December 19, 2011

Advertising, Education, and Science

I love science. The reason I love it is that unlike marketing and advertising, science does not obediently accept the word of "experts."

In science, it doesn't matter what your title is, or how many awards you've won, or how many conferences you've spoken at, or how big your weenie is. If you can't prove your premise, you're done.

No proof, no dice.

Even today, Einstein's ideas about gravity and the speed of light are still being tested and scrutinized.

Not so in advertising and marketing. If enough big mouths say the same things loud enough and often enough they quickly become facts.

As most readers of this blog know, I am highly skeptical of many of the claims made about the magical powers of digital advertising.

While I believe that people searching for products online are very good prospects for advertising (e.g., Google), 95% percent of time spent online is not spent searching for products (that's a guess) and advertising that is directed at people during that 95% is overwhelmingly ignored (that's a fact.)

I was insomniating the other night and it occurred to me that perhaps a good analogy for the effectiveness of digital communication in advertising is the effectiveness of digital communication in education. While there are obviously some huge differences, there are also some similarities.

Marketing experts have been warning us that unless we commit ourselves fully to digital technology, we will die. Shiv Singh, head of digital for Pepsico America Beverages, says "There's no questions that we live in an age of do or die."

Similarly, education experts have been saying that digital communication technology is the only way to dig ourselves out of the education mess we have created.

In 1997, a committee appointed by then President Bill Clinton, which included Charles Vest, president of MIT and Charles Young, ceo of Hewlett-Packard, warned us that we had an urgent need to bring computer technology to our classrooms. The fact that there was  inadequate research on the effectiveness of classroom computers didn't bother them. They concluded...
“The panel does not... recommend that the deployment of deferred pending the completion of such research.”
They, too, were in a big "do or die" hurry.

In addition to issuing hysterical warnings about the dire consequences of not adopting their pet panaceas, educators and marketers also face challenges that are similar.

First, they have to decide what to do with a fixed and limited budget. Would a school district get better results for its money by hiring more teachers, putting computers in classrooms, paying for more teacher training, buying more books, or doing any number of other things with its budget?

Similarly, would a marketer get better results by hiring more sales people, buying a spot on the Super Bowl, doing trade incentives, creating an online advertising program, or doing something else with their money?

A second resemblance is that digital technology seems attractive in both cases because not only does it promise a new way of communicating, it also promises a more engaged participant. The undeniable allure of technology is assumed to create a more engaged individual -- whether that individual is a student or a consumer.

Finally, in both cases digital technology also presumably provides a more interactive experience -- an end to the one-way communication style of teacher-to-student or marketer-to-consumer.

With those parallels in mind I started to do some research to see how wired classrooms were doing. The results were enlightening.

From a paper called "No Access, No Use, No Impact: Snapshot Survey of Educational Technology in K-12" issued jointly by researchers from the University of Michigan and The University of North Texas, we learn...
There is general agreement that computing technologies have not had a significant impact on teaching and learning in K-12 in the U.S., even though billions of dollars have been spent in purchasing, equipping, and supporting the technology.
 From The New York Times piece entitled "Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops" we learn...
...the Liverpool Central School District, just outside Syracuse (NY), has decided to phase out laptops starting this fall, joining a handful of other schools around the country that adopted one-to-one computing programs and are now abandoning them as educationally empty — and worse...
“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board president...
...the United States Department of Education released a study showing no difference in academic achievement between students who used educational software programs for math and reading and those who did not...
In one of the largest ongoing studies, the Texas Center for Educational Research, a nonprofit group, has so far found no overall difference on state test scores between 21 middle schools where students received laptops in 2004, and 21 schools where they did not. 
In a second NYTimes article called "In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores", we learn...
...the Kyrene School District (in Chandler, AZ) as a whole, offer what some see as a utopian vision of education’s future...
...the district’s use of technology has earned it widespread praise. It is upheld as a model of success by the National School Boards Association, which in 2008 organized a visit by 100 educators from 17 states who came to see how the district was innovating. 
The digital push here aims to go far beyond gadgets to transform the very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide instead of a lecturer, wandering among students who learn at their own pace on Internet-connected devices.
Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.
But The Times points out that there is one little problem...
Since 2005, scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene, even as statewide scores have risen.
There is one big difference between educational usage of digital communication and advertiser usage. Because educational usage is publicly funded, there is substantial pressure to provide evidence of effectiveness. This is not the case in advertiser usage in which positive results are often trumpeted and negative results are usually buried.

Regarding the investment of large sums in digital learning  technology, “There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period, period, period,” says Larry Cuban, education professor emeritus at Stanford University.

According to the Times, when faced with the dismal record of digital learning, proponents pull out an argument very familiar to marketers: "engagement."  The Times reports...
But the research, what little there is of it, does not establish a clear link between computer-inspired engagement and learning, said Randy Yerrick, associate dean of educational technology at the University of Buffalo.
Yerrick says "engagement is a 'fluffy term' that can slide past critical analysis."

And according to Professor Cuban at Stanford: “There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement.”

Obviously, education and advertising are very different endeavors. But, when it comes to the power of digital communication, advocates in both fields are so sure of themselves that they are immune to facts. Or, as the astoundingly clueless director of technology at the Kyrene school district said, “If we know something works, why wait?”

The techno-crowd in both the education and advertising industry have a lot in common.
  • They are very strong in their assertions, and very weak on proof. 
  • They continue to inflate the hysterical threat-of-not-accepting-their-solution language, despite contradictory data.
  • They think anecdotes are evidence.
  • When data does not support their position, they jump to false goals -- like the dubious "engagement" argument.
There is a lesson to be learned here. Whether you are selling cheeseburgers, trying to lift the educational achievement of children, or operating in any other field of endeavor, technology has so far proven to be no substitute for strategy.

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