The growing practice of anointing educators as brand ambassadors for an array of digital products used in K-12 schools raises ethical and legal concerns, according to a new report released today.
Today’s teachers often serve as beta testers, trainers, social media influencers, and conference presenters on behalf of ed-tech companies, sometimes in exchange for everything from coffee mugs to access to expensive equipment and financial compensation.
Few school districts have policies that specifically address the practice, which can leave teachers unsure of whether they’re complying with ethics rules, and can call into doubt whether a particular product or tool is being used with students because it’s the most effective option, said Christopher M. Saldaña, the lead author of the report from the National Education Policy Center, and a doctoral student researcher.
“Teachers are individuals who carry a high amount of trust,” he said. “But it can be hard to tell if the teacher is making suggestions on blogs, social media, and to colleagues for truly pedagogical reasons or because they’re marketing for a company they’re partnering with.”
A New Style of Marketing
Educator ambassador programs are building on historical marketing practices, often in the retail world, but they also have roots in education. The report points out that in the 1990s, cash-strapped schools unable to purchase televisions, VCRs or satellite dishes could partner with Channel One and receive the equipment in exchange for airing a newscast—complete with advertisements—to students daily.
But today’s ambassador programs are more sophisticated. Tech companies with big footprints in the K-12 world like Google, Microsoft and Apple have their own versions of ambassador programs, including Google Certified Educators, Apple Distinguished Educators, and Microsoft Innovative Educators. But many other ed-tech companies also have ambassador programs, including companies like Flipgrid and Seesaw.
Each is a bit different and asks educators to participate in different ways. Some push teachers to become “micro-influencers” using social media in small ways to reach wide swaths of educators by sharing examples of how they use a product with students, the report said. Other programs may encourage educators to present at conferences, telling the story of its effectiveness with students. Some companies may actually hire product ambassadors to do school and district training for educators new to the product and some companies pay for educator’s travel to conferences.
In return, teachers and schools may get free access to upgraded tools, extra training, stipends, or payments, which is part of the draw.
“There’s so much need in classrooms, it’s nice if you can get a 3-D printer in a classroom that otherwise wouldn’t have that,”Saldaña said.
But educators also may benefit from exclusive training, the creation of special forums where like-minded educators can share strategies and support each other and the feeling that they are respected professionals. All of that can have significant appeal to educators, Saldaña said.
Natasha Rachell, a digital learning specialist in the 52,000-student Atlanta Public Schools, said she is a brand ambassador for many companies, including Microsoft, Google, Fligrid, Discovery Education, Plickers and more. She said she approached each of these companies after becoming passionate about their products and their positive impact on students.
“You’ve fallen in love with these products and tools and as educators…we want to continue to grow and develop our skills,” she said. “You get to be a part of a cohort of people who are as passionate as you are. You learn from other people and see how they are using the tools.”
Risk Taken on By Educators
The practice of brand ambassadorships came under significant scrutiny in 2017, when The New York Times published an article about the benefits that some teachers received under these arrangements. The story noted, for example, that some companies had given ambassadors gift cards, 3-D printers, and even offered a share of future sales for educators that referred customers.
Most teachers aren’t receiving much in the way of compensation for being brand ambassadors. The report notes, however, that “promoting brands on social media or inviting brands into a classroom can seem like an inconsequential price to pay in exchange for resources that may improve the functionality of their classroom.” But the reality, Saldaña said, is that risks associated with the practice are mostly borne by the teacher. If a product doesn’t work as anticipated, or evidence arises to show that it’s ineffective, the teacher may be on the hook. Some ambassador programs collect data from students use of their digital tool, which could spur privacy concerns, for example.
“Teachers carry the risk if the product fails,” Saldaña said. “It’s their name on the line and the trust accumulated in the community.”
One of the biggest problems is that brand ambassadorships call into question whether a teacher is making decisions based purely on an educational basis, or whether those decisions may be linked in some way to a brand ambassador position, Saldaña said. Sometimes the products recommended by brand ambassadors are likely to benefit students, but many ed-tech products today lack evidence of effectiveness and it’s possible that more effective tools and resources are not being used.
That can lead to conflicts of interest, raising both legal and policy issues, the report notes. A few organizations, including the National Education Association and the Association of American Educators have codes of ethics, and districts often either adopt or build on state codes of ethics policies for public employees. But many district policies have not been crafted with the growing brand ambassador trend in mind. For example, the Aurora, Colo., school district requires that “each employee be free of any investment, association or other relationship that could conflict with his/her responsibility to act objectively in matters affecting the district,” the report says.
But that language remains murky—does a free T-shirt create a conflict? What about a free 3-D printer or travel expenses? Saldaña said districts need to review their current codes of ethics and conflict of interest policies and update them, and should include parents and teachers in this review process. Districts also should communicate these policies clearly to educators, the report notes.
Some ed-tech companies are taking note of district ethics policies and hope to make sure that their ambassadors stick to the rules. Nearpod, an interactive lesson and assessment company which has ambassadors they call PioNears, emphasizes to its teacher group that they should comply with district policies. Company officials themselves often check district policies to make sure their perks or compensation to ambassadors don’t put educators in jeopardy, said Rajeev Arora, Nearpod’s chief marketing officer.
“We want to adhere to local policies and laws and we’re always doing things to make sure there is not going to be a conflict,” he said. “We err on the side of caution.”
Saldaña also emphasized that the intent of the report is not to prevent educators from participating in such programs, supplementing their incomes, or receiving valuable learning tools. What’s important is that schools and districts are aware of these types of arrangements, and have policies that address them that can guide teachers.
Financial need by schools and educators is at the root of many of the problems surrounding ambassador programs, the report argues. In some cases, companies are filling the needs of “a void left open by federal, state, and local funding,” according to the report. The report recommends greater education funding to offset some of these needs.