Recently the New York Times, a publication I generally hold in high regard, published an article titled “Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues” which discusses how leading educational teachers partner with educational technology companies usually to the benefit of both themselves and the company. They’re right about a lot of it. It does happen. I am an example as you can tell from the many badges on my about me page. And while I am sure some teachers have benefitted in ways they shouldn’t, and I know of several other teachers who have felt so boxed-in by organizational foot-dragging and bureaucracy that they have chosen to serve students (and themselves) by leaving their schools and going to work for those EdTech companies. Many of the representatives are former teachers who just started using the product or service in their classroom.
I love working directly with students and teachers though, and I think I’m effective at it. For that reason, I don’t see myself leaving it anytime soon. That’s not to say it isn’t hard to walk a fine line by remaining a teacher and partnering with educational technology companies. For every educator who finds that line too challenging and either leaves teaching or stops using new technology, the real losers are the students. I, a city and state employee, have had to regularly contact the DOE’s Office of Ethics and Conflicts of Interest (OECI) both in regards to my participation with companies and at times when I’m presenting about the technology they create. New York City has particularly stringent rules regarding conflicts of interest covered in chapter 68. Below are a general overview of those rules.
- Don’t take money, gifts, or anything of value over $5 from parents, companies, or anyone that might be seen to compromise your independence. That means no gift cards or free lunches.
- You might be allowed for them to pay for travel and housing at an event, but it will require approval in advance.
- You can’t work for any company that does business with the city. That means no part-time job at Apple retail.
- If you quit the DOE to work for a company that does business with the DOE, you cannot be part of that effort with that company for at least a year.
It does seem like a terrible double-edged sword. I want my students to benefit from the best tools and resources that are available. At the same time, I want to be as skilled and knowledgeable as possible with those tools so I can bring the maximum benefit to students and other educators. In that effort, I, a not-highly-paid teacher, work with companies to get and learn those tools for as little cost and effort as possible. But now that I’ve done that, have I crosses some ethical barrier? My intentions were good, but intentions aren’t enough. I’ve followed the guidelines, but when does advocating for the best tools stop and shilling for a product begin? It’s not an easy answer which is why the OECI and other ethics boards around the country have teams of lawyers looking to answer that question for us.
I will say that in interactions with the OECI, I have at times been taken aback by the curt nature of their interactions. It’s important to realize though that they don’t know me, know my intentions, and they must frequently deal with shady people looking to skirt the law. The laws are fairly black and white, and they treat their interactions as such. Though the regulations can seem frustrating at times, I understand their need especially at a time when state and federal politicians are often making news for ‘inside deals’. That said, the idea that I can’t take a part time job at the local bodega if they once catered a DOE lunch seems strained.
Here’s an example. Since I am an Apple Distinguished Educator, I was recently asked to present about enhancing STEM instruction with technology at the New York City Teacher Symposium for ConnectED schools. I wasn’t being paid or even getting a free bottle of water. I was doing it on my own time over summer vacation. I was presenting to other DOE teachers, not about using specific Apple devices (most of the schools already had them) but, about specific ways to use tech to improve STEM and address 21st-century learning needs. Many of the tools I presented were device and platform agnostic. I just like sharing my expertise with teachers in any way that can improve their work (for example, this blog which is not monetized-hence no ads).
It seems like an easy approval. The day before the 2-day event though, I got a call that there were questions both from the DOE and Apple ethics attorneys. I tried to get in touch, but it was late in the day. So after showing up and being told I couldn’t present the resources I had spent so much of my valuable free-time preparing, I was incensed. I maintained my composure though while searching, calling, emailing every contact and resource I could find in the ethics office. I eventually got a call back during lunch, and, within 30 seconds, it became clear that the woman I was speaking to knew no details about the event and was frustrated and overworked. I say this not as a challenge to her, but it did make it more annoying that I was prevented from leading teachers to improve based on nothing. After answering several probing questions, I was eventually allowed to participate. This was after my 2 sessions had already passed though. Gladly, Apple shifted the schedule and allowed me to present to teachers later that day and the next, so not all was lost.
Here’s another story with a different ending. I once had a friend/coworker bring me their personal laptop to look at because it was having issues. It turns out they had downloaded some malware that required root removal. I spent a lunch break fixing it. As a thank you, they got me a cup of tea as I don’t like coffee. Apparently, that kind of behavior is frowned upon. A coworker likely saw this interaction and felt, for whatever reason, they needed to report it. I got my first OECI call to discuss the matter. From then on it would be “Sorry friend/coworker, I can’t help you with a job for which, if I had wanted to profit from it, I would have charged a whole lot more. At least it made it easier to say no to some annoying favors.
The New York Times also wrote a story 10 years ago about an educator who was fined for proudly displaying his daughter’s book, Shakespeare’s Macbeth – The Manga Edition, in the school library. He would also give out free copies to interested parties. It looks like an objectively great book that would likely engage students more than a standard edition. That didn’t stop the ethics office from fining him $500, making him sign an admission of guilt, and forcing him to remove the book.
There is that sword cutting him away from a possible conflict of interest but also cutting students away from that resource. It feels like they went too far with this proud father, but feelings are not the law. A person stealing to feed their child is still stealing, though I would hope most judges and juries would be lenient. What is right? Could his sharing this book have directly led to profit for his family? Could he have further influenced his school to purchase several copies of the book? These are questions that will be answered by lawyers, not teachers.
One area I do take umbrage with the article is where it says “there is little rigorous research showing whether or not the new technologies significantly improve student outcomes. ” That is not really accurate. Yes, the rate of technology innovation moves faster than the research, so a fledgling EdTech company will not have a great deal of research on their specific platform. Despite that, there are a number of innovative educators willing to experiment with new techniques and methods in their schools. Sure, their research is anecdotal, but that doesn’t matter to the student who has suddenly improved greatly in reading thanks to Raz-Kids or the teacher who helped them get there. Someone has to be the first to step on the moon.
Also, while specific platforms may lack research, the best companies, like BrainPOP, often include the research in the materials they provide educators. There is also a great deal of external research showing that certain types of technology tools and integrations in the classroom drastically improve instruction. Here was a post I did showing 10 interesting studies on digital game-based learning. There are now very rigorous studies spanning decades now showing exactly the power of tech for learning.
The time has never been more ready for systemic change than right now, and we’ve never had better tools to achieve this level of creative disobedience, to successfully prepare our children for the big challenges that lie ahead. It might be uncomfortable and take a bit of work, but our future depends on this radical change in order to survive.
Overall a lot of these ethics issues come down to decisions made by legal teams to which teachers need to react. That means if you fear you’re in gray area, make that call just to check. At one time Dixon Ticonderoga may have given teachers in bygone days free supplies in an effort to help push ‘Big Pencil’. If a teacher could use those free pencils to benefit their students, without obligation, they should. That means if tomorrow Bic pens or Crayola crayons are a better tool, then the teacher learns about those and uses them to the benefit of their students. That may sound ridiculous, but change pencil with textbooks and you can see how there has long been big industry involved in promoting certain tools in education. If an appropriate professional relationship with McGraw-Hill or Scholastic can get me free copies of the math book or Harry Potter books I wanted to use with my students anyway, why shouldn’t I use them and save the school money to send the 8th graders on their band trip?
While there may be some teachers looking to promote their own brand and stature and align themselves with companies in that effort, I don’t believe that is true for most. Yes, we should weed out those looking only to serve themselves and unethically line their pockets, but the fact that the article says no teacher has yet taken up GoEnnounce up on its compensation offer demonstrates how rare the selfish tech teacher is. It was partly this issue of propriety and partly my own introversion that kept me so long from sharing the work I was doing on a platform like this. But, as I have previously described, due the encouragement of peer educators and my own call to share good teaching practices with as broad an audience as possible I am connecting with more resources and writing about them here.
One thing I do know though is that the best teachers are those willing to explore and try new things. The ones willing to take those risks are the ones affecting the greatest growth and change. Those are the teachers I want to meet, and I want my children to have in their classrooms. Maybe certain bureaucracy needs to remain for the sake of propriety, but there needs to be space for teachers to grow and connect with the companies and tools that will make them and their students better off.
Most tech-savvy educators I know won’t use a product or service regardless of ‘freebies’ if it doesn’t affirmatively answer the question “Will this improve the lives and learning of my students?”.