Our Schools/Our Selves: Fall 2001

DIRT(1) Cheap: Students for sale and the tilting of a scale
October 1, 2001


october 2001This paper illustrates how parents, teachers and school administrators have been quietly and unknowingly enlisted as accomplices in the sale of children to commercial interests.

This facet of the economic imperative is obscured by the siren call of computer technology. This noise silences all other sounds and obscures behavior that, under normal circumstances, would be considered unethical. This should affront us, yet we are unwittingly co-opted to be complicit in it.

This paper outlines how this co-option is accomplished. It is hoped that this attempt to make the process more transparent will promote questions and discussions among parents and educators, and foster a larger, more inclusive conversation


The sale of the personal information of school children by the Calgary Board of Education (Board) should have been the subject of heated public debate. It was not. In fact, it was never explicitly made public. Critical assumptions were made behind the scenes and details were not revealed.

This paper begins with site of co-option, a form that both parents and teachers were to sign. Then, the form itself will be demystified by tracing its genesis. Finally, the act of co-option will be discussed and suggestions will be made for recognizing such co-option and challenging it.

The Co-option — A signed form

Figure 1 is a part of an actual form, entitled Acceptable Use Policy for Networked Information Resources , sent home by a school to be signed by parents. The form is on Board letterhead and is sent home with all students, when they first enter the school system. Nothing else is sent home with the form. Failure to sign it in its entirety and unaltered means that the child will feel ‘different' in the classroom. She will not be able to view images on the screen if they originate from the Internet, even if the teacher selected the image.

The first paragraph of the form can be characterized as an "Acceptable Use" statement for computer usage. Although it is not unproblematic, it will not be focussed upon here. The second paragraph of the form, as worded, involves granting permission to the Board for the release of unidentified information about the student to a limited liability company for something called an ‘account', that appears to include email. Parents are to sign this form and teachers are to review it with the student and sign it as well.

The meaning behind the second paragraph will be briefly explained. The Board contracted with a company in California for email services for students. This company provides the servers used for the email accounts. The Board creates an account name for the student and sends this to WhoWhere?, along with the student's first name, last name, age, gender, the city, province, country of residence and postal code. The Board pays this company a lump sum of money and in return receives email services and twenty-five percent of the advertising revenue WhoWhere? earns from DoubleClick banner advertisements. The Board also earns twenty-five percent of the revenue earned from promotional email materials sent to the students.

The above information was obtained directly from the written contract that the Board had with this limited liability company. The contract was accessed through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The formal access to information request became necessary when conflicting information was offered with respect to what personal information was being turned over to WhoWhere? and because assurances suggesting ‘limited access' to this information were felt to have little practical meaning.

The contract contains a clause whereby WhoWhere? can, with the permission of the Board, ask the children to fill in ‘optional information fields'. It is not clear what the Board did here, but the existence of such a clause is disturbing. WhoWhere? has since been purchased by Lycos and effectively dissolved as a separate entity. Another company has since purchased Lycos. To complete the picture, Lycos has contracted the placement of banner advertising across their network to DoubleClick. For anyone concerned about online privacy, DoubleClick is a notorious name. The details will not be explored here.

The Board has traded the personal information of its students for a low initial lump payment for email accounts and a future revenue stream based on advertising to the students. The Board made no effort to inform parents and yet expected their signature. Even if the Acceptable Use Policy for Networked Information Resources had been provided, it makes no mention of advertising and suggests that the Board will only release the child's first, middle and last name as well as password, in order to establish an email account. The Board also expects teachers to review the form and sign off on it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that few, if any, teachers or school administrators were aware of the implications of this section of the form.


Implications of the signed form

  1. It sanctions the release of students' personal information to a limited liability company.
  2. It sanctions the Board's efforts to earn money from the children.
  3. It creates an official record of parental sanctioning of the Board's actions.
  4. It creates the appearance of sanction by teachers by having them sign it as well.
  5. It starts the process creating ‘files' on the students by unknown others.
  6. It sells the privacy rights of students before they are taught that they have any.

The journey to the discovery of the above information was arduous. Tracing the meaning of this two-sentence paragraph started at the school and progressed to the Board. This lead to WhoWhere? which led to Lycos and its banner advertiser DoubleClick. Company ownership directories revealed a $122 million (US) transaction (Lycos for purchasing WhoWhere) and a multi-billion dollar US transaction (DoubleClick purchasing Abacus). Abacus buys catalog-purchasing data from 1500 catalogue companies and has item purchase details on tens of millions of individuals. A two-sentence paragraph, to be signed by parents and teachers, sanctions the start of the building of data files on the students, by the corporate world of data-trackers and profilers. Student personal information became a tradable commodity.

How could the selling of student's personal information and its delivery into the hands of waiting companies be the logical product of a system charged with educating them? The image of a two-sided scale is useful to visualize what has occurred. On one side of the scale we place some weight for the respect, dignity and autonomy of the students. On that same side we place some weight for the trust that parents place in the school authorities for the care and education of their children. We also place on that side some weight for the respect we have for the integrity and dignity of teachers. The scale, as envisioned, is seriously tilted to one side. Yet, the Board has placed something on the other side of the scale that appears to have tilted the scale completely in the other direction. What does that weight consist of?

A search was undertaken for the educational point, for that value that so overwhelmingly tipped the scale in the other direction. Regrettably none was found. Instead the siren call of technology displaced all other considerations. To see this, we have to go back to a group of visionaries and trace the technological imperative in education curriculum through to the creation of the form itself.

The Visionaries

In 1994, the government created the Business Involvement and Technology Integration MLA Team. A committee was formed to assist the MLA Team, called the Technology Integration Advisory Committee (TIAC). "The committee [TIAC] is comprised of individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds, each with technology expertise" . These groups are collectively referred to here as the visionaries.

They produced the 1995 Technology Integration In Education Discussion Paper . The MLAs responsible for the report largely credit the (TIAC) for the perspectives contained in the report .

The following introductory comments are indicative of the paper's tone and orientation: "The total storehouse of human knowledge is becoming accessible electronically and the Internet makes it available anywhere, anytime. These are not vague promises of future technologies. We can do it now" . The pursuit of something ‘now' that is still in the process of ‘becoming' is, itself, the pursuit of a vague promise.

Other contradictions included reference to more personalized education , enabling teachers to do more without adding teachers and being able to improve education while at the same time reducing costs . No substance was offered to support these claims. The supposition of the need to integrate computer technology never asked the question, "Why?" The answer was presumed.

"While it is important to know where we are going, it is equally important to know how we are going to get there" . Without offering a problem that this solution is to solve, the focus immediately shifts to how to implement the solution.

"We believe that simply putting more computers in the classroom is not the solution. We need to think about technology integration in a broader context: how technology impacts student learning, curriculum, teacher education, learning resources, partnerships, access and planning. Each piece plays a critical role in ensuring that technology is systematically and effectively implemented in producing undeniable benefits to teaching and learning. We need to establish a strong consensus on the direction to take and on how to make it happen" .

The undeniable benefits are never articulated. The ‘pieces' must ‘play their role' in support of integrating computer technology to produce ‘undeniable benefits to teaching and learning'. The shift goes immediately to making integration work.

In this report, the technological imperative is the cause of action. "Technology is changing our world, transforming our work, and becoming increasingly crucial to the success and prosperity of Alberta" . The visionaries promote urgency in response to technology.

In this ‘discussion paper', the benefits of integrating computer technology were presented in a vague language of progress and solutions to the demands of the ‘information age', without any suggestion of risk, downside potential or alternatives. Only the sunny side of this effort was presented for discussion.

The visionaries' discussion paper was followed by a fifteen-page document entitled Framework for Technology Integration in Education . This fifteen page report speaks almost exclusively to a questionnaire that was attached to the discussion paper. The bias is evident again. The term ‘integration' is absent from the survey questions but it is read into virtually all of the discussions of the answers. The public is made to appear to support integration despite never having been asked about it.

Two other themes emerge in this report, the use of business partnerships and the need to establish performance outcome measures. The survey asked the respondent to state their level of agreement with the statement, "Funding for technology should come from contributions from business." Seventy-percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with this statement. This was read as justification for business ‘partnerships' in education, yet, Albertans were not asked about partnerships. They were merely asked if contributions for technology should come from business. This entire document provides a splendid example of the misuse of statistics and questionnaires.

In spite of the extremely weak case made by the visionaries, their fifteen-page document survived them and became the call to action by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education focussed on the establishment of performance measures and the revision of curriculum.

The Ministry of Education

On November 7, 1997, the Ministry started the process of implementing the measurement component of the visionaries' recommendations, with a report entitled Learner Outcomes in Information and Communication Technology . The report begins with the question; "What should Albertan students be learning with respect to technology." . The Ministry started with the "What?" question and continued along the same deterministic lines as that of the visionaries.

"Technology is causing the process of schooling to undergo phenomenal changes — both in the methods of delivery and in how people actually learn and teach" . This ahistorical and deterministic perspective is continued from the work of the visionaries.

The Ministry's focus was on revising the curriculum and devising performance measures. It produced a series of reports with a focus on performance measures . These measures are largely based on counting, including such measures as the number of in-service hours teachers spend on computer technology and the percentage of teachers who use and integrate computer technology in the classroom.

The directive for action for the school jurisdictions clearly comes from the Ministry of Education. "Jurisdictions must respond creatively to [the Ministry of Education's] directions for change, working within their own realities and constraints to implement integration and achieve the required learner outcomes" .

The efforts of the visionaries and their lack of reflection carry through to the Ministry. "Technology provides us with the techniques and processes that allow us to think differently and do things differently" ‘Differently' appears to be an unproblematic synonym for ‘better'. There is no comparative story indicating how these efforts will improve on the past efforts and assist the attainment of educational goals. From the perspective of the visionaries and the Ministry, there is no past. The Ministry's focus is solely on implementing the goals of the visionaries.

This report contains an appendix indicating challenges that local schools who had started to implement the ‘learner outcomes' were experiencing. While not commented upon in the report, these challenges speak volumes about where we are going. Challenges mentioned include the cost of computer technology, the financial difficulty in keeping pace with technological change, the time constraints of limited computer resources, the lack of technological expertise and support, and the problem of keeping up with the children who quickly outpace the available technology. These challenges, experienced by businesses for decades, are not reflected upon in the report.

The visionaries failure to address the "Why?" question is exacerbated by the Ministry's focus on implementation. The lack of an educational point is further obscured.

The Board

The cause of the Board's action is reflected in the Board's message, located on the WhoWhere? server:

"[the Ministry of Education] has mandated that technology become part of the education curriculum by June 2000. In accordance with the new program of studies, it is essential students have skills in email technology. Therefore, the Calgary Board of Education has taken an early lead and decided to move technology into the classroom before the year 2000" .

The Board claims its instructions come from the Ministry and assigns roles explicitly to parents and the school. Incorporating the Internet into the curriculum will, "… depend on a coordinated effort, involvement and commitment of the student, the school and the parent." The parent's role in this ‘involvement' is to "… review the Acceptable Use Policy for Networked Information Resources and accepts its terms and conditions" . The assigned role of parents is to review and accept. School administrators are to distribute the forms and ensure they are returned. Teachers are to review something with students that says little, and then sign to the effect that they have done so.

With respect to the form itself, the upper part appears to be a contract regarding the proper use of information technology. The lower part is expressly a consent form for the release of personal information about the students to create email accounts. They are clearly not the same things, but they are bundled as though they were and are treated as inseparable by the Board. "This is a legal document and if it is altered in any way it is null and void. There are no exceptions to this rule" . The experts have spoken and an inviolable rule has been created.


Summarizing, we see a pattern of narrowly focussed experts at work. Technology experts, the visionaries, determined the required shape of education. Policy and measurement experts at the ministerial level put flesh on aspects of this vision by revising curriculum and creating performance measures. The experts at the Board operationalized this policy, acting within their resources. The school was mandated by the Board to send the form home for parents to sign. At each stage ‘experts' worked within their very narrow frames of reference. The focus has been on technology. What is missing is the educational point.

The Board has said, above and recently in the press, that they were ‘mandated' to provide email to the students . That does not explain anything! That is an excuse and the kind of response that makes any serious student of history cringe. Referring back to the earlier image of the two-sided scale, the response "we have been mandated' does not explain what tilted the scale away from respect for the students, parents and local schools. The previous analysis shows that the reason clear "educational point" answers are not the first answers offered to explain the tilting of the scale, is that that they were never articulated.

If there had been clear educational goals the visionaries would have presented them. What we have instead is the vision of technologists who not surprisingly envision technology everywhere. Yet, "the role that new technology should play in schools or anywhere else is something that needs to be discussed without the hyperactive fantasies of cheerleaders." . It is difficult to characterize the work of the visionaries as anything but technological cheerleading.

There are a number of obstacles that make seeing the absurdity of what has been done so difficult. First and foremost, the Board has been less than forthright in what it has done, demonstrated by how little information they shared. The assignment of fragmented roles with limited information to school administrators, teachers and parents made any larger understanding virtually impossible.

Second, even asking questions about the role of computer technology in education is very difficult. Typical responses include the assumption that one is naïve or fearful of technology or that one just needs more training. The questioner is seen as having a problem. The ease with which those who had no say in the selected course of events offer retroactive explanations for the benefits of computer technology is astounding.

Third, the manner of argument put forward by those being questioned, for example "we have been mandated", offers an escape for the one being questioned. To proceed, the questioner must also engage the one ‘mandating'. In this case, the simple question, "What does this paragraph mean in English and what is the educational point?" led to the forced engagement with the Board, then the Ministry and eventually the visionaries. This finger pointing to others increases the cost in time and effort of discovering answers.

We have been co-opted as accomplices. Our active participation is needed to make it work. Yet, co-option is possible only if we allow ourselves to be co-opted. What can we do? Most of what can be done must be done locally.

First, ask around. What is being done in your school district? Do you know? Can you find out? What kind of answers do you get? Is this particular arrangement unique or is it widespread? Discover the local answers.

Second and related, have faith in yourself and your right to ask. If the answers don't make sense, it is not your fault. If answers sound like excuses or ‘bureau-babble', say so and insist on a real answer. "We have been mandated" does not answer the question. If questions about the ‘educational point' of computer technology are answered in technical jargon, or ‘techno-babble', then it is a non-answer. It is not that you do not understand the answer, it is they who have failed to understand the question. Recently, the Board says that it has changed service providers and therefore this is a non-issue. That is a non-answer . The Board has assumed a right it does not possess, bartering the personal information of the students to limited liability companies without notice to parents or teachers. The Board is saying no more about the new service provider than they did about the last one. This is absurd. Have faith in your right to an explanation and force the issue.

Third, talk to others in larger associations, affiliations of conferences. It is our respective isolation that makes this co-option possible. This has certainly been the experience and observation in this case.

Langdon Winner captures this nicely. "Who decided that the changes ahead lie beyond our ideas, voices and participation?" . In this case, that is exactly what happened. Key assumptions about the role of computer technology in our lives and the lives of our children and students have been made elsewhere. And, we have been quietly and unknowingly co-opted into sanctioning it.

I will finish with a citation from Winner who calls on professionals to share their knowledge with a broader public. "People are not born with brass rings in their noses, but much technological development quietly supposes that they are". The actions taken by the Board and those that preceded it have made that assumption. But the rings are imaginary and we are free not to be led. We just have to realize it and those in a position to ask and share information must be willing to do so.

Figure 1

Acceptable Use Policy for Networked Information Resources

Section for student to sign. Heading and details omitted here.

Parent or Guardian (If student under the age of 18):

As the parent or guardian, I have read the attached Acceptable Use Policy for Networked Information Resources and I understand that this access is designed for educational purposes and this school has taken reasonable steps to filter inappropriate materials and my son/daughter will be trained in responsible use. However, I also recognize that it is impossible to restrict access to all controversial material or inappropriate material and will not hold the school or Calgary Board of Education responsible for materials acquired on the network. Further, I accept full responsibility for supervision if and when my child's use is not in a school setting. I understand that this document will remain on my child's student record file.

I hereby give permission to issue an account to WhoWhere? Inc. including email, for my child and certify that the information contained on this form is correct. I also consent to the release to WhoWhere? Inc. of the information necessary to establish the account.

Parent/Guardian Name: ____________________________________

Address: ___________________________________ Phone: ____________

Parent or Guardian Signature: ____________________ Date: _____________

Section of students over 18 to complete. Heading omitted. There is only one statement for these students to sanction with their signature. "I hereby give permission to issue an account, including email, to me."


I have reviewed the policies outlined above and in the Teacher Information Bulletin for this school's Networked Information Resources with the student named above.

Teacher's Signature ____________________________ Date: _____________________

Italicized areas above described the other parts of the same form.


Alberta Education (1995). Technology Integration in Education Discussion Paper. Edmonton, Alberta.

Alberta Education (1996). Framework for Technology Integration in Education. Edmonton, Alberta.

Brick, M. (1999). DoubleClick Raise More Hackles With Privacy Advocates. The New York Times on the Web. December 1, 1999. New York.

Calgary Board of Education (1998). Acceptable Use Policy For Networked Information Resources. Calgary, Alberta.

Calgary Board of Education (1998). Commonly Asked Questions about the Acceptable Use Policy for Networked Information Resources (AUP), Calgary, Alberta.

Calgary Board of Education (1998). Learn More About Nomad Mail. formerly at http://www.atts.eduedge.net/nomad.learn.html The first author can be contacted for paper images of this site.

Centre for Democracy & Technology (2000). Complaint and Request for Injunction and Other Relief. Washington.

DoubleClick (2000). DoubleClick Announces Major Five-Point Privacy Initiative. New York. Press release, February 14, 2000. http://www.doubleclick.com

Ministry of Education (1997). Learner Outcomes in Information and Communication Technology. Edmonton, Alberta.

Ministry of Education (1998). Developing a Three-Year Integration Plan: A Resource. Edmonton, Alberta.

Ministry of Education (1999). Preparing to Implement Learner Outcomes in Technology: Best Practices for Alberta School Jurisdictions. Edmonton, Alberta.

Postman, N. (1995). "Education and Technology: Virtual Students and Digitial Classrooms." Our Schools/Our Selves 7(2): 69-79.

Rodger, W. (2000). Activists charge DoubleClick double cross. USA Today, February 21, 2000. http://www.usatoday.com

Semmens, G. (2001). Dad fears CBE sold out student privacy for e-mail. Calgary Herald. Calgary: March 26, 2001. p. B1-B2.

Tedeschi, B. (2000). DoubleClick's Competitors Relieved, for Now. The New York Times on the Web. March 6, 2000. http://www.nytimes.com

Winner, L. (1996). "Who Will We Be in Cyberspace?" The Information Society 12: 63-72.

Winner, L. (1997). The Handwriting on the Wall: Resisting Technoglobalism's Assault on Education. In Tech High: Globalization and the Future of Canadian Education, M. Moll (editor). Halifax, Fernwood Publishing: 167-188.


1. Dignity, integrity, respect and trust

2. As discussed later in this section, the absence of the Acceptable Use Policy for Networked Information Resources, referred to on the first line of the form, was a good thing as it would have been misleading.

3. The form is actually two different things rolled into one by the Board. The Board made them inseparable. This will be discussed later

4. For more on this, see (Brick 1999), (Centre for Democracy & Technology 2000) (DoubleClick 2000), (Rodger 2000) (Tedeschi 2000)

5. This would usually be kindergarten teachers as the form is sent home when the child first arrives at the school.

6. DoubleClick did contemplate linking Abacus data to on-line data captured by DoubleClick, but public revelation of their intentions forced a temporary retreat from their plans. See footnote 3.

7. MLA stands for Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta

Bill Bonner is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Calgary studying information systems.

This article was originally published in the October 2001 issue of Our Schools/Our Selves.