The Interpenetration of Technology and Institution: An Assessment of an Educational Computer Conferencing System

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The Interpenetration of Technology and Institution: An Assessment of an Educational Computer Conferencing System
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  The Interpenetration of Technology and Institution: AnAssessment of an Educational Computer ConferencingSystemJames H McDonald Introduction I'm lost. Help Is there anyone on the other side? If someone's out there, pleaseanswer back. [Student entry on the CoSy system, Spring 1990] I felt like the Wizard of Oz as I read this student's plea for help. Unfor-tunately,  I  was not in the Land of Oz, and this was not a message from Kan- sas.  Rather, I was an instructor on "CoSy," short for (Co)nferencing(Sy)stem. CoSy 1  is an interactive electronic bulletin board employed by anArizona community college as an alternative method of course delivery.The notion of increasing an individual's access to education was theadministration's official goal for CoSy. The computer was treated by the ad-ministration as a new, innovative way to create interactive courses for peo-ple who would otherwise not receive an education. The community collegerecognized the need to serve people who cannot fit into a traditional class-room setting with its  rigid,  fixed schedule. 2  The use of computer networksand other alternative delivery methods provided an institutional solution tomeet the needs of the truly nontraditional student, particularly those  indi- viduals re-entering the educational system. In practice, however, drop-outrates in CoSy classes were  high,  throwing into question the success of theprogram.CoSy has three modes of communication: conference,  mail,  and con-verse. Conferences and conversations are public areas where a studentcan read messages left by others, reply to them, and add new messages.Conferences might best be thought of as the classroom area in CoSy. Con-versations are set up by instructors who may include all or part of his or herstudent population. Conversations are commonly used to break largergroups into smaller discussion or work groups. The mail system allows pri-vate electronic messages to be sent to one or more named individuals. Theterms used to describe the different functions within CoSy seem under-standable because the meanings require little decoding or specializedcomputer language knowledge. Despite this, the student's cry for help andthe superficial accessibility of the terms used in CoSy should be taken asa first warning of a gap between appearance and substance, presupposi-tion and reality. 49  50 EDUCATIONAL COMPUTER CONFERENCING The feeling of being lost is highly alienating. 3  The student was express-ing her lack of a coherent sense of the CoSy network and the tasks at hand.Her experience, furthermore, was far from rare. She was in the company ofmany other students who were confronting a computer or other form oftechnology for the first time (cf. Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986; Walters 1988).They did not have the conceptual knowledge necessary to navigatethrough CoSy or any other unknown computer application.The use of computers in education is part of a broader emphasis in oursociety on "computer literacy" (Noble 1984). The rationale for computer lit-eracy is often framed in survivalist terms—do not get left behind, be com-petitive We are currently flooded with computer advertisements in the me-dia that inflate these ambiguously defined and generally ill-conceivedfears.As a consequence, scores of parents are rushing out to buy comput-ers to ensure their children's future marketplace competitiveness. Many ofthose worried parents, as well as ourselves, carry certain presuppositionsabout the meaning of computer literacy. But what is it? What are the impli-cations of that definition? Who defines its meaning? Does passing knowl-edge of WordPerfect  5.1,  for example, indicate literacy?When I began teaching over the CoSy computer network, I wasabruptly confronted by my own computer illiteracy, even though  I  managedto spend most of my waking hours in front of a computer. I had never usedtelecommunications in the past. Like most of my students, I had to learn thebasics of the system, while at the same time going about the business of mycourse. It was expected that students and instructor alike would "pick it upon their own."Not surprisingly, under these conditions there was a high drop-out ratefor the CoSy-based courses. Each semester between 1989 and  1991,  welost approximately 50 percent of our student population. While some of thiswas attributable to simple problems of scheduling and logistics, it was  criti- cal to ask about the connections between alienation and attrition on the one hand,  and the community college's perception of student identities and themeaning and role of the machine on the other.This article explores the computer network as a type of "black box."Latour (1987:2-3) suggests that we create conceptual black boxes when"a piece of machinery or a set of commands is too complex. In its place wedraw a little black box about which [a person] needs to know nothing but itsinput and output." Computers are one of those black boxes. We take themfor granted and speak of them as "tools," objects so much a part of our dailylives that we treat them as if they were neutral and natural parts of the  land- scape. I am concerned, conversely, that students become familiar with thecultural logic behind computer design and application: what is inside theCoSy black box?By black box, I mean more than just the technology, but also the fieldof social relations that emerge around the machine. Administrators, instruc-  NAPA BULLETIN 12 51 tors,  students, and the machine are all linked together, forming a system. Itwas the community college administration that had the most powerful handat defining the nature of the CoSy black box because they controlled all as-pects of CoSy delivery. While they did not design the software or hardware,they chose what to use and how to apply it to education. The relationshipbetween bureaucracy and technology was captured, for example, in acomputer designer's critique of a competitor's machine: He decided that the  V X  embodied flaws in DEC'S [Digital Equipment Corpo-ration] corporate organization. The machine expressed the phenomenallysuccessful company's cautious, bureaucratic style. [Kidder 1981:36] It is pertinent to ask  then,  what does the configuration of the CoSy systemreflect about the nature of the community college bureaucracy? Whatinstitutional, bureaucratic logic has been constructed around the use ofcomputer-based education that both facilitates and hinders student suc-cess?In sum, I have posed a series of questions: what is computer literacy;why are students alienated; and how has bureaucratic logic influencedthese outcomes? It had created an exclusionary social  field,  permittingsome students to access an education using the CoSy system while effec-tively denying this opportunity to others. My concern is with how accesswas gained or denied, and as a result, who was likely to be included or ex-cluded from using CoSy successfully. At issue in this article is how the de-sign and administration of CoSy resulted in the differential access to edu-cation by more and less advantaged groups, 4  and how this process mightbe remediated. Implicitly,  then,  this analysis is also about power, social control,  and the production and reproduction of bureaucracies.Research MethodsResearch at the community college began with formal surveys of stu-dents taking introductory anthropology courses on the CoSy system. Fromthe Spring of 1989 through the Fall of 1991 I collected 93 surveys concern-ing student experiences with computer conferencing. I also conducted in-formal interviews with numerous students, and several of those individualsfunctioned as "key informants" providing information on their experienceswith CoSy and the community college administration.In the Fall of 1990 I began to work for the community college as a stu-dent and faculty liaison. In addition to teaching on the system, I also devel-oped documentation for CoSy, conducted training sessions, and activelytroubleshot technical problems confronted by students and facultythroughout the semester. An important part of my duties involved attendingmeetings, discussing marketing, and creating course delivery strategieswith key administrative personnel at the college.-This change in statusgreatly broadened my contact  with  students, faculty, and administrators in-  52 EDUCATIONAL COMPUTER CONFERENCING volved with CoSy. The position necessarily involved an intimate knowledgeof the everyday operation of CoSy through student and faculty interactionbut also provided a window onto administrative logic and decision-makingprocesses.Culture and TechnologyIn assessing how cultural logic is inscribed on technology, I havefound it useful to employ the concept of  format  that assumes technology isa cultural construct that may take many different forms (Altheide 1985a,1985b, 1989). The computer is certainly not a passive vehicle for the distri-bution of educational resources (see Bowers 1988). It is, therefore, criticalto examine the different vectors of its formatting  (i.e.,  ensembles of proce-dures, instruments, actors, and discourses and the kinds of relationshipsthat are structured—fields of relations and what can and cannot be donewithin them) (Altheide 1989:189). A format defines limitations in time andspace of the types of social relationships and forms of communication thatcan take place among people. A particular format, furthermore, can pro-duce different outcomes across different populations. Technology shouldnot, consequently, be thought of as an object, a  tool.  Rather, it shapes thesocial field of action, making some types of behavior possible and othersless possible or altogether impossible (Wolf 1990:587).Seen as a cultural construction,  the computer is a complex sign uponwhich multiple meanings are inscribed.  Technology is at once an appara- tus,  a discourse (about progress, efficiency, control, power, jobs), and therelationships they create between people, and between people and ma-chine. Technology, from this perspective does not just interface with the in-stitution, it  interpenetrates  the institution and results in a new social form.Computer technology also presupposes a certain user  identity.  This is mostclearly etched in the software chosen for the computer, as well as in  hard- ware, such as the keyboard (Altheide 1985b). It is also contained in certaininstitutional features, including home-based versus lab site access tocourse materials and forms of student support  (e.g.,  orientations, CoSy us- ers'  guides, technical advice). All of these factors together constitute theidentity of the system.Altheide (1989:187) emphasizes how technology, and implicitly, bu-reaucracy, define a social field and the boundaries of possible action. Inaddition,  I  will stress the potential of the people within those fields to createvarious forms of resistance to and redefinition of the social  field.  The  tech- nology, the nature of the organization deploying the technology, and the us-ers of that technology all contribute to the shape and outcome of an inno-vation, such as the introduction of computer conferencing in a communitycollege. All three elements are intimately intertwined and result in a con-text-specific outcome that cannot be predicted from the outset (Barley1986; Dubinskas, this volume).  NAPA BULLETIN 12 53 Student Experiences on CoSyThe students enrolling in CoSy-based courses were generally lay us-ers of computers who lacked an understanding of the technically sophisti-cated world of computers and did not particularly care about computers.The same could be said of all of the instructors using CoSy. We were  tech- nological "fringe dwellers." We were not particularly interested in the  tech- nology for technology's sake, but rather saw it as a means to an end. In mycase, I hoped to increase course availability for students who could attendtraditional classes. For the majority of my students, the goal was to com-plete a course requirement in a way that was not only convenient, but wasoften their only realistic alternative.The system, however, had its shortcomings. Exposure to course mate-rials was different for CoSy students than for students in the traditionalclassroom. In a classroom, students share a  common space hear  the  lec-ture,  writedown  notes, and then can  visually review  those notes. A studentcan access the course information using three different modalities. Further-more, a lecture is a kind of performance with verbal and nonverbal cuesabout the relative importance of information and ideas. There are also jok-ing asides, spontaneous commentary, and interactions that give eachclass a unique chemistry. 5  The holistic experience of the classroom is lostwhen similar information is taught over the computer. Students receive in-formation in written form only, thereby reducing the number of times andways they process the material. Additionally, students cannot ask ques-tions with the spontaneity accessible to them in the classroom (althoughthey can ask questions and receive responses far more quickly thanthrough traditional print-based correspondence courses). While CoSy ishighly interactive, there was still a time gap between questions and re-sponses.Computer-based courses also place a heavy burden on the student.They must have enough self-discipline to stay current with the course. Theadvantages provided by the system's flexibility can be a problem for lessdisciplined students. It is very easy to put off work in an electronic class ifthe student is not immediately held responsible for his or her presence andparticipation. On the other hand, this problem is no greater in many waysthan large lecture classes where students are essentially anonymous.However, in a classroom-based course there is at least a fixed scheduleproviding structure to the learning experience. In computer-basedcourses, the student must largely impose that structure.Aside from the logistical difficulties inherent in distance learning, thesingle largest problem was the range of computer competency studentsbrought to CoSy classes. For example, simple technical knowledge ofcomputer skills  (i.e.,  word processing), while necessary, was only part ofthe aptitude necessary for using the system. Accessing CoSy also required
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