When teachers shill for high-tech companies: Icky, but is it unethical?

I’m all about teachers embracing new technology in their classrooms and sharing their best practices with colleagues. But there’s something unsettling when a teacher gushes about all the high-tech product placements she “embeds” in her “brand.”

Now Kayla Delzer, a third-grade teacher in a rural North Dakota district, can gush about her latest score in brand enhancements: This front-page story in the New York Times.

Ms. Delzer’s high-profile endorsements of tech products in her classrooms was the focus of the latest education “trend” story: How Silicon Valley is using social-media-savvy teachers as beta testers and ambassadors for their products.

“Ms. Delzer is a member of a growing tribe of teacher influencers, many of whom promote classroom technology. They attract notice through their blogs, social media accounts and conference talks. And they are cultivated not only by start-ups like Seesaw, but by giants like AmazonAppleGoogle and Microsoft, to influence which tools are used to teach American schoolchildren.”

Their ranks are growing as public schools increasingly adopt all manner of laptops, tablets, math teaching sites, quiz apps and parent-teacher messaging apps. The corporate courtship of these teachers brings with it profound new conflict-of-interest issues for the nation’s public schools.

Moreover, there is little rigorous research showing whether or not the new technologies significantly improve student outcomes.”

So what do the teachers get for being an “influencer?” Company swag like T-shirts and classroom technology. Gift cards. But also trips to conferences. And sometimes lucrative training contracts. Here’s what they also get–the gratification of being courted for their expertise and opinion, no small perk for professionals who often feel unappreciated.

I’m sure Ms. Delzer’s kids love her. And her principal appreciates the resources she brings into her tiny school because of her “high-profile brand” (for which she also scores a free wardrobe at a local boutique for plugging their clothes at conferences). And she and other teacher influencers quoted in the pieces say they would never endorse a tech brand they don’t believe helps their kids or enhances their lessons. But Ms. Delzer also seems singularly focused on keeping her social media machine buzzing throughout the school day, encouraging her kids to post daily on Twitter and Instagram accounts that are an extension of her “Top Dog” brand.

I’m sorry, but if I was a mom in that classroom, I would consider all that brand building no bueno.

This kind of influence can be insidious, for the same reason that pharmaceutical companies are now closely scrutinized for the perks they offer physicians:

Drug makers have long cultivated doctors to promote brand-name medicines to their peers. Insiders have a nickname for these doctors: “Key Opinion Leaders.” Among other things, drug makers have paid physician influencers to give talks about company drugs, sent them on junkets and lavished them with fancy dinners.

If the ed-tech industry is now replicating these strategies, it is because, at least in medicine, they work.

I remember when it used to be controversial for schools to post advertising on campus and consider naming rights for their football stadiums. It all seems so positively quaint now.

I’d love to hear what teachers and other parents think about this influencer trend. Is it old-school to think teachers shouldn’t be so self-promotional and brand-focused? Is this harmless or a conflict of interest? Please weigh in.


Photo by the New York Times.

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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