I wasn’t surprised by anything shared in Natasha Singer’s NY Times article “Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues“. I’ve been warning about the ethical grey area caused by corporations recruiting “teacher influencers” (my nomination for worst education related term of 2017) in conference presentations since 2014.

Slide from "Five Reasons Not To Use EdTech" presented at ConnectEd in 2014

Slide from “Five Reasons Not To Use EdTech” presented at ConnectEd in 2014

I’ve tried to emphasize to educators that when they agree to promote a product they need to carefully weigh what effect that will have on their professional reputation, a reputation that’s based on trust. Educators respect their views because they believe them to be informed and impartial. Working as a brand ambassador will erode that trust, whether their enthusiasm for an EdTech product is genuine or not.

Frank Catalano offered an eye-opening glimpse into how some media companies recruit educators when he shared a recruitment email from Cartoon Network (CN) which is owned by Time Warner. In return for posting CN content on their personal social media and blogs, “CN STEAMBassadors” received an “influencer kit”, VIP access to CM events and inclusion in CN media opportunities.

I found out this summer how easily educators can be seduced into promoting EdTech brands. A casual conversation on twitter quickly escalated into me being asked if I’d like to “test” a new product in my classroom. What could be better? I didn’t want to pay for the product and here they were offering it to me for free.  Or so I thought.

Shortly after they’d arranged to ship me the product, I received a message from the company rep saying simply “Retweet my latest tweet”. This wasn’t anything that we’d discussed in our previous conversations. It was then I understood the unstated “quid pro quo” and cancelled the shipment. It would have been easy to do and would have improved the learning in my classroom. But it was a slippery slope I didn’t want to head down.

EdTech corporations aren’t going anywhere, so the problem of the teacher influencer is here to stay. What to do?

Here are three steps to make things better.

Transparency

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently updated their “Endorsement Guides” for Social Media influencers. They state that “influencers need to unambiguously disclose their connections to brands and companies they are promoting” and set out a list of steps influencers should take.

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Educators who work as brand ambassadors should take a similar approach. It should clearly state on their social media profiles that they are being compensated for sharing information about a product with their network. Posts they share as part of that ambassador role should be clearly labelled as such. Educators who present at conferences as part of an agreement with an EdTech company should also make that arrangement clear in both the conference program and at the start of the presentation.

Registration

Educators who enter into an ambassador agreement should register the details of that agreement into a public registry. What they agree to do, and what the expected compensation is, should be  available for parents, students and other educators to review. This is an area where teacher federations can show some leadership in helping maintain professional standards.

Guidelines

Schools, school boards and governments must develop expectations to guide teachers. What are acceptable agreements for them to enter into? What is appropriate compensation? These products are being used in classrooms and school administrators need to clearly state what teachers can or cannot do in their relationships with EdTech companies. It’s important that educators make decisions based on pedagogical grounds and aren’t influenced by their brand ambassador role.

It’s important to recognize the foundational issue creating this situation is funding for classroom technology. If teachers have adequate resources to provide the program their students need, there’s no reason for most them to enter into these brand agreements.

Most teacher’s don’t want to be brand ambassadors. They want to be effective educators. The fact that some of them are willing to work as ambassadors to ensure students get what they need, is indicative of their commitment to providing the best possible education.