Monday, December 4, 2017

"New school tech raises ethics issues"

Sept. 4, 2017 "New school tech raises ethics issues": Today I found this article by Natasha Singer in the Globe and Mail:

Silicon Valley courts brand-name teachers, broaching comparisons with the pharmaceutical industry’s hold on doctors

One of the tech-savviest teachers in the United States teaches third grade here at Mapleton Elementary, a public school with about 100 students in the sparsely populated plains west of Fargo, N.D.

Her name is Kayla Delzer. Her third-graders adore her. She teaches them to post daily on the class Twitter and Instagram accounts she set up. She remodelled her classroom based on Starbucks. And she uses apps such as Seesaw, a student-portfolio platform on which teachers and parents may view and comment on a child’s schoolwork.

Ms. Delzer also has a second calling. She is a schoolteacher with her own brand, Top Dog Teaching. Education startups such as Seesaw give her their premium classroom technology as well as swag such as T-shirts or freebies for the teachers who attend her workshops.

She agrees to use their products in her classroom and give the companies feedback. And she recommends their wares to thousands of teachers who follow her on social media.

“I will embed it in my brand every day,” Ms. Delzer said of Seesaw. “I get to make it better.”

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 startups such as Seesaw, but by giants such as Inc., Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., to influence which tools are used to teach U.S. schoolchildren.

Their ranks are growing as public schools increasingly adopt 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 country’s public schools.

Moreover, there is little rigorous research showing whether the new technologies significantly improve student outcomes.

More than two dozen education startups have enlisted teachers as brand ambassadors. Some give the teachers inexpensive gifts such as free classroom technology or T-shirts.

Last year, TenMarks, a math-teaching site owned by Amazon, offered Amazon gift cards to teachers who acted as company advisers and an additional $80 (U.S.) gift card for writing a post on its blog, according to a TenMarks online forum.

Teachers said that more established startups gave them pricier perks, such as travel expenses to industry-sponsored conferences attended by thousands of teachers. In exchange, teacher ambassadors often promote company products on social media or in their conference talks – sometimes without explicitly disclosing their relationships with their sponsors.

Many public schools are facing tight budgets, and administrators, including the principal at Ms. Delzer’s school, said they welcomed potentially valuable free technology and product training. Even so, some education experts warned that company incentives might influence teachers to adopt promoted digital tools over rival products or even traditional approaches, such as textbooks.

Public-school teachers who accept perks, meals or anything of value in exchange for using a company’s products in their classrooms could also run afoul of school district ethics policies or state laws regulating government employees.

“Any time you are paying a public employee to promote a product in the public classroom without transparency, then that’s problematic,” said James Tierney, a former attorney-general of Maine who is a lecturer at Harvard Law School.

Ms. Delzer and other educators forcefully argue that they’re motivated by altruism, not company-bestowed status or gifts. “I am in this profession for kids,” Ms. Delzer said. “Not for notoriety or the money.”

At a time when teachers shell out an average of $600 of their own money every year just to buy students supplies such as pencils – and make pleas for student laptops on fundraising site – it’s understandable that teachers would embrace free classroom technology.

The benefits to companies are substantial. Many startups enlist their ambassadors as product testers and de facto customerservice representatives who can field other teachers’ queries.

Another issue: The U.S. Federal Trade Commission considers sponsored posts to be a form of advertising. It expects people who receive a product, a meal or anything else of value from a company, in exchange for promoting a product, to disclose that sponsorship when they endorse the product.

This is true for celebrities and teachers alike. And it applies equally to conferences, YouTube videos, personal blogs or Twitter posts.

Some teachers and startups said they were not aware of those guidelines.

“If you are receiving any sort of incentive to promote the company’s product, that is what we call a material relationship, and that has to be clearly and conspicuously disclosed in the endorsement message,” said Mary Engle, associate director of the trade commission’s division of advertising practices.

Just before 8:30 a.m. on school days, Ms. Delzer, 32, stations herself at the classroom door. She greets each of her third-graders by name, ushering them in one by one with a brief shoulder squeeze. “I want them to feel love when they walk in,” she said.

If her classroom looks less like a traditional schoolroom and more like a den – with a colourful rug and inspirational signs exhorting children to “DREAM” and “LAUGH” – that is no accident. A few years ago, Ms. Delzer decided to remodel her classroom to foster the kind of independent work habits she thought her students would need in life.

So she ditched the standard issue desks and rearranged the room to look more like the place where she goes to work on her conference talks: her local Starbucks. Today, her third-graders sit wherever they please – on cushions, rocking chairs, balance balls.

The “Starbucks for kids” classroom proved so successful that Ms. Delzer wrote about it for EdSurge, an industry publication, in 2015. The article quickly spread in education circles.
Sitting in her local Starbucks in West Fargo, Ms. Delzer noted: “If you Google ‘Starbucks Classroom,’ it’s a thing now.”

One morning last spring, Ms. Delzer assigned her third-graders a math problem to solve on their iPads using Seesaw. Developed by two former Facebook product managers, Seesaw lets students produce and share their schoolwork as written notes, diagrams, audio recordings or videos.

Teaching, by nature, is a helping profession. And educators have a long tradition of sharing ideas with colleagues.

Ms. Delzer said she did not see a conflict between her teaching and other activities. She said she deliberately divided her work, devoting herself to her students during school hours while giving conference talks on days off and working with companies on some school nights.

“It’s really important to keep the two things separate,” she said.

She added that she worked only with companies whose products she personally believed in. Those relationships, she said, gave her valuable access to resources that could benefit her students, colleagues and teacher followers.

But companies that tap publicschool teachers to use or promote their products in exchange for perks are effectively engaging the educators as consultants – a situation that could conflict with teachers’ obligations to their employer: schools.

According to the Seesaw site, for instance, the company expects its teacher ambassadors to “use Seesaw regularly in your classroom,” host two Seesaw related conference talks or workshops annually and participate in Seesaw discussions online. In exchange, Seesaw offers teachers a subscription to its $120 premium service, product previews and a company badge to post on their profiles.

Joel Reidenberg, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York, said those kinds of arrangements could violate state or school district conflict-of-interest rules governing public employees.

“Vendors offering free technology to teachers for their personal or professional use in exchange for teachers promoting it to students or other teachers is a very questionable activity,” Mr. Reidenberg said.

Tim Jacobson, the principal of Mapleton Elementary School, where Ms. Delzer teaches, offered a different view. He described the company-teacher relationships as mutually beneficial for schools and industry. After Ms. Delzer developed a relationship with Seesaw, he noted, the company gave every Mapleton teacher a premium subscription and training sessions.

“It’s a real advantage when she comes back and she shares with us what she sees happening at the forefront of education,” Mr. Jacobson said. “Plus, it is good recognition for Mapleton Elementary School. We do a lot of things you wouldn’t expect in a school of our size.”

This teacher-influencer soft sell may be new in schools. But researchers who study medical marketing recognize it from techniques used for years by the pharmaceutical industry.

Drug makers have long cultivated doctors to promote brandname 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 replicating these strategies, it is because, at least in medicine, they work.

“These techniques encourage the use of the product being promoted rather than evidencebased practices,” said Dr. Aaron Kesselheim, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who has studied how drug company payments influence doctors.

“There is evidence that even a small amount of money, like a meal, can influence prescribing.”

If her Top Dog Teaching fans nationwide love her, so do Ms. Delzer’s third-graders. One reason is that she often treats them like budding adults.

Every fall, for instance, Ms. Delzer holds a social-media boot camp to teach her students how to run the class Instagram and Twitter accounts. She teaches them rules such as “never share your password” and helps them understand how to maintain an upbeat online image.

After all, the class accounts, called TopDogKids, are essentially an offshoot of her own.
Lest they forget, a sign on the classroom wall reminded students and teacher alike: “I am building my digital footprint every day.”

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