Selling the Schools a Bill of Goods: The Marketing of Computer-Based Education

By Noble, Douglas D. | Afterimage, March-April 1996 | Go to article overview

Selling the Schools a Bill of Goods: The Marketing of Computer-Based Education


Noble, Douglas D., Afterimage


INTRODUCTION

Despite the many volumes that have been compiled about computer-based education (CBE) over the last two decades, there is surprisingly little written on the history of this enterprise, and almost nothing written from the point of view of corporate strategists attempting to crack and technologize the education market. Instead, the vast bulk of the literature takes the perspective of the bewildered or the enthusiastic consumer, and assumes as a given the hyperbole of inevitability constructed by corporate marketeers.

What I hope to show is that from the start to the present, Big Business has never really known what it was doing in this arena. Again and again, major firms have exploited political opportunities to break into the education market and have flailed wildly, trying to make the killing they had convinced themselves was there for the taking. Far more often than not they have fallen on their faces, failing miserably and retreating to cut their losses . . . only to lick their wounds and try again, equally oblivious, once the next opportunity arose or another technology product hit the market. Despite these repeated failures, the cumulative impact of all these fits and starts on primary and secondary education has been an avalanche of hardware and software glutting the schools.

These repeated failures did not occur merely because Big Business has misunderstood the education market and the culture of the schools. These failures have resulted from the breathtakingly poor business sense of those corporate leaders most prominent in leading the charge to reform education through technological innovation. Repeatedly, leaders of major Fortune 500 firms have insisted with blind determination on believing their own illusions and on following the predictions of information-age fortune tellers, despite massive evidence to the contrary available to them, even from their own lieutenants. The hubris of these men in their self-appointed role to "save" education, to pursue the holy grail of electronic teaching, to come up with the "killer application" for their glorious computer gadgetry, has for three decades driven their firms to distraction, and sometimes to destruction.

And this high-tech sideshow has created an appalling distraction for education and educators as well, as they have been taken for a ride on the roller coaster of computer development and marketing madness, leaving the schools awash in electronic gadgetry. The ride is by no means over, as telecommunications and entertainment giants jostle for favored places on the education information superhighway into the nation's schools and homes. Perhaps a little historical reflection will sober a few would-be enthusiasts among the present corps of teachers, artists and other thoughtful people, regarding not only the technologies themselves, but perhaps more importantly, the credibility and legitimacy of the self-appointed high-tech corporate saviors of education. Certainly with state and federal politics once again greasing corporate entree into the education marketplace, there is little chance that reasonable reflection will stop the charade.

This article offers a glimpse of the littered record of past performances, specifically case studies of two major corporate ventures in computer-based education: the joint venture of GE and Time, Inc. - the General Learning Corporation - in the 1960s and Control Data Corporation's efforts to market its PLATO system in schools in the 1970s and early 1980s. These studies are derived from proprietary documents - confidential memos, letters, strategic plans - now available in public archives. The final section of this article carries the insights from these case studies into the 1980s and 1990s, for which proprietary documentation from high-tech corporations is not yet readily available. We turn first to the 1980s, in which the combination of videogames, microcomputer technology, the LOGO programming language for children and a successful information-age ideology of computer literacy led to the widespread introduction of computers into schools. …

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