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Case Study #1: Applying Hardware Theory to the Noel Studio

 

Hardware theory defines the Noel Studio as an information system connected by its nodes and means of communication. While the system functions as a whole, its purpose is to serve a community of users and has no reason to exist without those users.

From this perspective, people serve as nodes in the network and communication occurs at different levels of accessibility. The primary nodes of the Noel Studio include those who work within its space and whose functions support the primary purpose of helping students improve their communication skills, including the director, two coordinators, administrative assistant, technology associate, consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows. Information is transferred among this group via a private network (intranet) of channels (buses) such as email, BlackBoard, a private Facebook group, and face-to-face communications.

Similar to extranet networks, certain information is also shared with related individuals include organizations who have a vested interest in the Noel Studio but whose primary functions do not contribute to the goals of the Noel Studio (collectively, the Noel Studio Advisory Board). These individuals and organization include the deans of University Programs and EKU Libraries, the co-directors of the Teaching and Learning Center, the director of the Office of Undergraduate Resaearch, the Provost’s Office, the Office of Information Technology, the departments of Communication and English, and Institutional Effectiveness.  Typically, this level of communication is transferred via group emails and monthly meetings.

Finally, information is dispersed to the public (the internet level) from the nodes of the Noel Studio via face-to-face communication, emails, and the Noel Studio website (studio.eku.edu). Recipients of this final output of communication are the users of the system—EKU students and faculty.

In addition to information being transmitted, received, and dispersed at different levels of access, we can consider how information is transformed for users in terms of back end and front end. Students request appointments with consultants or rooms through the Noel Studio’s online scheduling software, WCOnline while faculty members can request rooms and workshops through request forms on the Noel Studio’s website. On the back end, the coordinators and administrative assistant work as routers, distributing information to the location it needs to go, be it another administrator, desk consultants, or the three scheduling systems that coordinate reservations (Google, Outlook, and WCOnline).  The administrators and consultants then work together to plan the events that take place as a result of the back end work (including training and other meetings). The information is then redistributed to students and faculty in the front end form of consultations, reserved rooms, workshops, and events.

The direction that information travels in the network of the Noel Studio seems directly correlated with the agency of the different participants. While communication can be simultaneously multidirectional (like parallel buses), it also follow sa more hierarchical structure. . Communication is distributed both top-down and bottom-up, typically passing through the coordinators at all levels. Information and directives from EKU’s administration are communicated to the director. The director processes the information and channels directives to either or both of the coordinators. The coordinators then process and transfer information to consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows, prompting action on their part. Similarly, information that flows bottom-up originates with students or the EKU community, is passed on to the consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows, which is then transformed into suggestions or requests for action and communicated to the coordinators who then submit it to the director for approval. At times, information can (and does) flow directly from the director level to the consultant level and vice versa, but this only occurs when the director needs to communicate an official, formalized message or a consultant cannot find a coordinator and needs immediate assistance.

These communication paths define what Daniel identified as strong or weak ties. The strong ties occur between the director and administrative staff (especially the coordinators) and the coordinators and consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows. In contrast, the communication ties between the director and the consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows is often weak. The strength of the tie reflects the agency of the different participants in terms of decision-making and dialoguing about concerns.

In terms of growing, the Noel Studio as an information system evolves in two ways: 1)  staffing on a semester-to-semester basis (those privy to the intranet communications) and 2) the addition or subtraction of peripheral components that becomes programs of but do not function to support the primary goal of the Noel Studio (and have access to information on the extranet level). Examples of recent peripheral components include the Teaching and Learning Center, the Office of Undergraduate Research, and the Writing Fellows program. Much like hardware systems, the ability to expand and support additional components depends on funding.

Comparing the Noel Studio to hardware systems was actually more difficult than I expected. At first, I considered the space of the Noel Studio as the motherboard in which all of the components operated, which would maintain the analogy of “outside” programs and people operating as peripheral components. However, I found it really difficult to identify what would operate as the central processing unit (CPU). The most obvious choice, at first, seemed to be the director, but I realized that there is actually a lot of information that never reaches the director for processing. The coordinators seemed to be the next reasonable option for the CPU, considering how much information is collected, processed, and redistributed through them. However, considering any one participant as the CPU neglected the agency of the other participants who can choose which information to share or not with any other member of the network.

Thinking about the systems in terms of hardware not only forced me to try to think about what would serve as the “center” of the network, but I also felt forced to focus on only one level of the network–the level at which information is transferred–rather than all of the complexities of the system.