Pick Your Battles: Edtech Leaders Share Strategies for Engaging in...

EdSurge Podcast

Pick Your Battles: Edtech Leaders Share Strategies for Engaging in Political Discourse

By Jenny Abamu     Oct 24, 2017

Pick Your Battles: Edtech Leaders Share Strategies for Engaging in Political Discourse
Left to Right: Vibhu Mittal the CEO of Edmodo and Jeffrey Collins the vice president of communications and partnerships for After School App

Silicon Valley tech giants have made their stance clear on a number of political and social issues this year. Recently, Microsoft president Brad Smith went so far as to offer to pay legal fees for any employee who faces deportation after President Trump announced the end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA. Teachers’ unions have also planted their flag both by condemning white nationalists in Charlottesville and the decision to end DACA.

However, leaders in the education technology space seemed to be treading a bit more lightly as they begin to address new social and political issues effective their constituents. We were curious about the role edtech leaders play in such a tense political environment, so we reached out to some.

To have this discussion, we talked to two edtech leaders who recently signed an open letter to president Trump denouncing the decision to end DACA: Jeffrey Collins, the vice president of communications and partnerships for After School App, who also happens to be a former U.S. diplomat, and Vibhu Mittal, the CEO of Edmodo and a former Google employee. Both of these gentlemen signed on to this letter and so you'll learn why they made that decision.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to a complete version of the interview below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

I'm going to start off by asking you both about an open letter you both signed. This was a letter that many tech leaders signed directly after the DACA decision was announced. The letter said that you all stand with dreamers, that they're vital to the future of your companies and our economy and that you believe that they're part of why we continue to hold a global competitive advantage. Why did you both choose to sign, and in what ways does DACA affect your work or your constituency?

Collins: So for our company, After School, we think DACA is really representative of our values as both individuals and a company. Openness, inclusion and compassion are very important to us, as well as hard work and talent.

Our company is small. We're about 15 to 20 employees. And we're a Series A startup. We're made up of a number of immigrants, and a pretty diverse group of people including political refugees. These are talented people who are optimistic about building a better future. So when it comes to DACA, we think that rescinding it would have a huge human and economic impact.

And Vibhu?

Mittal: Edmodo is a pretty mission-oriented company, and our mission is to help all users, particularly students and teachers, reach their full potential. We tend to be pretty agnostic about borders and politics, and the only previous initiatives that we've actually signed onto in terms of public letters have been all about safety, security and privacy.

But DACA was important to us because it directly impacted our core constituency—students—hundreds of thousands of students who should not be worrying about what the future is going to be but focused on things that they would do on a normal, happy working day. And a happy working day for them is going to school.

The problem with some of these decisions like DACA isn't just about the individuals that are directly impacted by DACA; it also affects all the people they’re around. So I know people who are incredibly traumatized because they know somebody who's going to be impacted by DACA.

So it isn't even as though we are just looking at the 800,000 or the whatever number of people we tend to identify as being students who are going to be directly impacted by the ruling. We're also looking at all the other people who are going to be concerned about how their friend circle, their classrooms, their teachers, etc.

Collins: I'd like to just briefly support one of the points Vibhu made. The points about individuals’ networks resonated with me because, as I mentioned, we have a number of immigrants and political refugees on our staff. None of them are technically dreamers, but this is this issue that is incredibly important to them. They have friends, family members, people they've known for a long time who are directly impacted and could be deported. And so it does take an emotional toll, which again, has ripple effects.

Moving forward, I'm sure that DACA won't be the end of the discussion, considering what happened in Charlottesville and all the other discussions we’re having. How are leaders in the edtech community, or even just the tech community in general, assessing which issues they are going to respond to and what responses they are going to give?

Mittal: I'll lead off on this because I think it follows on from my previous answer. As I said, our entire focus on our platform is not as much about content as it is about fostering collaboration, communication and open discourse. And so in general, we see teachers and students have discussions on thousands of topics on our platform every day. And in fact, we should see those discussions.

DACA was an example where we felt that students and teachers had viewpoints, and I didn't see any legislator speak about how they had talked to a number of students, parents and teachers. And so we felt it was important for us to participate at that point.

Similarly, if there are other decisions that come down the pipe, we will probably see most of them mirroring on our platform in parallel with conversations happening outside of the platform. And if they rise to a sufficiently important level where a large fraction of our users are discussing it, then we'll probably try and have some surfacing of that opinion come outside the platform as well.

Collins: For me, I think about that issue every day because I come from a long policy and corporate social responsibility background, and I would love to be involved and have our company involved in many, many issues. But as a small startup, resources are limited. So we have to choose the external policy issues we work on strategically.

I've heard a few people push back on the idea that technology and politics shouldn’t mix. What is your opinion on that?

Collins: Well, I may come at this from a unique perspective because I have not spent the bulk of my career in tech. I worked in energy doing corporate social responsibility at Chevron. I worked for the state department, so I've worked in the private, public and social sectors. You could say I co-run a tech policy NGO called Forum 280.

Every company has a social responsibility to society, which dictates that companies should incorporate responsibility into their business model. And so I think it makes business sense and moral sense for every company, tech or not, to be involved in helping run their business in a way that's sustainable and that helps make society better. And you can't do that without being somewhat involved in policy and political debates.

Mittal: I think technology in some ways is inherently just a tool and it often acts as an amplifier because you can now spread ideas more widely and more cheaply than has ever been possible. And so as a result, technology often ends up being used more as a tool by both sides to try and foster either a discussion or potentially adoption of certain trends and ideas.

Examples of things where technology seems political or gets involved in political discussions include things like patents, the recent discussion around net neutrality, or access or lack of access to information. And these can all be used in political ways, but technology companies try and usually stay out of politics until they think that political decisions will actually impact their business.

Sometimes decisions will be made that seem political, but I don't think are political. I was a Google for many years, and Google’s withdrawal of their business in China was sometimes written up as like a political discussion or a political decision. But to a large extent, I would say internally at least; it was always viewed as a way to protect user identity as in user accounts. It wasn't because Google disagreed with the Chinese government, it was because they found that they could keep better control over what the users were doing on the platform if they didn't have servers in China.

And my final question for you both: have you heard feedback from your constituents about your responses on DACA? Do you have any examples of how your responses are affecting your constituents and stakeholders?

Collins: I'll start on this one. I think about this first concerning our employees, and I would say as we've gotten involved in issues like this, there was some surprise by employees, but round support for the company getting involved. And I say surprise because a number of these young people who are in their 20s and have worked at a number of startups, they don't necessarily see smaller companies involved in these issues. And so they were very heartened that our founders were interested in taking a stance that on something that we all believe in, but they didn't just talk the talk. They would walk the walk and get involved.

Mittal: So on our end, we did get a number of messages from people who were both happy that we had taken a stand on DACA, as well as some people who questioned whether we should have been public about our stance on DACA. But as a pure education company, I would have been surprised if we didn't have a number of people asking the questions on both sides. Not necessarily because they disagreed with what we had done, but just because they wanted to have an open discussion about how these decisions are reached.

And so in a way, as Jeff said, I think we cater to a population that is inherently much more open to questioning everything. It's an ethos that classrooms seem to cultivate.

So I was not surprised by the reactions we had, and I would have in fact been disappointed if we had only a one-sided perspective on this. We had people across the world participate in this when I would say most of the world wasn't impacted by DACA. About half our users are actually outside the U.S., but we had a robust debate. It got people thinking much more about connecting with other communities in order to be able to try and find out how these things were being impacted and what they might do in the future to try either help support such policies or work against these policies.

Before we end, are there any last thoughts that you'd like to add, closing ideas, things that people should keep in mind?

Mittal: I look forward to, in a somewhat perverse way, decisions such as DACA coming down the line, if for no other reason than to rouse people to having vibrant, engaged discussions, be much more engaged and not just be passive consumers of decisions and information that comes down through the normal media channels.They have a voice in terms of how their decision-makers in Washington D.C., or at the state level, or at the school district level, make decisions. And I would like nothing more than every kid, and every teacher believe that their voice makes a difference.

Collins: It's interesting because we didn't have any prior discussion or coordination, but I had a very similar thought. I think that these issues and these issues around immigration we extend out from DACA are not going away. The DACA legislative issue will be resolved in the coming year or so, but issues around education and immigration and technology are going to continue.

And the most important things we can do is teach young people starting at a very young age to think about issues in a critical way and to have discussions and to take an interest in their community and in civic society in general because, really, we're middle-aged and getting older, and they are the people who are going to make these decisions.

So when I talk with young people about what I would say are like gray areas around online safety or technology in society, I always tell them like, "Look, you need to think about this because you guys are the ones that are going to deal with it."

And on that front, maybe to close on an optimistic note, I would say that there is a lot of reason to be optimistic. For all the criticism we hear about young people and the education system, I think we do see a lot of bright shining stars in the passion and the abilities of young people in our country and people coming to this country.


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