September 1996

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

Salient Features of CMC Technology

What Are We Talking About?

A bewildering profusion of gadgets, systems and software programs currently sport the label "new information technology." Here, we are concerned with the subset of such tools applied to communication systems. From a user's perspective, these tools wear the faces of the applications we find for them. We are talking here about electronic mail, usenet newsgroups and listserv subscriptions, interactions with Gopher and World Wide Web (WWW) information repositories out on the Internet, and with analogous data repositories created in-house. We are talking about "real-time" applications like the PHONE and TALK utilities which allow users to converse individually with colleagues using keyboards and computer monitors. We are talking about Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which extends this capability globally. We are talking about Multi-User Domains (MUDs), which enable groups of widely-dispersed people to interact in conference. We are talking about groupware applications like Lotus Notes which support collaborative work.

We are asking, what could happen to an educational organization when it links its computers to each other in Local Area Networks (LANs) or Wide Area Networks (WANs) so that information may flow deliberately among them? What implications for organizational life are embedded in the choice to connect computers within the school to digital resources beyond the school's walls? How might CMC affect our notions of membership in the school community? How do CMC tools relate to pre-existing patterns and methods of communication involving students, and administrative and instructional personnel within the school community, or between the school and its environment?

We'll begin by noting a few basic features of the tools and processes of computer-mediated communication (CMC). The problems and the promise associated with CMC systems originate in part from characteristics of the technology itself.

The Importance of Being Digital

CMC networks carry contents which have been digitized. That is, the information conveyed by a verbal message, a static image or a video clip has been translated into a sequence of ones and zeros which traverse network wiring as a series of on/off electrical pulses. These sequences can be stored compactly on magnetic media, and later replicated with perfect fidelity as often as desired. Compact storage means an overwhelming abundance of information can be contained in a small physical space. Speedy transmission means comparatively brief waiting times between a request for information and the delivery of that information. Perfect, easy replication means that information can be reconstituted faithfully whenever it is requested; thus, there is no need to maintain bulky inventories of material no one ever uses.

It's a clever system, but it also embodies a bias which is significant to educators. For the system is crucially dependent upon standardization. Infinite variation is possible in the specific ways that information could be digitally coded, packeted for transmission, and interpreted at the receiving end. Agreement on a specific set of coding algorithms, signalling and hardware conventions makes the ubiquitous deployment of CMC possible. The mantra of the modern CMC technologist may be summed up as "Open systems and extensible architecture." In English, this means "Let's come to an agreement about how to configure system components so they can all talk to each other, and thereby enable the widest possible participation in CMC today and in the future."

Understandably, the people who devote their careers to such technical matters tend also to be biased toward standardization (Kidder, 1981). This aspect of the culture surrounding digital technology has ramifications for organizational life when people with different orientations team up to solve school-related challenges, as we shall see below.


Historically, two of the major technical barriers to human communication have been time and space. Recording technologies like writing and audio or video transcription surmount the first barrier; they enable us to speak to future generations by encoding our messages as enduring physical artifacts which may be handed across the years. Notes tacked to the refrigerator door likewise help us to coordinate our lives with housemates whose schedules don't intersect with our own.

Telecommunications technology addresses the second barrier; it's not necessary for a message sender to be physically near his intended receiver to communicate effectively when both sender and receiver are using telephones.

CMC technologies combine both sets of benefits. CMC technologies traffic in digitally rendered information, compactly stored as magnetic recordings and instantly accessible from anywhere via the global telecommunications network. The email message I send to you this morning will wait patiently in your mailbox until you get around to reading it. You may open your mailbox from any point on the globe where access to the internet is available. This any-time/any- where characteristic of CMC is known as its "asynchronicity."

Asynchronicity means that the information-dependent activities of an organization need no longer be bounded by time and space in quite the same ways as we are used to. This aspect of CMC implementation has structural and human resource implications for organizations, as we shall see. --

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