September 1996

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Computer-Mediated Communications Networks and the Organizational Life of Schools

by H. L. Fuller

-- Intro | Technology | Structure | Human Resources | Politics | Symbol & Story | Conclusion

As organizations, schools are distinctive. Often, there is little tangible consensus among various school constituencies about organizational goals and objectives. Even when targets are clearly articulated and broadly agreed-to, the structure and functioning of the organization as a whole may not be consonant with those goals. Unlike the profit- driven firm, schools are described as "loosely-coupled" systems, whose means are not necessarily tightly bound to their desired ends.

The deployment of a computer mediated communications (CMC) network in a school represents a structural change in the organization which has repercussions in many dimensions of school life. Beginning with a descriptive discussion of the salient features of CMC technology, I explore the potential impacts of this new system on the structural, human resource, political and symbolic dimensions of school life.

I argue that the digital nature of CMC, as well as the way it extends the space/time boundaries of school-related work, can have potentially transformative effects on the nature of school life. I show how CMC is linked to role transformation and decentralization of authority, and how this can in turn lead to specific pressures for change in more tangible features of school life like scheduling, space allocation and student grouping. I demonstrate the adaptive challenge posed for school workers by the introduction of new technology in a fundamental system. I explore the tension between pressures for standardization which are implicit in CMC, and the flexible specialization characteristically demanded in teaching. I discuss the political challenges which are likely to arise, both within the school and between the school and its community environment. I address the politics of system access, the implications of new alliances mobilized by CMC, and the political ascendancy of technologists. Finally, I challenge educators to engage deliberately with the issues raised. I urge the adoption of a principled commitment to the CMC system as a tool for sense-making and community building in which all parties have a rightful stake, and not as a bundle of cabled connections--the arcane domain of a limited constitutency. [TOC]

Bibliography & Supplemental Readings

H. L. Fuller is a doctoral student in Administration, Planning and Social Policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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