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 Organizational Structure

Extending the Space/Time Boundaries of Work

In January, 1989, ten days before the start of the Spring term, I was hired by a state college in rural northeastern Vermont to teach a survey course about mass communications media. I had never taken a course like this, let alone taught one. I worked night and day for the next week and a half to develop a syllabus and gather materials for my students. I was ready to go with a day to spare, despite the fact that, from my office on a dairy farm in a tiny village thirty miles from the nearest highway and sixty miles from the nearest television station, I enjoyed local support for my information-gathering task.

As a subscriber to the commercial online service, CompuServe, and a long-time member of the Broadcasters' and Journalism Forums there, I had developed a broad web of professional colleagues--reporters, producers, editors and media management people. These friends were easy to reach on CompuServe, and more than happy to send me--via the computer--scripts, clips and work samples, tales of the life and historical materials. Their contributions brought novel vitality to the course and helped students maintain an engagement with the comparatively dry content of the course text, which had been ordered by the department chair prior to my arrival.

The digital foundation of the communication system we employed meant that my colleagues could send me just about anything--text, audio, video, bitmapped imagery--and they did so. The asynchronous nature of our shared medium meant that I could post inquiries and retrieve their responses at midnight or even later, when telephone line rates were lowest. They, in turn, could post communications for me during the day when they were at work and their materials were handy, or at night when the demands of their jobs did not impinge on their willingness to help me.


Increasingly, private sector firms are capitalizing on the round-the-clock customer presence that asynchronous CMC allows. From catalog sales to customer service, clients and consumers can interact with firms whenever and wherever the need arises. But there is a downside: this "hyperextension" of organizational activities in time and space can strain a firm's capacity (Keen, 1992). By the late 1980s, scholars of the firm had noted that such hyperextention implied heightened importance for managing well (Whitley, 1989). Increased emphasis on management and coordination did not mean hiring more managers, though. The trend in the private sector for some time now has been to trim management ranks (Modic, 1989).

Reduction in the numbers of titled managers has been possible in the private sector because CMC facilitates the broad distribution of information on which management decisions are based. When management information maintained in a central data repository is accessible via CMC networks to outlying members of the firm, decisions can be made at or close to the point where they have impact on day-to-day operations. Zuboff (1988) points out that "the more blurred the distinction between what workers know and what managers know, the more fragile and pointless any traditional relationships of domination and subordination between them will become." (p. 308). In CMC-supported firms, decision-making authority has indeed tended to migrate with the information, downward or outward from central or high positions in the structure of the firm (McKenney, 1995). Such firms do not need to hire more managers; instead, they transform the roles of lower-level employees to encompass new managerial responsibilities (Drucker, 1988). (There are some notable exceptions to this practice, however.)

Similar trends can be seen in academic settings. At my state college, for example, a sophisticated computer-based accounting system made it possible to quickly and frequently generate detailed reports of departmental spending. Distribution of these reports to departments was a trivial extension of the technology which had a transformative impact on the role of the department Chairperson. The institution decentralized the responsibility for instructional spending. Departments now had total discretion over the use of allocated funds. Chairpersons assumed a task which once belonged to the Dean of Administration: keeping their departments in line with allowed spending limits.

Information May Migrate, But Judgment Can't

Four years into my service there, I had been named Chair of my department and that responsibility fell to me. Our department had a history of over-spending by the last month of the academic year. The fiscal reports distributed by the Dean contained the data we needed to monitor our spending very closely, but they were written for accountants and most faculty found them confusing. I decided that clarifying their presentation and then sharing the full reports with my colleagues would help us check that overspending habit. I devised a computer based management system for the departmental account which enabled us to check the status of pending purchases and their impact on the department bottom line anytime we felt the need. For once, I thought, we're really going to be on top of our money.

Instead, we'd spent the whole kitty by the middle of January, and had to limp to the Dean for supplemental funding to make it to the end of the year. It seems that the lack of clarity in previous years had restrained our buying impulses. Never quite sure where we stood financially, we'd been more conservative in authorizing purchases. We bought things as we needed them, and we took some time to consider how badly we needed anything. Under my system, we knew exactly where we stood every week. We relied on past years' records to anticipate upcoming needs, ordered things early--and ended up consuming them hastily, too, because they were there.

Good decisions depend upon judgment as well as upon information. Judgment does not migrate piggy-back on a stream of bits of data; it grows with experience. De- centralization may enhance organizational effectiveness, or it may not. The implementation of a CMC network may stimulate pressures for decentralization. And CMC networks can provide valuable support for a decentralized organizational structure. But my experience with the department budget taught me that enhanced access to information alone is not sufficient support for such a change.

CMC Networks and the Transformation of Roles

CMC connections to the Internet make the boundaries of the school community newly permeable. CMC networks extend the capacity for community members beyond school walls to provide input pertaining to policy and practice. Such a network can facilitate dialog with parents, for example, or with members of the local commercial and public service sectors. If the school chooses to connect with the outside in this way, roles of school personnel must change to accommodate the responsibilities of fielding and responding to such input.

New links within school walls have similar implications. I recall a faculty colleague in Vermont who sat quietly at lunch one day, listening to two others extol the academic benefits of student email accounts. "We can keep good discussions going after class," said one. "I can reach them all so easily with syllabus updates!" said the other.

"And they can reach me," interjected the listener. "I have 80 students in my four classes, and another 45 as advisees. If each of them sent me no more than one message a week, I'd never do anything but sit at my desk, reading and responding to student email!"

In the classroom, access to the abundant resources available on the Internet means that students need be less dependent upon the teacher for information. Teachers migrate from their role as "sage on the stage" to being "guide on the side," and skills related to locating and evaluating information acquire heightened salience in the curriculum. Teaching practice may be transformed to accommodate these new needs, while continuing to address instructional responsibilities for basic skills like reading and computation.

Increased student autonomy in the learning process raises the likelihood that students will pose questions for which the teacher does not have "the answer." Teachers' roles are further transformed when they allow themselves to be seen by their students as fellow searchers and learners.

Pressures for Change in Scheduling, Space Allocation and Student Grouping

The current thrust of education reform centers on supporting student performance and understanding by creating authentic learning experiences, defined as circumstances which require students to select and apply appropriate skills and knowledge to solve real problems. In the controlled setting of the classroom, these problems are often presented as multi-dimensional projects.

Project-based curricula have inspired exciting applications for CMC network connections. The Journey North, for example, is an internet-based collaboration involving students across the North American continent as observer/reporters who help a team of biologists track the springtime migrations of birds and animals. They use the internet to post local observations of weather, species and movement, and to retrieve the postings of other participants, as well as to converse with the scientists who depend authentically upon their work.

Classroom teachers may use this project for any number of instructional purposes. In Spring, 1995, for example, Harvey Schuster of the Graham-Parks School on Upton Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts used it both as a centerpiece for geography instruction and to provide students with practice in research and writing skills (Feehrer-Clark, 1995).

Project-centered curricula can strain the bounds of conventional 40- or 50-minute "hours" and often benefit from diverse student grouping practices. When CMC networks are effectively employed to support project-based practice, they may be seen as contributing to pressure for changes in such structural features of the school environment as scheduling, space allocation and student grouping. --

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