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AOL@School: Service or Marketing Tool?

AOL@School has come under fire from children's advocacy groups that view it as potentially more of a marketing coup for Internet service provider America Online than as the educational medium the company says it is.

The free Internet access service for schools — scheduled for a fall debut — is similar to the regular AOL service, with features such as e-mail and instant messages that children and faculty can access through a unique password.

According to AOL, which recently announced the service, children will not be able to make online purchases and will be blocked from accessing pornography and other potentially offensive material. Teachers will also have control over the type of Web sites children visit. Students will receive individual accounts, which they will be able to access from home or school. However, at school, they will see a version of AOL that omits all advertisements except for public service announcements and the AOL logo.

An estimated 95 percent of schools in the United States are connected to the Internet, representing more than 57 million children under the age of 18.

Some are suspicious of AOL's motives.

“This seems to be much more about business and marketing than about education,” said Pam Grotz, executive director at the national Parent Teachers Association, Chicago. “We were previously planning to work with AOL on a completely nonprofit basis, and it seems like they have taken that framework we developed and turned it into a business model. I was very surprised when they made this announcement, and we at the PTA will cautiously watch what develops. This gives them a certain hold on kids that is unsettling.”

Lisa Gibby, spokeswoman at AOL, Dulles, VA, denied that AOL could benefit from furthering its branding as a “family ISP” or from increased awareness among students using the program. She noted that the service is not intended as a marketing tool. She also disputed the notion that the company is looking to boost sagging numbers during daytime hours.

“We are already well-known as a family-based ISP, and most of the teachers getting this service are probably on AOL anyway,” Gibby said. “While there may be some cynics out there, what we are trying to do is help provide a new medium and a useful tool for schools. AOL@School is an educational service. It is not a marketing vehicle for AOL.”

However, Arnold F. Fege, president of the Washington-based Public Advocacy for Kids, said the free service gives AOL a marketing “foot in the door” that could lead to further commercialization of the service and more marketing opportunities for the giant.

“There's nothing to say that AOL can't beam commercials at kids later on,” he said.

AOL will not do any direct marketing or direct mail of CD-ROMs for the service, as the schools themselves must call an 800 number in order to join. Further, Gibby said, the company will offer no premium incentives for either students or teachers if they purchase the AOL service at home. Students will be able to access their special @School account from home at School.Aol.com, regardless of their service provider, she said.

The company claimed that it will profit from the service through only ads targeted to teachers and faculty.

“At this point, we have no sponsors set up for teachers,” Gibby said. “When we do, we will choose only companies that have a heart for education and are in the education market. We will not target the teachers on any other basis than that, only educational companies.”

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