The Fault Lines Between Sharing and Shilling for an Edtech Product

Personal Learning Networks

The Fault Lines Between Sharing and Shilling for an Edtech Product

By Tony Wan     Sep 5, 2017

The Fault Lines Between Sharing and Shilling for an Edtech Product

Whatever peace and quiet educators may have expected over Labor Day weekend were rattled by a Saturday morning New York Times story: “Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues.”

The piece from Natasha Singer examines the murky relationship between edtech developers and the educators who tout their products. At issue is whether “ambassador” programs and other branding efforts, wherein companies give teachers T-shirts, gift cards and other perks, constitute ethical violations. The practice is widespread from top to bottom: Apple, Google and Microsoft train and certify teachers who demonstrate expertise with their wares.

But at what point do freebies and services like professional development become a marketing ploy?

Public reactions to the piece from the education community run the gamut, from kudos for raising challenging questions to defensive rebuttals. (Here’s a measured response from Stanford professor emeritus of education, Larry Cuban.) Clearly, the article has touched a nerve in the education community about the fault lines between preaching and pitching products.

For educators like Sean Arnold, who lists more than a dozen credentials and awards from edtech companies on his personal blog, that relationship can be a “double-edged sword,” as he described in his response to the article. “My intentions were good, but intentions aren’t enough,” the STEM coach at New York City’s Department of Education wrote. “I’ve followed the guidelines, but when does advocating for the best tools stop and shilling for a product begin?”

Nicholas Provenzano, one of two teachers featured in the piece, wrote to clarify his decision-making before agreeing to work with companies. “I do understand that there are those out there that rack up ambassadorships like badges,” he noted, “and that hurts the overall community because it can lead to distrusting the authenticity of people’s opinions.”

Thrifty education technology startups have long relied on word of mouth to get their message across. Many host online and offline gatherings to celebrate the work of teachers (often using their tools, of course). Some court teachers with large online followings such as Kayla Delzer, the other featured teacher in the article (and an EdSurge columnist). That celebrity status can attract edtech companies who want to get a visibility boost.

The tactic is not unique to education. Egregious examples abound on social media, where companies of all stripes pay celebrities to mention or pose with a product on Instagram. “Every industry has companies that pull people from their customer base to come work for them and train others,” observed John Bimmerle, an instructional technology specialist in Texas and a brand ambassador, in his response to the story. He asked: “Why is this practice shocking in education?”

Teachers may not wield much influence over what products are purchased; that’s a decision often made at higher levels. Yet conflicts of interest are worrisome when multi-million dollar education contracts are at stake. Investigations into these transgressions do occur at the higher levels of the administration. Five years ago, the New York Times probed Pearson about currying favors to win testing contracts from education officials by paying for overseas trips.

The cozy relationship between educators and companies has sparked fiery debate across social media and private Slack groups. Reactions to the story on #edtechchat, an online Twitter chat that gathers every Monday, drifted into many threads that went beyond marketing and ethics, touching on race, equity, efficacy and privacy. While scattered, the conversations boiled down to this question: Can educators serve the interests of both students and companies—or are the two mutually exclusive?

One #edtechchat participant described the lively and discussions as a wildfire. Expect it to rage as the new school year kicks in full swing.

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