Conflicts of Interest from New Technologies

Technology companies have been successfully courting teachers for a while. Giants like Apple and Google and start-ups like Seesaw and Swizl have been recruiting fans of their technology to tell other teachers how they can use it in their own classrooms. The companies say they are mindful of conflicts of interest and take care to help ‘influencers’ avoid them. But it is the teachers they recruit that have to take the most care with state laws and local policies.

The State of Connecticut has clear rules for its own employees. By law employees create a conflict of interest if they take more than a token gift from a company hoping to do business with the State. This rule has a significant exception. Employees that speak or present at a conference may accept travel and meal expenses from one of the event’s sponsors, as long as they report the gifts afterwards. However, in the name of ‘professional development’ it would seem influential presenters would still be encouraging others to buy their sponsor’s products.

Local boards of education take a stricter stance. They generally forbid even the appearance of conflict. Local policies prevent teachers from accepting all gifts, even small ones. A lawyer for teachers thus would advise their clients that taking travel and meal money from a conference’s sponsor is as much a conflict as accepting outright gifts from the same company.

Some teachers nonetheless work as ‘brand ambassadors’ for smaller, newer entrants in the field. In return for innovations to use with their students, they agree to use social media to publicly recommend the tools to their colleagues. They test products and act as service representatives answering other teachers’ questions. They post reviews, sometimes without disclosing their ties to the sponsors. As exciting as these ties are, they still compromise students and teachers in a way ethics policies are meant to stop.

Teachers that agree to promote a company’s technology can say they are not motivated by personal gifts or fame. They can say sincerely that they do it only for their students’ learning. An attorney for teachers can praise them for their idealism but still warn them that it may be leading them into trouble.