Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Teacher Tech Ambassadors: Engaged Professionals or Corporate Shills?

About 15 years ago, in my position as a curriculum director for a suburban school district, I worked with teachers, administrators and the Board of Education to introduce a new spelling program. The program was well researched and, we determined, would yield better results. The program would also require considerable rethinking and planning by all of our elementary teachers. One teacher, let's call her Lois, took the bull by the horns, and because she was a highly organized person who wanted to have this new program under control, she spent numerous hours laying out a year-long plan for using the new program. Lois shared it with me and I agreed it was excellent work.

"This is outstanding work, Lois", I said. "This will be helpful to all the teachers in the school district."

"Hold on there, Buster," she replied. "I did this work, and it was a lot of work, and I am not sharing it with anyone."

I was flabbergasted. The teaching profession has a long history of collegial sharing. For many years I had organized and/or participated in "teacher shares" where good ideas were spread around. As  a reading specialist, I always felt it was my obligation to share any knowledge I had or materials I developed for the good of all. The idea, I thought then, and I think now, was that no matter what we came up with, it was not about personal gain, it was about what would help children. The amount of teacher sharing that happens on social media sites like Pinterest would seem to indicate that this sharing is still a well-established expectation of the profession.

This blog is a way for me to continue that ideal. All teachers are free to use, or discard, my ideas free of charge and free of advertising. However, as I read in Sunday's New York Times, the monetization of public school teachers is reaching new heights with the incursion of Silicon Valley tech companies. Let's call them "Big Tech" since their business plan seems to be closely modeled on 'Big Pharma."

The article is titled, Silicon Valley Courts Brand Name Teachers, Raising Ethics IssuesThe reporter, Natasha Singer, tells the story of Kayla Drezel, a tech savvy third grade teacher, who has turned her classroom into a laboratory for educational technology and herself into a shill for various tech companies. She has negotiated a special contract giving her ten days off during the school year so that she can give speeches, attend tech company trainings and do workshops for teachers. She has an agreement with a clothing store to provide her with clothing in exchange for publicity for the store. As Ms. Drezel herself says, "It's like two full-time jobs."

I am sure it is. I also wonder what impact "two full-time jobs" has on Ms. Drezel's actual job  teaching third graders. But by all accounts, Ms. Drezel is a first-rate teachers, whose students love her and whose supervisors feel she has brought tech products and expertise to the school that they could not have possibly have afforded without her involvement and agreements with these tech companies.

What could be bad, eh?

Well, plenty. Public school teachers are public employees, not free agents. As such they are on very shaky ethical ground when they act as "ambassadors" for tech companies. Another word for ambassador would be consultant and as consultants for a private company they may come into conflict with their obligation to their employer, the school board. These positions certainly put the teacher in an ethical bind. Are teachers the servants of the parents and children or of the Big Tech companies? As former Attorney General of Maine, James E. Tierney, put it "Any time you are paying a public employee to promote a product in a public classroom without transparency, then that's problematic."

And then, of course, their is the issue of the continued privatization of the public schools. Why, do you suppose Big Tech is so willing to provide perks and pay to teachers who do product placement and promotion for them in the schools? Is it possible that they are taking advantage of the fact that schools are chronically under-resourced and are happy to accept the apparent largesse of Big Tech to get the technology their budgets won't allow. And how big a jump is it from there to renaming good old Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary as Big Tech Elementary.

It is understandable that teachers and administrators want the best for their children. Letting the Big Tech wolf in the door is not the way to go about this. One question that no one seems to be asking Ms. Drezel and other tech "ambassadors" is this: While you tech ambassadors are raking in profits from your tech work for various tech companies, what are you paying your students for serving as educational technology lab rats?
Here is what I think Ms. Drezel and others like her should do. Investigate a technology that will benefit her students. To begin with this is problematic since technological innovations have shown little impact on learning, but let's give her the benefit of the doubt. Write a grant that allows her to bring the technological innovation into her classroom. The grant would be exclusively for materials and equipment and training, not for personal income. Conduct an action research project to show the effectiveness or lack thereof of the technological intervention. Write a report and share with the administration and school board. If the technology is shown to be effective, seek funding through the regular budgetary process and then share with colleagues and assist them in using the tech in the classroom.

That is how professional teachers go about things. They investigate, they learn, they try out, and they share. The gains are personal, professional, systemic and intrinsic, not monetary.

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