the benefits of essential taxes.(9)

The DOT Force final report in 2001 delivered at the Genoa, Italy, meeting of the G8, had strong statements about open source that were removed after Microsoft Russia pounded on the table during a planning meeting and ranted about the dangers of open source.

What was left in the document? Only these words: "Encourage the software community, including the open source and commercial software communities, to develop applications relevant to developing countries,"(10)
All non-profits, libraries, schools, universities, and community technology center should look at equipment donations and discounts with some of these factors in mind. Many of the proposed initiatives are described as "public-private partnerships" or "collaborations between civil society, government, and industry." Unfortunately, the genesis of these projects is not always clear, and the projects are rolled out with much fanfare and limited transparency about what tradeoffs have been made and what the ultimate goals are. For struggling projects in poor countries, it is difficult to reject any offer of assistance whether it is vaccine, corn, computers, or educational materials. The aid agencies and international organizations see the alliance with Microsoft as beneficial. It seems that
each is hoping to leverage the resources of the others in order to carry out their own agenda. Let's hope that is benefits the people whom our grassroots groups serve and not just the goals of the council steering this new structure.


Larry Cuban, the Stanford University professor who is the most articulate critic about the use of computers in education has made available online the in-depth study, "Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom". It goes into far greater detail on the ways that companies, allied with government, citizens and educators have pushed for massive spending on ICT in schools. It is an extremely useful background to similar initiatives in developing countries.


(1) Keystone Mast collection
Stereopticon information
Keyboarding in elementary schools: curricular issues, by Stephen Shuller
A brief history of the Apple Library of Tomorrow program
Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow
(6) WacoTribune.pdf
Beaumont Foundation
Digital Opportunity Task Force papers, agenda, members.
The Initiative for Software Choice
MS leads lobby against open source
Government Leaders Conference