“Ben Williamson is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education and the Edinburgh Futures Institute at the University of Edinburgh. His research traces the connections between educational policy, digital technologies, and practices in schools and universities. He is the author of Big Data in Education: The digital future of learning, policy and practice (Sage, 2017) and over 30 research articles and chapters.“
Amazon has launched a new service allowing teachers to sell and buy education resources through its platform.
The massive multinational platform company Amazon
has announced a new service allowing teachers to sell lesson plans and
classroom resources to other teachers. The service, Amazon Ignite,
is moving into a space where Teachers Pay Teachers and TES
Teaching Resources have already established markets for the
selling and buying of teaching materials. These services have reimagined the
teacher as an online content producer, and Amazon has previously dabbled in
this area with its Amazon Inspire ‘open educational resources’
service for free resource-sharing. But Amazon Ignite much more fully captures
the teaching profession as a commercial opportunity.
The operating model of Amazon Ignite is very
simple. Teachers can produce content, such as lesson plans, worksheets, study
guides, games, and classroom resources, and upload them as Word, Powerpoint or
PDF files using the dedicated Amazon Ignite platform. Amazon then checks the
resources to ensure they don’t infringe any copyrights before they appear in
the marketplace. In these ways, Amazon is now in the business of ‘shipping’
educational content across the education sector in ways that mirror its wider
online commerce model.
Amazon claims the Ignite platform offers a way for
teachers to ‘earn money for work you’re already doing’ by paying users 70%
royalties on the resources they sell. The company itself will take 30% of the
sales, plus a transaction fee of 30 cents for items under $2.99, though it also
has discretion to change the price of resources including by discounting the
cost to customers. This makes Amazon Ignite potentially lucrative for Amazon as
well as for successful vendors on the platform.
Although Ignite is available only in the US in the
first instance, the platform exemplifies the current expansion of major
multinational tech companies and their platforms into the education sector. The
extension of the commercial technology industry into education at all levels
and across the globe is set to influence the role of the teacher and the
practices of the classroom considerably over coming years.
Teacher brand ambassadors
The edtech industry, and the wider technology sector, are strongly involved in
defining the characteristics and qualities of a ‘good teacher’ for the
2020s. While commercial businesses have long sought access to schools,
the National Educational Policy Center (NEPC) in
the US recently launched a report on teachers as ‘brand ambassadors’:
Corporate firms, particularly those with education
technology products, have contracted with teachers to become so-called brand
ambassadors. A brand ambassador is an individual who receives some form of
compensation or perk in exchange for the endorsement of a product. Unlike
celebrity endorsers, teachers can be thought of as ‘micro-influencers’ who give
firms access to their network of social influence.
Teacher brand ambassadors, as well as ‘product
mentors’, ‘champions’ and ‘evangelists’, have become significant edtech
marketing figures. They often use social media, including Twitter, Facebook,
and Instagram, to promote and model the use of specific educational technologies.
They might even be involved in the development and testing of new software
features and upgrades, as well expenses-paid trips to conferences, summits and
trade events where they are expected to attend as representatives of the brand.
The NEPC reported that teacher brand ambassador
programs raise significant ethical issues and conflicts of interest, while
delivering return on investment to producers when their product is introduced
into classrooms and students are exposed to their brand.
As the big tech firms have closed in on education,
they have begun to merge the marketing role of the brand ambassador into a
professional development role–such as Google’s Certified Educator
program. Amazon’s AWS
Educate program enables whole institutions to become AWS
Educate members, in effect bringing whole institutions into its branded
environment. The ‘perks’ include providing educators access to AWS technology,
open source content for their courses, training resources, and a community of
cloud evangelists, while also providing students credits for hands-on
experience with AWS technology, training, and content.
Platform gig teachers
Amazon Ignite, however, represents the next-stage instantiation of the brand
ambassador and the teacher as micro-influencer. On Amazon Ignite, teachers are
not contracted as platform ambassadors, but invited to become self-branded
sellers in a competitive marketplace, setting up shop as micro-edubusinesses within
Amazon’s global platform business. Without becoming official brand ambassadors,
teachers become gig workers engaging in market exchanges mediated by Amazon’s
platform. This in turn requires them to become micro-influencers of their own
So who are the teachers who participate in the
Amazon Ignite educational gig economy? Amazon Ignite is ‘invitation-only’ and
as such makes highly consequential decisions over the kinds of content and
resources that can be purchased and used. This might be understood as high-tech
‘hidden curriculum’ work, with Amazon employees working behind the scenes to
make selections about what counts as worthwhile resources and knowledge to make
available to the market.
It is not really clear that Amazon Ignite will even
empower existing classroom teachers to become content producers and sellers. A
brief review of the current ‘featured educators’ on Amazon’s Digital Education Resources page gives an
indication of the kind of invited participants who might thrive on Ignite. Most
of these appear as established micro-edubusinesses with well-developed brands
and product ranges to sell. Amazon offers extensive advice to potential vendors
about how to package and present their resources to customers.
[The list of ‘featured educators’ on Amazon Digital Education Resources is at: https://www.amazon.com/b/ref=dervurl?node=17987895011]
The featured educator Blue Brain
Teacher, for example, is the branded identity of a former private
education curriculum adviser and Montessori-certified educator, who focuses
strongly on ‘brain-based’ approaches including ‘Right-Brain training’. An
established vendor on Teachers Pay Teachers, the Blue Brain Teacher also has a
presence on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, is a Google Certified Educator,
and officially certified to offer training on Adobe products.
Another featured educator, Brainwaves
Instruction, also has a glossy website and existing web store of
printable resources, a blog featuring thoughts and lesson ideas on mindfulness,
growth mindset, and the adolescent brain, and all the social media accounts to
amplify the brand.
These and many of the other featured educators on
the Amazon Digital Education Resources store give some indication of how the
Amazon Ignite market will appear. Many are existing TpT users, active and
prolific on social media, have their own well-designed and maintained websites,
write blogs, and are highly attentive to their brand identity. Some, such
as Education with an Apron, are not limited to the
selling of educational resources, but have their own teacher-themed fashion
lines such as T-shirts and tote bags (‘I’m the Beyonce of the classroom’).
These are teacher gig workers in an increasingly platformized education sector.
Amazon Ignite, at least at this early stage, also
seems to be overwhelmingly feminized. Most of its featured educators present
themselves through the aesthetics of lifestyle media and family values, as
examples such as The Classroom Nook indicate. It suggests the
reproduction of a specifically gendered construction of the teacher.
This is balanced, in many cases, with sophisticated
social media-style iconography, and significant investment in various technology
industry programs. Erintegration, for example, shares resources,
lesson plans, reviews, and tips for using iPads, Google Apps, and other devices
‘to engage digital learners in all curriculum areas’, and is already involved
in other Amazon programs:
Erintegration is a participant in the Amazon
Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to
provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking
Erintegration is sometimes provided free services,
goods, affiliate links and/or compensations in exchange for an honest
review. All thoughts and options are my own and are not influenced by the
company or its affiliates.
Not all the featured educators are single
individuals either. Clark Creative Education is a team of
educators, authors, designers and editors, whose founder is a ‘top-milestone
author on Teachers Pay Teachers’. Amazon Ignite is, then, not simply empowering
practising teachers to ‘earn money for work you’re already doing’ but is
actively incentivizing the expansion of a market of educational startup content
Children can even be content providers. According
to the Terms and Conditions, ‘A parent or guardian of a minor can open a
Program account and submit the minor’s Resource-Related Content as the Content
Provider’. Given the role of young celebrity micro-influencers on social media,
it is possible to speculate here that school children could also establish
positions as ‘edu-preneurial’ content producers.
All in all, Amazon Ignite is encouraging teachers to see themselves as
empowered and branded-up personal edubusinesses operating inside Amazon’s
commerce platform. It is easy to see the attraction in the context of
underfunded schools and low teacher pay. But it also brings teachers into the
precarious conditions of the gig economy. These educators are gig workers
and small-scale edu-startup businesses who will need to compete to turn a
profit. Rather than making select teachers into brand ambassadors for its
platform, Amazon is bringing teacher-producers and education startups on to its
platform as content producers doing the labour of making, uploading and
marketing resources for royalty payments. It expands platform capitalism to the
production, circulation and provision of classroom resources, and positions
Amazon as an intermediary between the producers and consumers in a new
By making selections about which educators or
businesses can contribute to Ignite, Amazon is also making highly significant
and opaque decisions about the kind of educational content made available to
the teacher market. The criteria for inclusion on Amazon Ignite are unclear.
What kind of educational standards, values, or assumptions underpin these
choices? Curriculum scholars have long talked about the ways aspects of culture
and knowledge are selected for inclusion in school syllabi, textbooks and
resources. Amazon is now performing this function at a distance through its
selection of educational content creators and market vendors.
Over time, Amazon Ignite is likely to produce
hierarchies of vendors, since Amazon claims the Ignite resources will show up
in search results. This raises the prospect of algorithmic recommendations
based on a combination of vendor popularity and users’ existing purchases—a
‘recommended for you’ list tailored to teachers’ search and purchase histories.
The Terms and Conditions specify that Amazon ‘will have sole discretion in
determining all marketing and promotions related to the sale of your Resources
through the Program and may, without limitation, market and promote your
Resources by permitting prospective customers to see excerpts of your Resources
in response to search queries’.
Moreover, Amazon claims ‘sole ownership and control
of all data obtained from customers and prospective customers in connection
with the Program’, thereby gaining the advantage of using buyer and seller data
to potentially further maximize its platform profitability.
Amazon Ignite anticipates an increasingly close
alignment of classrooms and platforms in coming years. ‘As with social media
platforms in the 2000s, educational platform providers will be working to
expand the scope of their “walled gardens” to encompass as many user practices
as possible’, argue the authors of a recent article outlining likely trends
in education technology in the 2020s. Along with
Amazon’s ongoing attempts to embed its Alexa
voice assistant in schools and universities, Amazon Ignite has
now further expanded the walls of Amazon’s huge commerce platform to enclose
the education sector. Amazon is inciting educators to become platform teachers
whose labour in platform classrooms is a source of profit under platform