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How Teacher Brand Ambassador Programs Compromise Student Privacy

By Henry Kronk
January 23, 2019

In today’s media landscape, anyone with a thousand or so followers on Twitter or Instagram can become a microinfluencer. Teachers, who hold the near-captive audience of dozens of students every day, have proven increasingly enticing to edtech companies looking to promote their products via teacher ambassador programs. A new report out by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) describes the potential pitfalls of these teacher ambassador programs. In worst case scenarios, they can lead to using subpar technology, conflicts of interest, and even compromise student data. 

The Pros and Cons of Teacher Ambassador Programs

According to the NEPC’s report, companies exerting their influence in the classroom is nothing new. The authors describe a campaign launched by Channel One News in the 1990s that provided schools with a television, VCR, and satellite dish in exchange for playing their daily 12-minute broadcast (and without lowering the volume). The broadcasts only wrapped up in June of last year.

Ambassador programs can vary widely. Teachers are often asked to serve a “variety of roles inside and outside of the classroom,” the authors write. “At the most basic level, a teacher who is a brand ambassador is usually required to use the company’s products as part of classroom lessons. Most programs then require that teachers share their product experiences on their social media accounts, blogs, and more generally with their social network of other teachers, friends, parents, and students. Further, teachers are often expected to act as representatives of their brand and attend product conferences and teacher summits on behalf of the product, plus participate in interviews. In some cases, teachers are asked to fill the roles of recruiter, salesperson, and ‘de facto customer service representatives’ who can respond to other teachers’ inquiries about the products.”

In exchange, companies compensate teachers with anything from swag to free products or services, monetary compensation, or all-expenses-paid trips to their annual conferences. 

According to the report, this strategy is relatively low-cost and low-risk compared to other alternatives.

“For firms, the micro-influencer strategy affords them a number of benefits for a relatively low cost. For example, while a firm may allocate millions of dollars to pay a celebrity brand ambassador, a micro-influencer—who might have anywhere from 100 to 50,000 followers or work in a school with 50 to 100 other teachers—might be compensated with anything from a t-shirt to a minimal monetary payout. This low fiscal cost potentially allows firms to recruit, and maintain, relationships with multiple teachers at once.”

Teachers, furthermore, tend to be highly respected and influential among their community. They often hold the trust of administrators, students, parents, and other teachers. 

In certain cases, teacher ambassador programs can give edtech companies access to data that was previously protected. 

ISTE Conference 2017. Wikimedia Commons.

Conflicts and Privacy Concerns

As the authors of the NEPC report write, “teacher-focused brand ambassador programs are structured so that risk is primarily borne by the teacher. This leaves teachers in a potentially precarious situation if a product were to fail or otherwise be problematic. Privacy issues, in particular, tend to arise around new technology applications. 

“As one example, consider what happened in a Melbourne (Australia) school when a well-intentioned teacher used a product called ‘Seesaw,’ which recruits teachers to use their products through a brand ambassador program. Seesaw allows parents to view ‘test results, photos of students’ work and clips of class presentations that they can comment on,’ and the teacher used Seesaw without informing parents of the extent of the digital application (e.g., that their young children were being filmed without parental permission). One parent commented in response to the product being used without her consent, ‘It was creepy … I didn’t know where the data was stored or for how long.’”

This situation could have (and likely has) transpired in the United States as well. The government protects student data under a few different laws. The Family Education Rights Protection Act (FERPA) marks a primary example. It also contains numerous loopholes. 

Under FERPA (34 CFR Part 99.31), “An educational agency or institution may disclose personally identifiable information from an education of a student without the consent required by § 99.30” if “the disclosure is to other school officials, including teachers, within the agency or institution whom the agency or institution has determined to have legitimate educational interests.”

Furthermore, “A contractor, consultant, volunteer, or other party to whom an agency or institution has outsourced institutional services or functions may be considered a school official” so long as said party “performs an institutional service or function, “is under direct control of the agency or institution,” and is subject to further requirements.

As the NEPC authors conclude, some school ambassador programs “likely benefit classroom instruction.” But the report further emphasizes:

“The products offered are largely untested and have no proof of efficacy. In some cases, then, more effective curricula, educational tools and lessons may be pushed aside. In the most egregious cases, this may reduce students’ in-classroom experience to an educational infomercial. In fact, because of the teacher’s divided loyalty, this situation makes it unclear to parents, supervisors, or even a teacher, whether the decision to use a brand ambassador product is the result of the obligations to the company or to the students—for valid educational reasons.

“In those situations where the product or its usage is problematic, the students are harmed; but the education technology firms can nonetheless benefit, by using the experience of students and teachers as research and development to improve the production of their products. When vendors are offering untested or unproven materials, students play the role of guinea pigs, and the teacher compromises the integrity of the classroom. Again, this strategy is not new. In a 1996 article titled, Mad Rushes Into the Future: The Overselling of Educational Technology, Doug Noble wrote, “computer-based education is more about using the education market in the service of technological product development than it is about using technology in the service of education.” Little has changed over the succeeding two decades; the recent pushback against Summit Learning combined concerns about data mining and privacy with concerns about exposing students to an unproven product.”

Read the full report here.

Featured Image: Priscilla du Preez, Unsplash.