Drinking, Smoking and Sugar: How Unsavory Ads Wound Up on Edmodo


Drinking, Smoking and Sugar: How Unsavory Ads Wound Up on Edmodo

By Emily Tate     Oct 8, 2018

Drinking, Smoking and Sugar: How Unsavory Ads Wound Up on Edmodo

Beth Freeman logs in to her son’s Edmodo account from time to time to check on his homework assignments.

Over the last year, she’s noticed ads peppered throughout the communications app, which is used by most students, parents and teachers at her 13-year-old’s middle school. Most of the ads seem innocuous—a virtual charter school or a set of digital worksheets, for example—and don’t bother her much. She usually looks right past them.

But then, in August, she saw something that unsettled her.

The advertisement appeared on Edmodo’s mobile app, which Freeman’s son uses daily for updates about homework, quizzes and other school assignments. On it was the unmistakable image of a glass of beer.

“I was like, ‘Clearly there’s a glitch,’” says Freeman, whose son attends school in Cobb County School District in Atlanta. “I thought, ‘I’m not gonna freak out.’ … But it was weird.”

That the ad ever showed up on a student’s account was a mistake, Edmodo officials say. They acted quickly to take it down—but it’s not the only advertising misstep the company has made in recent months. What’s more, these incidents underscore a troubling problem that is not unique to Edmodo: As edtech companies that once offered their services for free search for revenue models, the stops and stumbles that can follow often come at students’ expense.

In September, between 1,000 and 2,000 Edmodo users opened the app to see an ad that asked, “What is the first time you tried an e-cig?” The two possible answers—“8th grade and above” and “8th grade and below”—overlay a stock image of a young person exhaling a billowing cloud of smoke from his mouth.

That incident was also an accident, according to Edmodo CEO Vibhu Mittal. The company was working on an anti-vaping campaign for the FDA, and at one point, an Edmodo marketing executive accidentally published an internal test poll to public user accounts. Over the course of the day, before the error was discovered, someone snapped a screenshot of the ad and posted it to Twitter.

“@edmodo, you need to rethink the way you do business. This ad popped up twice during homework tonight,” wrote Heather Boggess on Twitter.

“I want to hang my head in shame,” Mittal tells EdSurge of the vaping ad incident. “It shouldn’t have gone up. It shouldn’t have been seen. That was our fault.”

Mittal, along with Mollie Carter, Edmodo’s vice president of marketing, explained these recent blunders as part of the company’s “evolving” advertising strategy. During EdSurge’s conversation with the two executives, there was a lot of talk about “learning as we go” and ads being a “work in progress” as the company fine-tunes its approach.

Mistakes are made at every company. But the idea of figuring it out as one goes along perhaps seems more excusable for an early-stage startup than it does for Edmodo, which has been around for 10 years, boasts more than 90 million registered users across 400,000 schools and was acquired earlier this year for $137.5 million.

When Freeman saw the beer-blazoned ad, she decided to take up the issue on Twitter. Edmodo responded the same day and said it would “investigate as to why this appeared to a student user when it clearly shouldn’t have.” Freeman was satisfied with that response. She didn’t see the ad again.

But she emphasized in an interview that the ad didn’t bother her because it acknowledged the existence of beer—Freeman lets her son watch ESPN, where commercials for beer are common. To her, it was about the ad’s placement on a trusted education app.

“We’re at the age where he comes home and that’s all we talk about—drinking, vaping, what kids are doing. They’re middle-school kids. They’re starting to learn about all these things going on in the world,” she says. “It was just the medium that was inappropriate.”

Risky Business

Edmodo, which is based in San Mateo, Calif., began in February 2017 to experiment with adding advertisements to its communications platform, after struggling to find a sustainable business model and generate revenue. The company is committed to not charging users for its tools, and advertising revenue, officials thought, was a way to make that possible.

“Advertising is sensitive,” Carter acknowledges. “We did not do this lightly.”

Some of the company’s tactics began to backfire just three months later, when privacy expert Bill Fitzgerald revealed that Edmodo had been using ad trackers on students and teachers. That information came to light the same week as a data breach that exposed the information of 77 million Edmodo users. Following those two events, in May 2017, Mittal published a blog post addressing the concerns.

“We know last week was difficult for many of our users, as it was for us,” he wrote. “I hope the discussion here helps clarify what happened, what we did, and what we commit to continue doing to earn your trust.”

One of the ways Edmodo has tried to maintain—and restore—users’ trust is through an internal ad council. The ad council, described by Mittal as the company’s in-house “curation mechanism,” determines which advertisements are appropriate to display on the platform. The council—which was implemented to “prevent harmful or inappropriate content from being shown to our users,” according to the Edmodo website—is made up of Edmodo employees, including parents, former teachers and individuals from the security and support teams.

When it was first convened, the council was “vociferously” against having any ads on Edmodo’s platform, Mittal says. But eventually, they budged—first by allowing advertisements to appear on teachers’ accounts, and then expanding that to include students over the age of 13 after school hours. In March, the company quietly changed its policy again to begin advertising to users of all ages, including those under age 13.

“We choose content that is appropriate for age 13, or about 13,” Mittal says. “We feel completely comfortable in terms of the content of our ads. … I have a lot of confidence in believing [the ad council] wouldn’t let something by that would be offensive to any of our users.”

Edmodo didn’t exactly blast out the news of that recent policy change. In fact, it wasn’t until EdSurge inquired about a separate, unpublicized incident involving a 12-year-old student that the company updated its policy online—seven months after it had changed. (The policy previously read, “No sponsored content will knowingly be shown to students under the age of 13.” It now reads: “Sponsored content will be available to students.”)

The unpublicized incident involved a child at Hillview Middle School, which is part of the Menlo Park City School District in California. The child had seen ads for Froot Loops, the sugary cereal manufactured by Kellogg’s, though teachers and parents were under the impression that she and others her age would be shielded from seeing any ads at all.

As a result, the child’s parent contacted Hillview administrators about the Froot Loops ad, which was later removed from the 12-year-old’s Edmodo feed.

Hillview Middle School has used Edmodo for years. It was the first learning management system the school used, according to Parke Treadway, a spokesperson for the district. Over time, however, Hillview staff introduced other collaboration tools, such as Google Classroom, and teachers began moving away from Edmodo. Today, about half of Hillview teachers use the platform, Treadway says. But Edmodo’s decision to remove age restrictions from its advertising program could further diminish Hillview’s enthusiasm for the platform.

“Hillview has no history of complaints about Edmodo ads; this incident is the first one,” Treadway writes in an email to EdSurge. “Edmodo’s change in its ad policy does give the Hillview administration pause, as we have children as young as 10 and we don’t want any ads at all. The issue will be raised among the full staff and the school may reconsider whether it continues to use Edmodo.”

Hillview administrators are less concerned about the substance of the Froot Loops ad and more concerned with who was seeing it—kids as young as 10 years old. For its part, Edmodo officials say the content of the Froot Loops ad sparked some debate within its internal ad council.

“We actually had what I would call an energized, engaged discussion about whether we would show cereal ads,” Mittal says, “because cereal has sugar, and milk has sugar.”

The Froot Loops case fell into a “gray zone,” he says, but Edmodo ultimately agreed to display the ad because Kellogg’s planned to use it to identify thousands of teachers, some of whom Kellogg’s would then give “gift baskets worth several hundreds of dollars.”

The Froot Loops ad is an example of "direct" advertising. Edmodo finds, vets and eventually signs on with an advertising company—in this case, Kellogg’s—which then runs promotional content on the Edmodo platform. Direct advertising allows Edmodo to seek out ads that “actually benefit our users,” Mittal asserts. As of August, this is the only kind of advertising Edmodo engages in, he adds.

Prior to August, Edmodo was using a combination of direct ads and programmatic ads. The latter is an automated, algorithm-based way of advertising that targets specific audiences and demographics. Though considered more efficient than direct advertising, programmatic ads give humans less control over which ads will appear—a potentially risky option for companies with young users. According to Mittal, all Edmodo ads—programmatic included—are marked TFCD (Tag for Child-Directed Treatment). The TFCD feature is designed to make it easier for companies to comply with COPPA, or the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which limits and protects the information websites collect about children under the age of 13. Even so, after about a year-and-a-half of experimenting with programmatic ads, Edmodo officials felt they wanted to have more authority over their promotional content. This past August, the company began phasing out programmatic ads.

According to its privacy policy, Edmodo does not share the personally identifiable information (name, age, email address, phone number, etc.) of its users with any advertising agencies, regardless of age, nor does it make behavioral profiles of its users for advertising purposes.

The TFCD setting doesn’t guarantee companies won’t violate COPPA in other ways, according to Google. But it should have at least been turned on when Freeman saw the image of beer on her son’s Edmodo app, Carter says. (That ad was paid for by a fintech company called Acorns Advisers, which offers a spare-change investment app. Acorns’ primary audience is adults, not children.)

“This appeared during a one-day test in mid-August where we turned programmatic ads on with the TFCD tag,” Carter says. “We believe this user had not updated their Edmodo mobile app and thus the TFCD tag was not in place. This type of ad will not appear in the future since programmatic ads have been fully turned off for all students.”

Edmodo officials contend that their advertising strategy is not just about making money; it’s also about finding another avenue to enhance their users’ learning experiences.

“Edmodo is … a platform for safe communication and sharing and learning,” Carter says, “and we think ads, when done appropriately, can actually add to this learning.”

Edmodo FDA Anti-Vaping
An example of promotional content from the FDA's anti-vaping campaign on Edmodo.

The FDA’s anti-vaping campaign, which launched in mid-September, is an example of promotional content that seeks to do good, she says. The Acorns Advisers ad, the mistakenly published vaping poll and the ad featuring Froot Loops are not necessarily representative of where Edmodo is going, she says.

“This is not the final state of our product,” Carter says. “It’s a work in progress. As we hear from our users, we are trying our best to turn off some of the choices we’ve made. We will find better, more relevant things.”

“All of these [policies] are somewhat in the process of evolving,” Mittal adds. “I’ll be the first to admit we haven’t actually figured out the right thing to do. … We’ve learned a lot, but we still have a long way to go.”

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