Million: a great idea?

Droga5’s Million mobile phone reward programme for schoolkids may have won a lot of awards but how effective will it prove to be in the long-term?

One of the two coveted Black Pencils that Droga5 advertising agency in New York picked up recently at D&AD was for the Million, a reward-based scheme using mobile phone technology that aims to ‘re-brand’ education for schoolchildren in New York. It all seems a long way from the trite 80s ad campaigns in the US that implored school children to realise that ‘crack is whack, school is cool’.

The initiative, which has only just finished its first pilot, has already received high praise within the ad awards circuit, also picking up top gongs at this year’s Clios and at the Cannes Lions festival in 2008. But, although it has wowed the awards judges, what do educators think of the idea?

The Million is far from the first time that reward schemes have been suggested as a solution to the problem of falling school attendance or bad behaviour. Back in 1999, Gordon Brown touted the idea of giving UK school children from deprived backgrounds £40 a week to help them stay in education, and less formal reward systems are now a regular part of school life, albeit usually without cold hard cash attached. What sets the Million slightly apart, however, is that it also incorporates technology – if the scheme is implemented fully, each pupil attending public schools in New York (which number approxi­mately a million students, hence the name) will be given a mobile phone handset. The phone will be switched off during school hours, except for emergency calls, but teachers can use it to communicate with kids, and send them homework assignments etc. For good attendance and behaviour, the pupils will be rewarded with free phone credits that they can use outside of school hours.

Droga5 first came up with the idea after the New York Department of Education approached them to do a pitch to ‘brand achievement’. “They opened it up to five agencies with a very broad brief, an ambi­tious brief, which was ‘how do you brand achievement in the worst public schools in New York City?’,” says David Droga, president and ceo at the agency. “When you dig into the facts, I’ve never been exposed to such harsh realities in a schooling system. So when we did the pitch we spent a lot of time thinking about how we were going to talk to the kids, because in years gone by governments had thrown hundreds of millions of dollars at doing traditional advertising that was just patronising and disposable. We just cut to the chase and thought how are we going to create something that will incentivise them and intrigue them, but is at the same time something that can make achievement a tangible thing? Because trying to make people understand that they should stay in school because there are rewards in college ten years from now seems so far removed – we want to engage them daily and weekly.

“The insight came from how the only things they really care about at the moment are their friends and being social, and their phones are their only currency, it’s the only property they have,” he continues. “So we thought ‘why don’t we try and link the two?’”

The first pilot took place in various schools in Brooklyn, and following an
in-depth report from the Department of Education, has been deemed a great success. Droga5 is now working with the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University (EdLabs) to develop ways of fundraising for the project to get it to the next stage. EdLabs is run by Roland G Fryer, a Harvard professor who has been involved in the project from the start, having orchestrated the original pitch for the Department of Education. Fryer served as chief equality officer for the New York DoE during 2007-08 and, alongside the Million, also oversaw a project that rewarded students with cash when they did well.

According to Droga, EdLabs has recently received a multi-million dollar donation for the Million project from US philanthropist Eli Broad. Meanwhile Droga5 is negotiating with different phone carriers and handset manufacturers, including Nokia and Android at Google, for the next stage of the project (the pilot scheme was backed by Verizon and used Samsung handsets bearing the Million logo).

In addition to this, the scheme has also been getting attention from other US states, as well as countries around the world including Japan, New Zealand and South Africa. It is currently closest to fruition in Saudi Arabia, which has a huge govern­mental grant set aside for education. Obviously achieving this kind of financial backing is a major factor in making the Million work, and Droga5 has been talking to telecommunications companies around the world about being involved in the project. “The beauty of the Million is that it’s a template as such,” says Droga. “It’s the principle of getting kids with phones, using it as a reward system, one-on-one communi­cation with them. So it’s taken on this life which, to be honest, is potentially bigger than we anticipated at the beginning. Initially the brief was just New York, but it seems that everyone’s gravitated towards the simplicity of the idea…. Now between us and EdLabs we’re putting together a programme that can be rolled out around the world. What’s interesting is that, before, the [big] challenge was the cost of it, because the phone companies had to donate minutes. But now we’re involving telcos in it, [the project] immediately leaps that hurdle because they may subsidise [the cost].”

While plans for the expansion of the Million may be continuing apace, not everyone is championing its message. Fryer’s incentive schemes have previously received criticism in the US for replacing learning for its own sake with a market-driven system, and similar question marks continue to be asked about the Million, despite the rewards being phone credits rather than cash. Camila Batmanghelidjh, who founded the Kids Company charity that provides support for vulnerable children and young people in London, argues that such reward-based initiatives will only work for some children, not all. “When you set up some­thing like this, the children who benefit from it are the children who can control their behaviour to a certain extent,” she argues. “But the children who never benefit from these kinds of initiatives are children whose disturbance is quite fundamental…

I have a problem with this notion of reward because it’s suggesting that all negative behaviour from these children is self-chosen, and actually the ones with the serious problems do not choose. And it’s unfair then, because they’ll never get there. It actually exaggerates the divide, rather than facilitates the solution.”

Lucy Heller, managing director of the Ark Schools charity, agrees, and feels the scheme is not as appropriate for the UK as it might be for the States. “Mobile phones are much more prevalent here than in the US,” she says. “Many of the kids would already have a mobile phone and the cost of calls and messages are pretty low. It in itself doesn’t seem a big reward. But also we don’t see bribery as the route to go down, we want to change children’s attitudes to learning.”

Another question raised is whether the technology available in the phone that is given to the children is currently being used to its greatest effect in the scheme. “My initial thought on the Million is that it’s a very extrinsic thing rather than an intrinsic thing and it all seems to be about motivating children but not actually thinking about the curriculum,” says Lynn Roberts from the Institute of Education, University of London. “It’s saying that the States has got an education crisis but it’s not thinking about the curriculum or what they’re studying or why they might not be motivated. It stands out a mile [in the Million case study film] where they say ‘obviously we don’t let the phone into the classroom’ – as someone who has done work with mobile phones in the classroom and used all the functionality of taking photos and uploading them onto the internet and using Flickr, it makes me think ‘why aren’t they allowed in the classroom?’ They’re saying students have got different interests and they’ve got all this stuff going on outside so let’s reward them with it, but what about doing some learning with it?”

Roberts is well versed in new techno­logies being pressed onto teachers and schools when they may not be especially useful, or easy to utilise successfully. “It is a problem with technology because people create this thing and say ‘it’s funky, it’s new, use it in the classroom’, rather than thinking about the teaching and learning or what kind of technology would support what you’re trying to do in school,” she continues. “It’s working out what the needs of the class­room are, otherwise technology gets rolled into a classroom and if it doesn’t fit in with what could and should be happening there then it just dies. It’s got a very limited life.”

The problem of the potentially limited life span of the project also comes into play when you consider the target audience, which Droga himself acknowledges are “a fickle bunch”. While a free phone may initially seem exciting, especially for kids who don’t own a mobile already, it seems only a matter of time before it might lose its charm, or worse, become the last thing a cool teen should be seen with. From the pilot scheme the question of handsets has already arisen and Droga is looking into different types. “Classically they all want iPhones,” he says. “But that’s not possible. But there are still some pretty cool handsets out there.”

Some of these issues will presumably be solved, or will at least evolve, as the Million develops in its different guises around the world. Droga acknowledges that the pilot scheme has also already thrown up some unexpected benefits. “A lot of the teachers said that one of the things about the Million was that this was the first time they ever had a contact number for a kid, which seems ridiculous in this day and age,” he says. “There are things like that that we can’t take credit for, because we didn’t ever forecast this sort of stuff. And because this is education, it can only get stronger and better and every country will slightly tweak it.”

Droga is adamant too that brands will not be allowed to use the Million as an avenue for direct advertising to kids, an initial concern with the project. “This was never to turn into a portal for brands to sell,” he says. “It was always the agreement that eventually it would be able to subsidise itself by brands being able to support initiatives, so you might have brand x that is associated with fitness, not selling shoes, but sponsoring a programme or something. There always has to be an education link, it wasn’t going to be suddenly selling burgers. That would kill it straight away because it would undermine everything.”

In terms of the development of advertising itself, the early success of the Million is indicative of the two most crucial elements that will allow the industry to evolve into a more exciting future: the combi­nation of an imaginative agency with a supportive and brave client. When Droga talks of the various approval stages that the Million has had to go through, it is remark­able it is here at all. “When you’re talking about education you’re not only just talking about the kids, which is the most fickle audience, you’re also talking about teachers, the teaching unions, the parents, the city, all of those factors – there were so many stakeholders, I’ve never been involved in anything that has so many layers. And somehow it survived all of those layers.”

But before that, it required Droga5 to make a brave proposition in the first place. “The drum I’m always banging is that it’s still the same principle, it comes from the same brief,” continues Droga. “We were briefed to come up with a marketing idea and although the starting point wasn’t ‘here’s a TV campaign’, it still comes from an idea of making a connection and trying
to solve a problem. I always say that creative people at advertising agencies have more remit than they give themselves credit for, and our imagination can solve more than we give ourselves credit for. It was still about creating a brand and creating something useful…. I think it’s important for our industry – we’re always under fire and I think it’s good to prove our relevance and influence.”

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