Ethical for teachers to promote tech products?

Tech-savvy teachers are being courted by tech startups that offer the teachers free stuff in exchange for their endorsement of the company’s products at seminars that are billed as professional development but more closely resemble trade show marketing bonanzas, the New York Times reports.

The freebies given to teachers who sign up with the tech companies are posing an ethical dilemma, some people say.

“Any time you are paying a public employee to promote a product in the public classroom without transparency, then that’s problematic,” the Times quoted James E Tierney, a former attorney general of Maine who is a lecturer at Harvard Law School, as saying. “Should attorneys general be concerned about this practice? The answer is yes.”

It works something like this, in the North Dakota classroom of Kayla Delzer at Mapleton Elementary: Her third graders just love how she has set up Instagram and Twitter accounts for them and they are taught to post daily. She also has signed on to use a platform called Seesaw, which enables enhanced communication between teachers, students, and parents, at least in an online environment. Because she promotes Seesaw and other products on social media and at speaking engagements, she gets freebies:

Public schools, now adopting all sorts of technology for use in the classroom, despite the unproven benefits technology offers to student learning in those classrooms, are wrestling with this from a civil servant-ethics perspective.

As teachers are concerned about hungry or restless students, lead in the drinking water, buildings that fall apart, low-quality learning materials, the insufficiency of musical instruments even for a decent garage band, and so on, tech companies throw T-shirts at them, have them sign non-compete contracts or promotional speaking deals, and send them every message about profit being more important than their students’ education.

Some of the tech giants—Google, Microsoft, Amazon—even have programs or certificates for teacher-marketers, including the Google for Education’s Certified Innovator Program and the Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert program.

I am somewhat appalled by this commercial activity in our public schools, but I’m not really sure who deserves the most blame. Voxitatis reported in 2014 that taking notes on a computer during college lectures pretty much guarantees that students learn the material at a lower level than if they had taken notes by hand. But apparently, nobody read that article.

We have on other occasions emphasized that it is a myth that technology teaches students. Look, things don’t teach students anything. You can throw all the toys at them you want, and it will mostly be a waste of money.

By the time those students graduate from high school, even if they’re in high school now, the technology will all be completely different, and those kids still won’t be able to read any better, won’t be able to fix the climate any more efficiently, won’t appreciate a Mozart sonata any more deeply, or better achieve whatever a student’s educational goals might be.

The best classrooms are those that use technology as a tool, but only because it’s available. If textbooks were available, the best classrooms would be the ones that used those textbooks as tools to enhance student learning.

But somehow, because of a profit motive on the part of tech companies or a need to make ends meet on the part of underpaid teachers—or, more likely, a combination of those and other motives—we have public school teachers using their classrooms to sell Google or Microsoft products to third graders, who don’t have a choice of where they go to school.

About the Author

Paul Katula

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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