Getting a lesson in cyber-commerce

The Education Beat

Computers: Net-based education comes with hardware, software, maintenance -- and ads.


BEFORE LONG, most middle and high schools in Baltimore will have two satellite dishes atop their roofs.

One already brings in Channel One, a daily 12-minute news show for students, including two minutes of commercials. The other, a newcomer, will connect 54 city schools to ZapMe! -- an Internet service. Like Channel One, ZapMe! is free to the schools, relying on advertising for profits.

Installed in about 1,100 schools in 48 states, 2-year-old ZapMe! provides schools with five to 15 Dell computers, a high-speed connection to the Internet and a network of about 10,000 sites, all said to be educational. Students get free e-mail, and they have access to a shopping area, "ZapMall," featuring well-known Internet merchants.

ZapMe!'s on-screen ads promote technology companies like Motorola and Dell, education firms like Sylvan Learning Systems and colleges and universities hoping to recruit students. Cigarette and alcohol ads are prohibited.

Last month, a coalition of children's advocates sent a letter to the California-based ZapMe Corp., objecting to the ads and to the company's collection of data on students' online habits.

ZapMe! "turns the schools and the compulsory schooling laws into a means of gaining access to a captive audience of children in order to extract market research from them and to advertise to them," the letter said.

But city school officials said they will save at least $100,000 a year per school in the cost of computers, software, satellite time and maintenance, all of which are provided by the company. The ads are a small price to pay, argued Michael Pitroff, the system's director of technology instruction. "We discussed ZapMe! with the [school] board and with the powers-that-be in the system," said Pitroff. "We felt the deal was almost too good to be true. It's a no-brainer.

"Besides, you can't go to Yahoo! or any other search engine without at least passing through commercials."

For Baltimore and other cash-poor systems, it's a choice between selling a little bit of the soul -- and going without.

No gamble with emergency closings

Last Wednesday's column, highly critical of Maryland school systems' planning for snow emergencies, drew this response from Anne Arundel Superintendent Carol S. Parham:

"I read with some concern and frustration your recent column. I can assure you that our school system did not `gamble' on a mild winter.

"Over time, we have consistently built into our calendar four or five days, and those days are designated for `emergency closings.' Plans for additional make-up days that might be required are also addressed in our calendar. By scheduling in this manner, I feel that we plan responsibly and realistically to maximize educational time while recognizing the possible need to close schools in emergency situations.

"Your contention that educators gambled and educators lost is unfair. Those who lose when schools must be closed are our young people. And for that reason, it is imperative that all of us who lead school systems pay close attention to the planning, publicizing and implementing of our local school calendars. Our students, our parents and our own employees depend on us to make the best decisions as we plan ahead for the next school year.

"However, there are some realities we cannot avoid. We do not control the weather, home `packets' of school work cannot replace required hours in the classroom, and, as we know, every child does not have access to a computer.

"All things considered, I believe [we have] taken a responsible approach in planning our calendar and allowing for a wide range of exigencies. I object to any implication that we have done otherwise."

Getting hit by the books

Along with tuition and mandatory fees that make college ever more expensive, add the cost of textbooks. In essence, that cost is another mandatory fee.

With the opening of the spring semester delayed by snow, this month is one of the busiest in Maryland college and university bookstores. Hardcover math and science textbooks are selling for three-figure sums, while softcover texts are going for $20 and more.

The cost of textbooks for a full-time student can reach four figures easily. That's for one semester.

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