September 1996

Root Page of Article: Computer-Mediated Communications Networks and the Organizational Life of Schools, by H. L. Fuller

The Impact of CMC on Human Resources

New Technology, New Skills

New technologies require the cultivation of new technical skills. It is not necessary--probably counterproductive--to require that all school personnel become technical experts in the fine points of CMC implementation, but those who wish to exploit the technology's potential will have to develop at least a working knowledge of select applications. The experience of both the private sector and the educational community dictate that the organization recognize the crucial importance of training and technical support for teachers and administrators (Wiske, et al., 1987; Bell, 1989; Crane, 1989; Keen, 1992; Bennett, 1994; Morton, 1994).

The technical constituency in the school community must recognize that it also needs to develop new capacities. The integration of new technology with the teaching/learning mission will require technicians to develop some substantive understanding of the mission-defined needs that the technology is meant to address. In the words of John Donovan, chair of the Cambridge Technology Group and author of Crisis in Technology, technical personnel "have to stop describing what the technology is and begin emphasizing what the technology can do" (Crane, 1989) in terms that are substantively meaningful to non-technical personnel.

This further requires that technical personnel cultivate their listening skills. They must be able to listen to teachers and administrators in order to hear clearly the objectives each hopes to realize with technical support. Technology support personnel must exercise their abilities to interact socially and professionally with non-technical colleagues. For some introverted professionals whose avocation centers on logically ordered abstractions and equipment (Kidder, 1981), such a re-orientation toward other people and the concrete, comparatively chaotic sets of needs these people bring to the table may prove to be a significant adaptive challenge.

Standardization vs. Flexible Specialization

Most technical personnel come to their jobs from a computer science background, not a teaching/learning or an administrative background. As noted above, the bias in the digital world is toward standardization. To some extent, this bias is also characteristic of administrative tasks. But teachers' work calls for flexible specialization; students differ, and the strategies which work to stimulate learning in one student or group of students may require modification to be effective with others.

Two implications are inherent: first, teachers and technologists may be "speaking different languages" at a fundamental level. From a human resource standpoint, it behooves the organization to monitor this potential disjunction, and to invest in correcting it when it materializes.

Second, technologists may derive more professional satisfaction from addressing administrative needs, which are more congruent with their predilection for standardization, than from tackling the challenges inherent in specialization required by teachers. There may be a tendency among technologists to let their efforts and their psychological investment migrate toward administrative support work, at the expense of support for teaching and learning. If CMC is implemented to serve teaching/learning as a priority, this commitment must be explicit and should be reiterated. The organization should anticipate and provide for this challenge--perhaps through incentive structures and certainly with support systems.

CMC and Professional Development

Sociologists of the classroom have documented the professional isolation characteristic of conventional classroom teaching (Kidder, 1989; Lieberman & Miller, 1992). CMC offers a mitigating resource. Through electronic mail, listserv and usenet newsgroup subscriptions, and interactions with internet-based information repositories, educators have access to a variety of professional development resources. Accounts of alternative practice, copies of classroom materials and possibilities for dialog with colleagues beyond school walls are all available to them via the internet.

Acknowledging the Adaptive Challenge

Not all teachers will find this abundance stimulating. Some will find it overwhelming, even threatening to their time-tested methods and expertise. Not all administrators will embrace the infusion of new ideas. Burgeoning possibilities complicate their responsibilities by forcing uncomfortable choices. The trick will be to negotiate a balance, to define ground rules and process in ways that support thoughtful innovation, while providing safe opportunities for those who resist to work their own ways forward. The leadership challenge is to keep up the pressure for progress without fatally straining the adaptive capacities of the people who must occupy the transformed school environment.

The process of coping with change does not end when the transition to CMC is complete. By its very nature, the technology ceaselessly admits new elements to the school environment. School organizations need to recognize that such changes pose both technical and adaptive challenges to the people involved. Adaptive challenges involve anxiety, and are poorly addressed by purely technical approaches (Heifetz, 1994). The organization which commits to deliberately addressing the adaptive challenges associated with change in general will be well positioned to integrate CMC with its teaching/learning mission over the long term. --

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