SmartyCard’s Summer Challenge With Scholastic: Heads Up for Fall!

sc-summer-challengeMay 28, 2009 I was just about to post an in-depth review and analysis of the merits and watch-worthy aspects of the new SmartyCard.com “learn and earn” kids’ program for 3rd-6th graders,  when I received this sidewinder about their brand new alliance with Scholastic’s Summer reading challenge.

I know, I know, this news is supposed to be a GOOD thing from a “halo effect” mass marketing standpoint, after all, they’re both motivating kids to learn by preventing ‘summer slide’ on the academic front where kids are known to lose upwards of two months of grade level equivalency, right?

But for me, it just complicates things, as this ‘branding ‘boost’ intended for SmartyCard, is brand erosion in my world, because it opens up a whole new conundrum due to the overlap of ‘church and state’ when it comes to school and commercial ventures.

My ‘two-parter’ will now need to be a three-parter to be ultra-thorough and fair and re-interview some of the players in this program…Here’s why:

sc-screenshotOn its own, SmartyCard’s “learn to earn” quid pro quo is an easy way for parents to ditch the school work nagging and motivate kids to amp up their math, social studies, vocabulary, and science knowledge with colorful quizzes and leveled point systems tied to knowledge gain.

It can be used as a media management tool enabling 7-12 year olds to ‘earn’ screen time…As a parental perk for those who use rewards-based parenting to “incentivize” supplemental learning…Or to seed responsibility about economic value systems for sites kids may already be on…(Webkinz-crazed kidlets whose parents want NO part of funding kids’ consumption habits can now be told they have to earn their OWN play time/goods!)

Brings a whole new meaning to redemption. 😉

Now…assuming you get past academic naysayers pointing to the carrot/stick anti-rewards research and pay for play dynamics (which I’ll address in part three) there are some very strong parent perks here.

Rather than bouncing around to iTunes and individual virtual worlds vetting safety issues and researching viability, SmartyCard gives parents a one-stop hub for parental control of kids’ media time in ‘pay for play’ management of mutual picks…

Parents can set pre-agreed wishlists limited to OUTDOOR fun (e.g. skateboards, sporting goods,  etc.) or choose to give kids carte blanche to “pay” for their own media, and still be notified of every milestone/reward redemption so you don’t have kids zinging off into sites unknown.

sc-parent-email

And there’s beauty in having buy-in among all parties in the family, setting up win-win empowerment, particularly important at an age when kids are in dire desire of independence based on media cues being given and want some ‘say’ in their worlds…

demo09-peoples-choice-winnerAs you can see, I like SmartyCard.

I really, really, LIKE them. (Sally Field flashback!)

And I’m certainly not alone. (for more parent feedback see Robin Raskin’s Raising Digital Kids, and Beth Blechermans’ TechMama video at Demo ’09)

But here’s the thing…

What looks to be a very smart use of ‘virtual gift cards’ for online and offline fun with educational content partners like Ignite Learning, LearnStar.com and Learning.com suddenly shifts into edgy discomfort based on today’s big Scholastic announcement.

Why is Scholastic an awkward alliance?

It’s kind of like one of those Facebook profiles that asks about relationship status and the reply is “it’s complicated.”

scholastic-shapeupFor starters, it all gets sullied in a mush pot of commercial sites with academic ventures, and flirts on the edge of  ‘back-dooring’ dollar-driven brand influencers into the public school arena.

By opening up school involvement it renews the ‘institutional reverb’ precedent that I addressed in the virtual world series of hospital use here, here, and here…

Kids AND parents are influenced by items handed out in the classroom (or hospital, or library or any non-commercial institution) as having extra clout and an implicit endorsement.

That’s one of the many reasons I freaked when Scholastic started carrying Bratz crud and sending home ‘Toyota road to reading’ assignments when my daughter was a 4th grader, bleh…

sc-rewardsNow with this SmartyCard alliance with Scholastic, one has to ponder how long before we have school computer labs coaching via ‘Webkinz, Disney/Club Penguin, Stardoll’ justified based on the “learning element” in play?

(oh, that’s right, we already DO in some schools)

Do parents even know this? Some may sign ‘permissions’ but I for one resent being held responsible for media management and ‘what we teach our kids’ when commercial infiltration is coming directly from arenas like schools where we’re absent entirely!

Enabling a learning component with an ‘ad free’ positioning is an easy way to introduce commercial ventures that have digital dollar signs directly tied to them… SmartyCard rewards are an obvious ‘ad integration’ of other sites and goods aligned with it.

See the gaping open doorways via Scholastic?

I’m going to be optimistic and think maybe this is a ‘summer only’ venture between SmartyCard and Scholastic and not a fall ‘channel’ to target kids with media merchandising.

And I’d even give a heads up to SmartyCard to ‘tier’ their marketing accordingly or risk being typecast in the ultimate irony…tarnished by brand backlash/affiliation with Scholastic!

SmartyCard is smart enough to do just fine on its own.

It gets muddier when learning and buying blend with ‘goodwashing’ among brands…

scholastic-wendysScholastic may have a lofty sounding name but paired with media giants (Hannah Montana, Spongebob, etc.) they’ve been a thorn in parents’ sides at book fairs for years now…

At left, see how this gets further skewed when Scholastic’s Summer Challenge is sponsored by Wendy’s fast food and enmeshed with cause-marketing:

Save the Children’s U.S. programs: Literacy, Early Steps for School Success, Emergency Relief and Nutrition and Physical Fitness”…Then factor in “Free SmartyCard Points for Challenge Participants”

Divide kids into teams to compete for prizes…plus Scholastic’s financial contribution on behalf of participating readers,  grant the winning team the vote on “which cause gets the extra cash” and you’ve got a strong equation amounting to blurred boundaries between education, commercialism in schools and media use.

According to the release, “Kids reading and logging just 20 minutes receive 2,500 free SmartyCard points, and children who log minutes with Scholastic throughout the summer can earn as many as 10,000 points ($20 USD value) applied to more than 200 of the most popular toys, books, DVDs and music for tweens as featured in the SmartyCard rewards catalog.”

So gosh, kids don’t really have to work THAT hard…20 minutes for 2,500 points? That’s classic “new product introduction” mixed with brand perception of Scholastic as carrying parent-teacher approved clout…Messy, people. Messy.

Parents aren’t stupid and will feel betrayed if commercialism is seeded or they feel duped and undermined without their knowledge…whether it’s via school/Scholastic tie-ins or ‘fluff’…

Industry leaders are watching how this rolls out…and now parents are too.

smartycardlogoSmartyCard’s got a fabulous concept with parental controls which could lead to built-in buy-in if they play their cards right. They’re rolling out gift cards via retailers soon which parents could easily see as a ‘safe bet’ for birthdays and such among the digital tween scene crowd. (just like iTunes or GameStop or other media redeemables)

But schools/Scholastic? Bah. “Danger Will Robinson.”

SmartyCard’s cool quizzes to “learn and earn” are fine as a parenting tool under the family’s control, but opening up gateways to the mouse house or goods via school?

I’d steer clear, if I were you, SmartyCard.

Scholastic has traded heavily on their prior reputation as a ‘stellar educational publisher’ to access the good will of over 75% of all elementary school teachers (to the tune of $405.7 million in revenue generation from fiscal 2008 alone!) and ticked plenty of people off with lack of quality control.

These days, the ‘old’ Scholastic brand perception (low-cost, high quality kid lit) and the ‘new’ Scholastic (licensed characters/minimal plotlines) have very little in common.

scholastic-commercialism

Personally, I STRONGLY believe Scholastic has overstayed their welcome in the education community. Scholastic should be considered a ‘commercial brand’ just like any other.

If Scholastic wants their brand perception to be “the world’s largest educational publishing company” embraced by teachers and schools as a ‘value-add’ with all the inherent credibility that gives them a hallpass into the classroom using students as a distribution channel to make money…

Then they need to DITCH the ‘fluff-n-stuff’ of marketing M&M primers, Hannah Montana bracelets, blockbuster movie posters and, yes, virtual worlds that have dollar-driven agendas to hawk stuff online or offline via schools.

Scholastic simply can’t have it both ways!

Check out this comprehensive data compiled by CCFC of Scholastic’s list of non-book items and products sold with books which now COMPETE for children’s attention and families’ limited resources in a sad ‘dumbing down’ of book fair standards that should’ve bounced their backsides out of school systems a loooooooooong time ago.

CCFC reports, “In grades 2-6 last year, 14% of the 1,836 items were not books and an additional 19% of the items were books packaged with other products.”

Yikes. That’s 33% folks…

If parents wanted a ‘mall’ at school even as a ‘convenience’ to ‘gift the teachers’ affordable books and supplies, we sure as heck would prefer using an online wish list in web-based gifting to weed out the drek rather than run the gauntlet of guilt-ridden ‘but my teacher needs us to buy something for her classroom’ selections in Scholastic’s institutional equivalent of a ‘pop up’ store!

Here’s a sample month of Scholastic’s retail underpinnings:

scholastic-september

Admittedly, I’m one of the 30,000+ CCFC members heavily supportive of CCFC’s efforts to curb ad creep and commercialism in schools, and have avoided Scholastic book fairs as a parent ever since they started infiltrating with Bratz doll items (expelled from school now, thanks to CCFC).

I am vehemently against toys and tchotchkes that have ZERO to do with reading and learning competing for kids’ mindshare, much less Scholastic’s unfair distribution channels being given the privilege of access INSIDE of schools…

Many feel Scholastic is teaching kids how to BUY not how to LEARN.

Fellow educators might want to join over 1200 teachers in a letter-writing campaign to fire off a strident ‘shape up, Scholastic’ plea.

Parents can take action to “put the book back in book club” too…and join the Facebook group too…

shapeupscholastic

We’re fatigued by constant consumption values and consumerist habits creeping into public schools like the proverbial Trojan Horse…whether it’s via free branded curriculum offerings, or goods (my daughter came home with ‘omg Degree deodorant’ handed out in P.E.) or virtual worlds coming at parents’ via school environs no matter how safe/COPPA compliant they may be…

Truth is: parents are being undermined by media properties and branded interplay that has NO place at school.

In fact, I’d go so far as saying that some of Scholastic’s book fair offerings can actually devolve learning…How?

Because commercial offerings compete for kids’ mindshare…

Then you have a dynamic where parents start weighing the pros/cons, ‘well at least he’s reading xyz, etc.’ instead of choosing books that are rich in content and quality over recognizable media icons and licensed cartoon characters.

After all, many of us stopped buying into the Scholastic book fair in favor of commercial free book fairs way back when they added the benign pbs kids’ Clifford, Elmo, Thomas the Tank Engine, Bob the Builder gang! That was NOTHING compared to the present day princess posse, Dora, Hannah, Barbie, Spongebob, and Mattel/Nickelodeon/Disney dominance.

Want to turn your school book fair “commercial free?”

Here’s how in a 9pp. pdf guide.

bookrow.jpgThe bonus to all this Scholastic book fair backlash is many of us have renewed advocacy in FREE public places like LIBRARIES utilized as community hubs…

We even screen educational documentaries FREE pertaining to youth issues that campuses won’t touch. Why? ‘Hot button’ issues, ‘controversy,’ like our screening of ‘Two Angry Moms’ about school food policy and junk food vendors, or disrupting soda company/sports sponsorships with vested interests.

Sigh. Yep, the “Appetite for Profit” is pervasive.

If I were SmartyCard, I’d heavily factor in quality control and be thoroughly vetting virtual world selections for expansion with solid criteria beyond just popularity and safety…

There’s a BIG difference between philanthropic, pro-social, learning simulations and creative play in virtual worlds (e.g. Elf Island, Dizzywood, Zookazoo, Lego Universe, etc.) versus opening up rewards to ‘self-vetted’ selections like Stardoll, Webkinz, and commercial picks which are candy coated ‘sugar’ versus the richness of the more premium offerings…

ESPECIALLY if they keep this Scholastic alliance beyond summer. (I’ll ask their execs to respond a bit more…)

marvel

AND…If SmartyCard has ANY inkling of plans to enable their parent company, Gazillion to guide them into MMORPG land with their ‘Marvel’ comic books deal waiting in the wings (ripe for 7-12 year old ‘superhero’ players) they’d better come clean fast.

Note: SmartyCard does NOT enable chat at all right now, but this is what I mean by ‘heads up’…things can change in a nanosecond.

Again, I really like SmartyCard, even for older kids who need a solid review (I’ve found some middle/high school kids don’t have their times tables down, they’re so used to using calculators) but I’d love to see their brand remain in the parent sphere of influence, where the value systems associated with kids’ media wish list” are up to the families to decide…not doled out as Scholastic points via schools.

The kids’ empowerment message where 7-12 year old children can take control of their own ‘digital allowance’ to help fund their own online screen time in safely vetted ‘tween’ digital playgrounds is brilliant…Just keep it in the home.

My original summer fun series “SmartyCard: Save a Tree, Ditch the Workbooks For Worthy Screen Time Fun” is up next, including how it works, word from their executives, and the great debate about ‘reward’ theory and praise debates in applied science circles. I’ve bludgeoned my point on Scholastic enough.

Now it’s your turn to weigh in…Thoughts?

Here’s SmartyCard GM Chris Carvalho at Demo ’09:

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Comments

  1. Sorry, I’m not a fan of Smartycards. I gave it a shot, and encouraged my son to try it out, but there’s no learning, just quizzes. It is isn’t fun to play, my son couldn’t wait to leave it for Roblox. The kicker was that in order for my son to earn prizes, I would have to prepay. No thanks!

    I’d rather that he spend his “learning” time with a good book, and that he spend his “play” time outdoors or on a computer game that naturally engages him.

    As for the Book Fair connection, well, I’ve been a huge supporter, Book Fair chair, winner of the annual contest, avid Scholastic fan, etc., etc. However, I’m avoiding the whole scene as it’s become such a contested issue at my daughter’s current private school.

    Frankly, this school community can afford to say that they don’t need a commercial book fair. These kids know what it’s like to shop at the bookstore, and have stacks of books in their homes. Back at our old public school, that was not the case. Many of those kids have never shopped at a bookstore, and the only books they own are the ones from the monthly Scholastic book order form. Yes, they would be better served by great literature, but sometimes it takes a little dazzle to get them to even consider putting any book on their wish list.

    Guess I’m anti Smartycard, and pro Scholastic.

    Sandra Foyt’s last blog post..Homeschooled Kids Blog Carnival 8 – Inspiration!

  2. I really appreciate this thought-provoking article. I have over the years gone from looking forward to Scholastic to not even bothering to pick up the flyers. I am glad to hear that you and others are working to change the creeping of advertising into more and more areas of our children’s lives. Thanks for working on our behalf, and I will look for ways that I can help as well.

    Jacqueline Green’s last blog post..Great Call with Top Teen Parenting Expert Vanessa Van Petten

  3. Hi Sandra, thanks for your POV/insights…As always you joggle my brain in fresh ways and remind me of things (like adding Roblox to my STEM feature coming up!)

    I think some of it boils down to ‘mainstream/masses’ vs. gifted/lifelong learners, in the ‘appeal’ of SmartyCard.

    I think probably the advanced students (yours) are less the ‘target’ of S.C. than the mainstream benefactors that you describe in the “takes a little dazzle” phrase of motivating in any manner possible…So I guess it’s an ‘audience’ issue.

    I guess I view S.C. as a kid-friendly, whimsical/interactive replacement of skill-drill workbooks (very ‘wow-pow’ comparatively speaking) as I don’t think they pretend to be a ‘learning tool’ in terms of guidance/process (although the little critter does give ‘prompts’ when kids get answers wrong, which cues them how to work through to the next piece…like with fractions/reducing down further, etc.)

    So in that sense, yep, I think you’re right, S.C. is quiz based vs. ‘learning’ in any constructionism, building block &/or freeform enlightenment style…

    I still hold my argument on the Scholastic brand creep, and the ‘competing for mindshare’ statement, because to me, Scholastic entering schools is a privilege not a right, and they lost it long ago with quality control. (Smarty Card shouldn’t be allowed in schools either, of course…so the pairing of the two equate to commercial brandwashing big time if they get a foothold in the academic arena based on appeal to the audience in question…(e.g. ‘the masses’)

    Understand the wish list thoughts…but this is where I think we could cut a new swath by exposing kids to the NON-commercial experimental and experiential edumedia (e.g. MIT Media Lab, Maker Faire creations, Stanford D school, robotics and such) but that would ONLY work if we removed all of the vapid ‘fluff-n-stuff’ that sneaks in under the guise of learning and ‘edutainment’… (e.g. pretty much MOST of the stuff Scholastic is hawking in the toy/premium/gift category)

    Until Scholastic gets rid of pervasive mass media/TV/movie influence in their picks and gets back to quality/teacher hand-selected wishlists, we’ll be stuck with a devalued ‘book club’ made up of all “sugar and spice” (and brands not so nice). 😉

  4. Hi Jackie…thanks for the note…glad to hear it’s not just my imagination on the Scholastic front. Most of my mom pals ditched it long ago, and we buy for the teachers from their own wishlists to donate…(though I like the ‘non-commercial book fair’ indie idea too…

    Still haven’t had a chance to slate a listen of VV’s call…soon, I hope! Thanks for the link/reminder! Best, Amy

  5. OH! One more thought for you, Sandra…

    I’ve been pondered why kids have been more receptive/responsive to SmartyCard here…(we’ve had a blast with the quizzes in some ‘at risk’ youth groups) and there’s quite possibly a regional and socioeconomic interplay that’s surfacing here???

    Thoughts? I may be off base but I had a thought that the Ca. school system kids are (overly) accustomed to the quiz/multiple choice/test-taking pocket, and desperately seeking ANY fun interplay to make the rote drills any more compelling. (e.g. S.C. is the kind of ‘learning’ that the kids here are very used to)

    The more I think about it, some of that is due to the ‘teach to the test’ dynamics to boost API scores and the necessity to push for funding ‘rewards’ (performance incentives due to NCLB drivers) which adds another “hmnn…’ layer of ponderables I should address somewhere and think more about…

    See how you always get me thinking, m’dear? 🙂

    Thank you both for taking the time to comment…Can’t wait to share some of the exciting edu-finds at the Maker Faire today…you’ll love ’em!

    The kids were LEARNING…hands-on and trial and error, jazzed with demos and ‘how stuff works’ (one of my favorite sites, btw!)

  6. I’m not really disagreeing with you re: Scholastic. There is something unclean about the plethora of movie & TV tie-ins, as well as the overload of point-of-purchase overpriced crap found at the Scholastic Book Fair.

    Of course, it’s up to the adults who host the fair to decide if they’re going to display the crap items, or the tie-in books. At our old public school, the parents put it all out there. However, when the kids come in on Preview Day to make out their wish lists, they aren’t allowed to list crap items until they’ve found 5 books. The kids take home their lists, and the parents decide what they can get.

    BTW – every kid gets a minimum of $10s worth of books because the volunteers collect money through the One for the Books program for this purpose.

    At my daughter’s private school, they do the Buy One Get One Free Fair to make books more affordable. Also, they do not display any of the Tie-In books, and the crap is kept out of sight except on the evening when parents visit.

    As for the SmartyCard, I was just relating my son’s response. Still, I’m surprised to hear that any kid in Grades 3-6 would choose SmartyCard over Club Penguin, Webkinz, or any of the other popular online game/virtual world options. Definitely worth investigating!

    Just for the record, testing is alive & well in NY public schools with mandatory state assessments in Grades 3-8, and Regents in high school. However, I’m confident that if I asked my son’s friends (who are in the public school) which game they prefer, well I’m confident that SmartyCard wouldn’t win over the fantasy based games that they prefer.

    I’m wondering if the socioeconomic component has more to do with access to computers. My son, and his friends, all have computers in their homes, Wiis or similar gameboxes, and handheld DS games for the road. They’ve been playing computer games since at least 4yos, and some younger. They expect quite a lot out of their video games.

    I am looking forward to hearing about your new discoveries. My son is very interested in robotics, and we’re starting a team for the Lego Tournament next year. We’re also looking into figuring out how to use Scratch &/or Alice, but we need to book time with our local Kid Geek (’cause those programs are not easy, even though they’re for kids!)

    Sandra Foyt’s last blog post..Homeschooled Kids Blog Carnival 8 – Inspiration!

  7. Wow, Sandra, four ‘craps’ in two paragraphs? You’re beginning to sound like me! 😉 I love the “One for the Books” $10 donor deal, but that’s not in play much here as our Ca. schools are flat broke and the onus is on the parents as it is to fund and supplement kids’ school supplies (sadly, it’s gonna get WORSE too, with cutbacks, sigh)

    As for the SmartyCard, NO WAY is it OVER Club Penguin, Webkinz, or any of the popular picks, it’s a CONDUIT to ACCESS same. (it’s more like “having to eat your peas and carrots before getting a sundae” so to speak)

    Good point on the socioeconomic observation, because you’re right, the digital divide is pronounced in some of the afterschool groups we’re testing with who don’t even have emails, and are using library access.

    My guess is their console play would be limited to friends’ houses and/or youth group environs on the exergaming front? I dunno…I always find surprises…one home where I did a Samaratin House healthy produce drop off had a huge widescreen TV but no food…so who knows where those priorities shakeout?

    As for the Maker Faire, your son would be in builder heaven at the robotics lab…the Lego Teams were there in full force…Geekery and circuit boards a flyin’ !! 🙂

    More soon…Amy

    Amy Jussel’s last blog post..HopeLab Launches “Sticky Notes” Blog To Make Their Thinking Visible

  8. I hoped much more from this article. I found it on MSN and hoped it will be more informative

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