June 13, 2016
NEA 360 Is Spinning in a Circle. The National Education Association has long worried about its need to attract and engage younger members. The teacher workforce has aged, but teacher union membership has aged even faster, as this graph created by NEA indicates.
The union has repeatedly sought its salvation on the Internet. Considering its hidebound reputation in education policy, it is surprising to find NEA as an early adopter of Internet technology throughout its history, beginning with a bulletin board service in the late 1980s, through its partnership with AOL in the early 1990s, and the creation of its web site in late 1995.
Despite its repeated investment of time and money, NEA never managed to achieve its goals in cyberspace. Members who were active in the union used the new tools, but new members found NEA’s Internet presence to be designed for NEA’s needs, rather than theirs.
Lack of success didn’t stop NEA’s leaders from devoting more resources to Internet technology in the new century. It created the NEA Portal Company with a flagship web site of OWL.org, designed to be a home page for union members and recruits, with news, classroom tips, professional development resources and links to member benefits. It was unveiled to the delegates at the 2001 Representative Assembly amid much fanfare, but was soon beset with delays and tech problems, leading NEA to the conclusion that “OWL.org’s initial technical systems would not meet its needs.”
NEA continued to try to salvage OWL.org well into 2003, but finally let it fade away. In the years since, NEA has greatly improved its delivery of Internet product and information. It maintains multiple web sites and blogs, and has a presence on every major social media platform. Still, it doesn’t seem to be any closer to its cyberspace recruitment and organizing goals than it was in 1988.
Which brings us to 2014, and NEA’s decision to create NEA 360, an all-encompassing technological platform that, in the union’s description, “will enhance our ability to engage members where they are and in what they are interested – professional practice, social justice, ballot initiatives, economics, unionism or leadership development.” But NEA 360 isn’t just a revamped OWL.org. The union will use it for member data and management (replacing its current system of tracking), while users will be able to interact with each other and NEA, as well as access information from the cloud. One source described it to me as “NEA’s Facebook.”
That sounds ambitious, but NEA 360 has not lacked for resources or infrastructure. The union set up a limited liability corporation in March 2015 strictly to handle the project. Its original budget estimate to get it to launch was $24 million, but this does not include the costs affiliates will face to make their systems compatible with NEA 360 or training on the new platform. The union’s Member Benefits Corporation contributed $5 million to the effort last August. NEA contracted with Salesforce.com and Abila to put NEA 360 together.
Having approved a $1 million expenditure from the contingency fund in May 2015, members of NEA’s board of directors were treated to a sneak preview of NEA 360 last September, as this article describes:
The clip may be hard to read, but it quotes NEA vice president Becky Pringle as saying, “This will allow us to understand who our members are, what drives them, what they are passionate about. More importantly, it will allow them to connect to each other. We will finally be able to leverage the true power of our three million members.”
The first phase of the launch was scheduled for Spring 2016 and was to be piloted by NEA state affiliates in Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana and Tennessee, with 12 more to be added during the 2016-17 school year.
Now comes word that although the first five affiliates have been working on implementation, the first phase will be delayed until Spring 2017, amid dissatisfaction with the technology and its capabilities. Some are complaining about the contractors, while others feel the timeline was just too optimistic.
It is impossible to ascertain from the available information exactly what has gone wrong. Introducing new technology is filled with pitfalls for anybody, but NEA is so committed to the hard sell it would be difficult to admit to major setbacks. For the time being, however, NEA’s Facebook won’t be showing its face anytime soon.
Recent Intercepts. EIA’s daily blog, Intercepts, covered these topics June 7-13:
* How to Solve the Teacher Turnover Problem. Write an article about teacher pensions and watch how fast the problem goes away.
* Police Blotter. Unique brand of union/hedge fund cooperation.
* Washington Education Association’s Finances. Can’t escape those pension liabilities.
* West Virginia Education Association’s Finances. Eighteen-year losing streak.
Short-Lived Victory of the Week. “The union representing the editorial staff at Gawker Media has announced that it has successfully bargained the first union contract at a digital media company – an innovative three-year deal that sets minimum pay levels and gives Gawker’s 99 union members a 3% across-the-board raise each year.” – Steven Greenhouse in the February 29 edition of The Guardian.
“In the wake of its recent legal defeat at the hands of a billionaire-backed former pro wrestler, beleaguered news company Gawker Media on Friday filed for bankruptcy protection in New York, listing the recent $130-million judgment against it as by far its biggest liability.” – from the June 10 Los Angeles Times.