NYC Schools: Chattering Classes?

If Droga Has His Way, They Will Be. Adman Says Free Phones Can Boost Grades

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Most people would assume cellphones get in the way of learning. David Droga is betting they can help.

The creative big and founder of the start-up Droga5, who previously launched the highly successful Tap Project for UNICEF, is working with the New York City Department of Education to solve the age-old problem of students viewing academic achievement as uncool or irrelevant.
David Droga unveiled The Million project at Idea Conference last Thursday.
David Droga unveiled The Million project at Idea Conference last Thursday.
But instead of resorting to the typical advertising solution -- the preachy, celebrity-driven "Stay in School"-type public service announcement -- Mr. Droga is introducing another way to motivate young adults: technology and incentives.

"The old way is to throw money at celebrities who tell you what to do," Mr. Droga said as he explained the program during Advertising Age's Idea Conference last Thursday in New York. Rejecting that approach, Mr. Droga -- a self-professed "advertising man" -- looked beyond his field. "We went back to [the Department of Education] with a technology idea wrapped around advertising."

The result is The Million program. Referring to the amount of students in the New York City public school system, the program involves giving away free mobile phones packed with learning tools such as a thesaurus, spell checks and an extra-help tip line to each student. The more a student uses these learning applications, the more rewards -- discounts for movies, sneakers, clothes and music downloads, as well as air-time minutes and text messages -- are unlocked. Additional incentives for achievement and attendance, including congratulatory voice-mail messages from, say, Derek Jeter or a wake-up call from Jay-Z, are also planned.

"What's cooler than the iPhone is something that has almost as many applications but is free," Mr. Droga said. In addition, the phone's exclusive nature -- only public-school students will be able to reap the benefits of it -- may drive up the "badge factor," adding to its appeal.

Naturally, there'll be room for brands to latch onto the cause. The hardware provider, based on the video Mr. Droga showed at the conference, appears to be Motorola, though he wouldn't confirm it. He also declined to name the service provider that's been chosen. There'll also be some room for advertising on the phone. After all, the phones, while provided for free to the students, won't be completely without cost. As such, marketers will be able to infiltrate the students' world through "responsible" sponsorships.

Tentative step
Not everyone is enamored of the idea, though. Despite Droga5's plan to have the phones calling and texting functions shut off during school hours, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is said to be opposed to allowing cellphones on school property. Still, the mayor has given the green light to a one-semester pilot program that will make the phones available to approximately 10,000 to 15,000 students this January.

"There's lots and lots of brands out there that have a place in the students' lives," said Mr. Droga, who wouldn't disclose the specific advertisers because of ongoing negotiations. Putting brands in the classroom along with the idea of essentially compensating students for performance, is sure to be divisive among the various constituencies involved.

"Clearly, the idea of incentivizing children is going to be controversial," Mr. Droga said.

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Contributing: Rupal Parekh
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