Sunday, July 09, 2006

Nikon Ads In The Classroom (2)

Responding to Judy Breck, who writes:
But there are so many, many red herrings that keep public awareness away from the fabulous learning open content that abounds online — and that diminish the incentives of deep commercial pockets to create great learning stuff.
I don't see this as a red herring. I have argued consistently that commercial content and non-commercial content need to be equally accessible.

Promoters of commercial content try at every juncture to keep non-commercial content out of the marketplace. This is because for-profit content for profit cannot compete with free content.

You may say, the commercial content is free content. And it is true, the Nikon content is provided without charge to the students. But it is nonetheless for-profit. It is intended to sway students, at a minimum, toward brand loyalty, and more generally, toward purchasing cameras.

The 'Nikon sucks' example is probably an exaggeration, but again, a Nikon-sponsored site on photography would not be as attractive as an equally well-produced site which is not affiliated with any company. An independent review site produced by a government or a university, for example. Or by students.

Nikon - or agents operating along the same general principles as Nikon - will immediately seek to eliminate this site from the competition. "The government is wasting money duplicating resources," they would argue.

Or if it is student produced: "The students are not accountable," say the lobbyists. "They post inappropriate content. They leave the school open to lawsuits."

This is not a red herring. Look at Channel One, the commerial news service shown in classrooms. The presentation of the news (not to mention the advertisements) is not benign. It is a controlled voice, a controlled message.

Why, one asks, could the school students themselves not produce their own Channel One? What chance has this of happening in any school already subscribed to the service?

Let me be clear. I am not opposed to commercially sponsored educational content. Indeed, as has been correctly pointed out, I have spoken of this and endorsed this in the past. It is an excellent way of meeting educational needs.

But I am at the same time aware of the risks. When a student is suspended from school for wearing a Pepsi shirt on Coke day - as has actually happened - then the opportunities offered by free learning have turned into corporate control.

Yes, corporations may have less incentive to contribute under such conditions. They would like to co ntrol the message. Or at best, they don't care whether or not students and others have equal access. But they'll contribute nonetheless; there is incentive enough. Because their competition will be there.

Indeed, the smart corporations will turn this to their advantage. Once they give up the idea of controlling the message, they will learn to help schools help their students and others make their own message. Look at what Lego is doing that with its Mindstorms project, opening up the source and allowing students to hack the system. Contrast that with Microsoft, which responds to attempts to play non-compliant content on the Xbox with threats of lawsuits.

When we open the schools to corporate content, we need to ensure that we open the schools equally to other points of view, including those of the students. Freedom of speech is something with which schools have difficulty. They will need to learn to adapt.

p.s. My Coolpix 4300 has been with me since 2003. I haven't really treated it well, taking pictures in the rain, at -40 degrees, in the Australian desert, passed around in pubs... it has never broken down and still delivers very sharp high quality pictures, good enough to print and frame and post on my office wall. But yes, I see a D200 or some such in my future.

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