Teachers union got its digital learning policy right

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Jul 9, 2013

Big praise for the National Education Association (NEA), whose delegates approved a new policy statement on digital learning during their July 2013 convention. The statement covers a lot of ground, but my overall take is that the NEA has shown great agility in its embrace of digital learning. For an organization sometimes accused of being change resistant, the policy proves that in fact the NEA is quite capable of pivoting to welcome an opportunity.

The best part about the new policy, from the perspective of teachers, is the effect it will have on teachers’ job satisfaction. One of the most popular Harvard Business Review articles ever written is Frederick Herzberg’s classic entitled, “One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees?” The article, which has sold more than 1.2 million reprints since its publication in 1968, debunks the idea that job satisfaction is one big continuum, with very happy on one end and absolutely miserable on the other. The surprising finding is that in fact, employees can love and hate their jobs at the same time.

This is possible because two factors affect how people feel about their work. The first set of factors, called hygiene factors, affect whether employees hate their jobs. Hygiene factors include things like salary, job security, work conditions, and supervisory practices. But another set of conditions, called motivators, determine the extent to which employees actually love their jobs. Motivators include appropriately challenging work, recognition, responsibility, and personal growth. Unless workers experience motivators, they will never love their jobs. They might not hate them (if the right hygiene factors are in place), but neither will they experience the deep satisfaction that comes from intrinsically motivating work. (See also Christensen, Allworth & Dillon, How Will You Measure Your Life?, Ch. 2).

Sometimes teachers unions focus almost exclusively on defending teachers’ rights to good hygiene factors—adequate pay, dependable tenure, small student-teacher ratios, and so forth. And surely hygiene factors are important. But the beauty of the NEA’s new digital learning policy is that it will be hugely significant toward addressing the other side of the equation—the motivators, which Herzberg shows are essential to workers actually LOVING their jobs.

The reason why is because digital learning is proving to unlock numerous motivators for teachers. It makes possible “disaggregated staffing models”—meaning models that allow teachers to specialize in areas where they shine, whether as online content experts, face-to-face mentors, small-group instructors, or technology specialists. It opens new career paths for great teachers to reach literally millions of students, as Sal Khan has already demonstrated. It allows teachers to post tutorials and lesson plans online, where they win praise and compensation. In all these ways, the Internet is tearing down the walls of the traditional classroom in a manner that will be hugely liberating and motivating to the teaching profession.

There are other things I like about NEA’s digital learning policy (including its use of the Institute’s definition of blended learning in the Addendum!), but the thing I like best, from the teacher’s point of view, is how much the policy will help teachers access intrinsic motivators to enamor them to their important work.

Of course the devil is in the details and it remains to be seen if the NEA will support the disaggregated staffing models that digital learning facilitates. Also, as I said in this blog last week, teachers need more than professional development to get technology implementations right. But for today, the NEA deserves big credit for looking beyond hygiene factors and narrow interests and welcoming the opportunities of digital learning.

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.