GoNoodle, HealthTeacher, Privacy, and the Long Game

8 min read

Last night, I went to the Portland Public Schools Board meeting. Shortly before that meeting, while perusing the meeting materials, I learned that the meeting would feature a demo of a service called "GoNoodle."

It was around 5 PM when I read about GoNoodle. I was hungry. I like noodles, generally. My curiosity had been piqued.

Company History and Pivots

GoNoodle is part of HealthTeacher. HealthTeacher evolved and pivoted from VerusMed, which became ConnectivHealth. During these transitions, the companies received several rounds of venture capital (VC) funding. A high level chronology is laid out below:

The Formula

A quick and dirty search shows a common formula: approach a community, partner with a local hospital, and have local health care systems defray the cost of giving the service free to the district.

Using this business strategy allows a VC funded company to have non-profit organizations pay for curriculum development, R and D, and to have it's brand inserted into health education within the pubic school system. An incomplete list includes schools and districts in Arkansas, Minnesota, Idaho, Georgia, Arizona, New York City, and Miami.

Portland's deal with HealthTeacher sounds pretty comparable to the deals they struck with other districts: local healthcare systems pay for access and curriculum development, so the school district doesn't need to show any cost for the service. However, when we look at the terms of service later in this document, we'll revisit the cost of "free". And it's worth noting that, in Portland, local health systems are paying $600,000.00 to support this program.

This formula helped bootstrap the development of the HealthTeacher's "learning" game.

As did this partnership.

And this one.

From reading through the press releases, and cross-referencing them against the VC funding announcements, it sounds like HealthTeacher has figured out a way to have private foundations give money to a VC funded company to support a branded app getting pushed into public schools to push out health teachers and a locally relevant health curriculum.

Health or Test Prep. Or, Health AND Test Prep

The recent language from HealthTeacher materials suggests a pivot from working with health curriculum into trying to position the company as a means toward improving scores on standardized tests. The material prepared for the Portland School Board meeting emphasized "Common Core alignment," and this lesson brings the point home more succinctly than I ever could.

The lesson includes reminders like this:

Practicing healthy habits can help you do better on standardized tests.

This nugget explains how to make teaching to the test more effective:

Repeat this each day leading up to the standardized test

  • Since teachers are encouraged to give students practice tests leading up to the actual test day, use this exercise prior to the practice test.
  • Ask students how they felt about their success on the practice test after they exercised.

Given that real, actual exercise and activity would cut into valuable test prep time, we can use HealthTeacher to fake our way through the exercise!


So far, this has been a pretty run of the mill edtech story, complete with VC Funding, multiple rebrandings, and marketing hype outstripping product reality. But where it really gets interesting is in the terms of service.

As we get into privacy, it's worth remembering that this service is presented to many teachers as a district vetted service brought to them free of charge due to the largesse of the local health care community.

Within that context, I would be surprised if many teachers signing up for the site read the Terms of Service to see how, by virtue of signing up for the site, they give the site owners the right to do just about anything with their user information:

By submitting User Content, You also grant HealthTeacher the right, but not the obligation, to use Your biographical information, including, without limitation, Your name and geographical location in connection with broadcast, print, online, or other use or publication of Your User Content.

Additionally, HealthTeacher can change the terms whenever, to whatever:

HealthTeacher may, at any time and in its sole discretion, revise, modify, or otherwise change the terms and conditions of this Agreement. Modifications shall become effective immediately on being posted on the Site. You are responsible for regularly reviewing the terms and conditions of this Agreement and if You object to any changes Your only recourse is to terminate this Agreement and stop any use of this Site. Continued use of this Site following any such changes shall constitute Your acknowledgement, review and acceptance of and agreement to the Agreement and its modifications.

The combination of these two clauses means that HealthTeacher can use the information you provide to do just about anything. If the company is sold, your data is likely part of the sale. The only possible remedy that could fix these terms is if districts negotiate different terms for their teachers, but given that teachers need to create accounts, they could end up agreeing to the regular terms regardless.

This is where the long game comes in: VC funding dries up. Funding from health systems expires over time. Subscription models to teachers and districts require sales. But, going back to at least 2009, HealthTeacher has been collecting teacher information with few limitations as part of a district-sanctioned service. In the EdTech world, user data and usage patterns create a gift that is pretty timeless.

Disrupting Health

Seen in isolation, GoNoodle isn't an awful service. Teachers who use it say that kids seem to like it. Moving in class is good.

But taking a step back, things get less pretty. There is a serious disconnect between the hype and the reality. The implied promise of the Healthy Activity Breaks To Get Ready For Testing is that GoNoodle and HealthTeacher will increase standardized test scores. Additionally, when viewed through the lens of healthy social and emotional development, the idea of supporting standardized testing as a health activity also is ludicrous. In this light, the claims of Common Core alignment of GoNoodle and HealthTeacher materials seem equally absurd, and bring to mind Morgan Polikoff's recent study debunking claims of Common Core alignment among publishers.

But taking an additional step back, using a service like GoNoodle allows districts to make the claim that they are "teaching health across the curriculum" and "embedding healthy lifestyle choices in the classroom." The GoNoodle presenter at the PPS Board meeting used the term "deskside activities" to describe the exercises. And, the optics are good: it looks good to see a room full of kids out of their desks, doing something that looks like moving. But we shouldn't kid ourselves that this is the same, or as good as, a health teacher, a PE teacher, or actual extended exercise time outside of the classroom. A video on a screen showing to a room full of kids for three minutes is not the same as - and shouldn't be seen as a replacement for - a caring, trained adult teaching a full length class. Given that PE was recently on the chopping block, it would be good to see investment in sustainable health and physical activity programs.

Open Educational Resources Would Fix This

From the high-level overview of the agreement (pg. 4), it looks like two local health systems contributed a total of $600,000 to fund this effort. This funding includes money for curriculum development. It's unclear who will own the content after the agreement expires, or whether PPS will be able to access or modify this material free of charge after the agreement expires. It's possible that PPS rented access to beta-quality content while securing R and D funding for a VC funded company, and handed over teacher contact info and usage habits as part of the bargain.

If, however, the $600,000 had been donated to support the development and implementation of an openly licensed curriculum, everybody could benefit - in Portland, and beyond. And here, it's worth remembering that HealthTeacher has formed a collection of relationships, all working in isolation and in parallel, solving similar issues. How many more people would be able to benefit - both in the participating districts, and outside them - if Health System Foundation resources spent on building the content library of a VC funded company had gone into creating content that was openly licensed and freely available. In Oregon, the 600K donated by Dornbecher and Legacy would have had a statewide benefit. Just looking at this from the perspective of return on investment, if the same 600K could benefit kids in one city, or kids in the entire state, why think small?

And, of course, when we look at this through a social justice/equity lens, creating openly licensed materials makes even more sense. Using openly licensed materials would allow us to invest in local skills and local talent that isn't timeboxed by an external service.

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