Teaching Profession

The NY Times Tackled Teachers and Ed Tech. Social Media Responded.

By Benjamin Herold — September 06, 2017 8 min read
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Are teachers who serve as “brand ambassadors” for ed-tech companies savvy entrepreneurs who leverage their expertise and influence to bring cutting-edge new tools into their cash-strapped schools?

Or are they hucksters, blatantly violating basic ethical principles as they hawk unproven classroom apps in exchange for gift cards and trips to conferences?

Since last Friday, much of the ed-tech world has been wrestling with such questions, thanks to New York Times business reporter Natasha Singer’s super-compelling new article, “Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues.” It’s the latest in Singer’s ongoing ‘Education Disrupted’ series, looking at Silicon Valley’s influence on public education.

The new article opens in the classroom of North Dakota elementary school teacher Kayla Delzer, whom Singer describes as “a member of growing tribe of teacher influencers.” These teachers, Singer says, are cultivated by startups and tech titans alike to help shape decisions around the technology tools that get used in American classrooms.

From the story:

Ms. Delzer also has a second calling. She is a schoolteacher with her own brand, Top Dog Teaching. Education start-ups like Seesaw give her their premium classroom technology as well as swag like T-shirts or freebies for the teachers who attend her workshops. She agrees to use their products in her classroom and give the companies feedback. And she recommends their wares to thousands of teachers who follow her on social media. “I will embed it in my brand every day,” Ms. Delzer said of Seesaw. “I get to make it better.”

A many-sided debate emerges from there.

From an ethical standpoint, Singer asks, are teachers like Delzer analogous to physicians who take perks from pharmaceutical companies, then end up disproportionately prescribing those companies’ products? Are they running afoul of their district’s conflict-of-interest policies, or even violating state law?

One former state attorney general clearly thinks so:

Any time you are paying a public employee to promote a product in the public classroom without transparency, then that’s problematic,” said James E. Tierney, a former attorney general of Maine who is a lecturer at Harvard Law School. “Should attorneys general be concerned about this practice? The answer is yes.”

But in a world where teachers constantly pay out of pocket and turn to Donors Choose for basic supplies, is there anything inherently wrong with also taking advantage of a company’s offer of, say, free software or free classroom furniture? If the relationship is transparently disclosed—as the teachers Singer profiles mostly seem to do—shouldn’t the focus be more on how and why and to what ends they use such tools, rather than where they came from?

In Singer’s story, for example, one of Delzer’s students uses Seesaw, the startup his teacher endorses, to record himself explaining how he arrived at the solution to a math problem. Isn’t that a pretty good example of the type of pedagogy that many education experts say tech, in its better uses, can help enable?

Then there are all the implications of the business world suddenly celebrating teachers—often overworked, underpaid, and scapegoated for a wide range of social ills—as their own kind of rock stars.

I still can’t stop thinking, for example, about Singer’s description of Delzer, out shopping in preparation for upcoming speaking engagements, being outfitted for free by a local clothing boutique called Kittsona in exchange for promoting the store on social media:

Kittsona ran several promotions this year in which Ms. Delzer offered her Instagram followers a store discount. Each one directly resulted in 50 to 100 sales, said Nicole Johnson, Kittsona’s co-owner. It was an indication, she said, that young working women were responding to Ms. Delzer’s ambitious-but-approachable schoolteacher brand. “We are not all Kim Kardashians,” Ms. Johnson said.

A strong social media reaction

The social-media reaction to the New York Times story has been robust, and all over the map.

For her part, Delzer (who tweets at @TopDogTeaching, where she has more than 23,000 followers) seems to have only responded publicly via a retweet of someone else:

But many in the #edtech commentariat were up in arms over the practices Singer described.

Take, for example, this thread from Remi Kalir, an assistant professor of information and learning technologies at the University of Colorado Denver.

On Monday, the popular hashtag #edtechchat took up the discussion. The takes were hot, and their heat was directed in many different directions.

Clearly, Singer struck a lot of nerves.

Some Reflections and Questions

Here’s some of what has stood out to me from the discussion.

In a companion piece to her story, Singer wrote about why the Times has undertaken the Education Disrupted series. There, she reminded us that she’s a business reporter, not an education reporter:

Editors asked me to focus more on tech industry efforts to remake public schools than on how technology is changing pedagogy.

On that front alone, there’s certainly a lot more to the discussion than Singer was able to squeeze into her article. In addition to the points described above, I’ve found myself thinking about the following:

  • Via #edtechchat and elsewhere, there’s been a robust discussion of teachers’ obligations around disclosure when it comes to endorsing particular products. There’s also a lot of talk about teachers’ intellectual property rights when they create lessons and tutorials and speeches around how to use chosen tools in the classroom. There’s a ton of gray area here. From a practical standpoint, it seems like these are rich areas for the sector to explore.

  • One Times reader also raised a broader concern in an online comment attached to Singer’s story: Yes, teachers accepting gift cards or even conference travel to endorse specific ed-tech products raises red flags, Mattie from Washington wrote. But how do such concerns compare to the bigger ways that companies and the influence industry interact with the K-12 sector?

If the New York Times is concerned about influence peddling in education, why aren’t you writing about the cozy relationship between textbook companies, standardized test providers, and state-level politicians?

It can be a fine line between asking “compared to what?” (a question I generally embrace in all circumstances) versus “well what about...? (which can muddy important issues.) But it does seem worthwhile to me to make sure that this discussion of teacher-brand ambassadors occurs in context.

  • Last, where should schools draw the line on who gets to adopt and try new classroom technology, under what circumstances? Many ed-tech companies intentionally try to circumvent formal district procurement processes, going directly to teachers and hoping for viral growth. And there can be benefits to that—district bureaucracies are slow, for example, and teachers are generally closest to students’ learning needs. But what about vetting products for compliance with privacy laws, and reviewing research on effectiveness? What about ensuring interoperability with existing tech? What about considering a wide range of options, not just the company that gave you a t-shirt? I thought Singer’s story highlighted the staying power of this conundrum in the K-12 sector.

And that’s all primarily on the business side. As you know, we try here at Digital Education to mostly keep our focus on the educational side of educational technology.

And it’s here that I think Singer’s story raises some of the most pressing questions for the ed-tech sector to consider.

It seems hard to argue, for example, that ed-tech should be developed (and procured) without teacher input. The real question seems to be about how to best do that.

The good news is that there actually are examples of public-private partnerships that are very different than the “brand-ambassador-in-exchange-for-swag” model.

Back in 2015, for example, Education Week wrote about New York City’s “Short Cycle Evaluation Challenge.” That process started with teachers identifying classroom problems they were trying to solve. District officials then paired the teachers with pre-vetted companies that might help. Together, educators and developers went through a structured process for trying products out, improving those products based on teacher and student feedback, and engaging independent researchers to evaluate the products’ effectiveness.

That may not be a viral growth strategy for the companies involved, and it might not help the teachers involved generate speaking or consulting fees on the side of their day jobs. But at minimum, there’s reason to wonder whether that kind of process will lead to better ed-tech products—and, more importantly, better teaching and learning.

There’s also the reality that a substantial chunk of the outrage sparked by Singer’s piece seems driven by resistance to technology in the classroom in general, regardless of how it gets there.

If that’s your starting point, then teachers who work as product “ambassadors” are certainly an easy target.

But if you believe technology can be part of powerful learning experiences for students, and you’re worried that the ed-tech industry and some educators are less concerned about creating those experiences than about burnishing their own brands, then there’s a rich conversation to be had.

Unfortunately, right now, the ed-tech industry does not seem to be doing a particularly good job of taking part in that conversation, let alone leading it.

In the companion piece to Singer’s story, she described asking tech companies about the potential consequences and implications of their push to get their products into classrooms.

Singer’s description of the companies’ answers may be the most troubling piece of this entire discussion:

From some companies, I received responses like: "Nobody ever asked us that before," and "We don't understand the question," and "We don't think this is a valid question."

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.