Advertising can be a valuable service for companies, as well as consumers, as long as the playing field is level. But practices that prove to be advantageous and take advantage of loopholes sow distrust and, in the long run, they create confrontational, ultimately ineffective relations between buyer and seller. There is also another (often unexplored) potential pitfall: What happens when the consumer is not, or cannot, be aware of the rules of the game he ends up playing?
Flexible up to its ethical extremes, Moodle allows for advertising targeted to students and is compatible with sophisticated delivery and performance tracking, just as much as it could enable oversight by organizations and legal guardians, a field that happens to be less developed technologically.
The morality of ads for children in Moodle
Advertising is not the only example of an economic transaction that sees no money exchanging hands, but it is one of a commercial nature, where disparities in information and power can force one site to participate without or against their will. While the discussions about what is right and fair in advertising are not about to end, history suggests that practice serves social purposes, and even subjects with low agency stand to benefit, if there are rules in place.
To be sure, imbalances are not only present in the case of students and children. Agencies like the ftc, in the US, demand that all advertisements, regardless of channel or audience, are truthful, fair, and based on evidence. Additional, special rules apply to special products. Evidence of deceitful messages is grounds for fines and other legal repercussions. Regarding children, additional rules consider the nature of the advertisement’s content, and the parents’ ability to consent on their behalf. With the rise of internet access for increasingly younger web surfers, the debate on consent has shifted toward access and use of personal information. In advertising, this information is a valuable factor in the creation and exposition of personalized pieces. Customization increasingly shows to be a significant attribute of marketing’s effectiveness.
The call for fairness applies. The US subjects sites that allow access by kids (not just kids websites) to COPPA, which demands (among other things) parental consent to be explicitly granted before any bit of personal data is stored and used. COPPA not only covers websites, but content platforms. They are responsible for, say, personal content exchanged between peers, and of course ad networks serving ads on the platform. In Europe, guidelines for similar regulations are provided in GPDR, which has a broader scope and still requires definitions of specifics by sovereign member nations, but does consider cases of young age and consent on behalf. (A “COPPA for Europe,” known as “GDPR-K,” seems poised to bridge legal gaps between the regions.)
Recent controversies where data was used with unexpected intents and accuracy, while for the most part legally, have strained the necessary trust between medium and receiver, which might be making the debate more controversial than it needs to be. Consequently, ads in LMS are controversial by nature. Moodlecloud serves ads on its free tier (and ad-blocking software renders the site unreachable). “Responsible marketing network” Education Funding Partners deal with Blackboard has yet to show success as a sustainable income stream for learning organizations. The Adsense plugin was discontinued in Moodle 2.2.
Mix ads and learning, but do not mix the data
Most of the examples mentioned so far involving children and parents can apply to the relationship between a student and the organization whose learning platforms serves ads to them. Serving an ad within an institutional platform can increase the viewer’s difficulty in evaluating claims and distinguishing the nature and claims of the piece. While the organization is not responsible for the content served by advertisers on its platforms, it does have veto power, whose use can be seen as a reflection on their values.
But there is perhaps a more pressing challenge for modern systems like Moodle and those who continue to capture higher value from LMS Data: the confusion or pooling of streams that can be useful to analyze student performance and intervene, and those to personalize ads. GDPR and COPPA, often ambiguous –if justifiably so–, do seem to have tools in place to prevent misappropriations of data. GDPR requires sites to be explicit about the uses of the data collected. Both regulations demand an expiration date for stored data, in the case of COPPA regardless of parental consent. But the debate is only starting. Student performance and learning behavior data risk especially exploitative uses and could even diminish the efficacy or the learning intervention delivered through a learning platform.
Advertising in educational platforms and contexts, especially for younger students, is considered a tricky issue. Most of the hesitation is due to a history of “sneakiness” on the part of advertisers, which has fostered mistrust among users and their parents. But at the end of the day, ads can be a beneficial practice for advertisers, whose responsibility is not just legal, but ethical; learning organizations looking for sustainability in their technological ventures, and even students who are served by factual ads that let them now about learning opportunities they would not be aware of otherwise. ■