From ‘reasserting the human’, this week we move on to looking at ‘redefining the human’ in the final block of the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. Last week I wrote about how current educational theories and practices are largely based on differing versions of humanist philosophy. Now we are being asked to consider a rather different perspective on ‘being human’ in the digital age: the notion that we are already posthuman, and that ‘human being’ is a variously constructed social category, not a pre-determined and fixed entity with universal characteristics. Instrumental posthumanists, for example, treat the human body and human life as things that can and ought to be optimised by technologies. Pacemakers, cosmetic surgery, prostheses, exercise equipment that provides biofeedback data, genetically modified food, diet supplements and Google glass, for example, are all posthuman technologies that are already widely used in the ‘developed’ world, which begs the question, to what extent can we continue to enhance the human body and mind before we redefine what it is to be ‘human’, and what are the implications for education?
At the same time, where instrumental posthumanism is merely the integration of post-industrial technologies with humanist values, critical posthumanist theories challenge the very values and assumptions on which humanism is based, and though varied in nature, share the view that humanism is a limiting and most often oppressive ideology that needs careful examination. Humanism often includes the belief that ‘technology’ is the opposite of ‘natural humanity.’ Critical posthumanists do not see these as opposed: the human body is just as ‘technological’ or ‘mechanical’ as the digital device on which you’re reading this post. The brain and the heart rely on electricity, just as DNA is a kind of programming. Critical posthumanism holds that technology is itself neither good nor bad, helpful nor hurtful. It is the contexts in which it is used, the conditions under which it is produced, etc., that make it a positive or negative thing.
In True Skin, this short science-fiction film by Stephan Zlotescu, synthetic enhancement has become the norm, and the boundary between human and machine has been erased (think Pop-On Body Spares for humans). At the end of the film, the protagonist, when facing death – at least the death of his current body – takes advantage of an internet service which backs up all of his memories, which can then be inserted into his future (new) self. Sound familiar? It’s that old two-way ‘computer as human brain, human brain as computer’ metaphor (see previous post MOOCs and Metaphors).
What this notion says about the nature of mind, memory and learning, and the ways in which technological mediation is positioned in relation to it, is a theme which is also picked up in this week’s reading assignments, in particular in an article in Atlantic magazine in 2008 by Nicholas Carr, entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid?, a defining polemic which became the water cooler around which critics of the internet gathered to bemoan the demise of critical thinking;-
“Still, their (Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page) easy assumption that we’d all ‘be better off’ if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimised. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.
The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction”
‘As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence’, concludes Carr. One of the challenges for us is this: Is it possible to counter the technological determinism of this view, without resorting to over-simplistic assertions of human dominance over technology? How should we respond, as teachers and learners, to the idea that the internet damages our capacity to think? On the EDCMOOC Discussion Forum this week, one of the contributors had this to say;-
“Despite the interesting links and comments made on this thread, it really needs to be noted how many educators use Google, especially Google Scholar through a university library. That is, we teach our students how to use a database such as this – as well as many, many others – to access the billions of well researched and written (peer-reviewed and non-refereed) articles on the web. Usually there will then be a few articles our learners will download and read as hard copy … in the traditional way!
Of course, there are many readings we might wish to come back to and never do, but that’s because there is way too much for one human to read. As mere humans, we need to select and then focus … as suggested in the very first short animation posted by our lecturers on how to approach this course.
Google and digital learning gives us faster and easier access to the information in virtual space. We still can access information in other ways – we still can read in different ways. Binary thinking is for computers not humans.”
I’m not quite on my knees looking for the answer, but the second (and final) block of study on the E-Learning and Popular Culture MOOC kicked off this week with a challenging look at what it is to be ‘human’, how that definition has shifted throughout the ages, the ways in which it is perceived to be under threat from the advance of technology, and the implications for the future of education. To listen, as we have done, to Professor Steve Fuller’s wonderfully erudite and idiosyncratic take on the history of ‘being human’ and to reflect on whether the ‘humanist project’ as it is described is still worth pursuing, click on this Tedx Warwick lecture from 2009. Believe me, you will be a better person for it.
In the Encyclopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, Nimrod Aloni tells us that the term ‘Humanistic Education’ is generally used to designate a variety of educational theories and practices that are committed to the world-view and ethical code of Humanism; that is, positing the enhancement of human development, well-being, and dignity as the ultimate end of all human thought and action – beyond religious, ideological, or national ideals and values. Historically, humanistic education can be traced back to the times of classical Athens with its central notion of Paideia, a few centuries later to the times of ancient Rome with it central notion of Humanitas, then the Renaissance’s Humanists, and in the early 19th century it was the German educator Neithammer who coined the concept of Humanism as indicating liberal education toward full humanity. Today, you will often hear this expressed in terms such as, ‘the need to educate the whole child‘. UNESCO, in its Education For The 21st Century, talks about being ‘committed to a holistic and humanistic vision of quality education worldwide, the realisation of everyone’s right to education, and the belief that education plays a fundamental role in human, social and economic development.’
The question before us now is this: does technology enable or inhibit such an ideal? There is no doubt that it is new technologies which allow us to connect and to network, and to provide access for many of those people who would otherwise be isolated from mainstream educational institutions – otherwise there would be no such thing as the MOOC – but for some, losing other ‘human’ attributes as a result of our over-dependence on machines is too heavy a price to pay. For my generation, this topic first arose as a serious concern with the introduction of electronic calculators in schools, and the debate shows no signs of abating. Consider this, from a 2004 article called ‘The Human Touch‘ by Dr Lowell Monke, an assistant professor of education at the University of Wittenberg:-
“A computer can inundate a child with mountains of information. However, all of this learning takes place the same way: through abstract symbols, decontextualized and cast on a two-dimensional screen. Contrast that with the way children come to know a tree–by peeling its bark, climbing its branches, sitting under its shade, jumping into its piled-up leaves. Just as important, these first hand experiences are enveloped by feelings and associations–muscles being used, sun warming the skin, blossoms scenting the air. The computer cannot even approximate any of this. Here we encounter the ambiguity of technology: its propensity to promote certain qualities while sidelining others. McLuhan called this process amplification and amputation. He used the microphone as an example. The microphone can literally amplify one’s voice, but in doing so it reduces the speaker’s need to exercise his own lung power. Thus one’s inner capacities may atrophy.
This phenomenon is of particular concern with children, who are in the process of developing all kinds of inner capacities. Examples abound of technology’s circumventing the developmental process: the student who uses a spell checker instead of learning to spell, the student who uses a calculator instead of learning to add–young people sacrificing internal growth for external power.
Often, however, this process is not so easily identified. An example is the widespread use of computers in pre-schools and elementary schools to improve sagging literacy skills. What could be wrong with that? Quite a bit, if we consider the prerequisites to reading and writing. We know that face-to-face conversation is a crucial element in the development of both oral and written communication skills. On the one hand, conversation forces children to generate their own images, which provide connections to the language they hear and eventually will read. This is one reason why reading to children and telling them stories is so important. Television and computers, on the other hand, generally require nothing more than the passive acceptance of prefabricated images.”
I wonder how Monke would respond to this recent television advertisement to promote an Indian mobile communications company, which plays with the concept of a born-digital baby.
I believe that Monke is setting up a false dichotomy here, and that developing children need a balance in their lives between technology-enhanced learning and healthy physical activity, wherever possible in an outdoor environment. Nor do I accept that television and computers ‘require nothing more than the passive acceptance of prefabricated images’. What they require is that the viewer has the literacy skills necessary to understand how, why, when, where and by whom the images were created, and most importantly the purpose for which they were designed – in other words, that they learn to become digitally literate. However, in the interests of fairness, I will leave the final word on the matter (for now) to Monke, who is ready for the ‘all about balance’ argument;
“The response that I often hear to this criticism–that we just need to balance computer use in school with more ‘hands-on’ activities (and maybe a little character education)–sounds reasonable. Certainly schools should help young people develop balanced lives. But the call for balance within schools ignores the massive commitment of resources required to make computers work at all and the resultant need to keep them constantly in use to justify that expense. Furthermore, that view of balance completely discounts the enormous imbalance of children’s lives outside of school. Children typically spend nearly half their waking life outside of school sitting in front of screens. Their world is saturated with the artificial, the abstract, the mechanical. Whereas the intellectual focus of schools in the rural society of the 19th century compensated for a childhood steeped in nature and concrete activity, balance today requires a reversal of roles, with schools compensating for the overly abstract, symbolic, and artificial environment that children experience outside of school.”
It would appear, from what I have learned this week, that in a recent blogpost, The Power To Make A Difference, I was espousing Aloni’s fourth form of humanistic education, that which is most often identified with Radical Education or Critical Pedagogy and with the counter-hegemonic pedagogical theories of Freire, Apple, Giroux, Simon, and Kozol. From this vantage point, to consider educational issues independent of the larger cultural, social, and economic context involves either serious ignorance or cynical, if not criminal, deception. Poverty, crime, homelessness, drug addiction, wars, ecological crises, suicide, illiteracy, discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, technocratic consciousness, and the disintegration of communities and families, to name some of our most pressing problems, are facts of life that effect directly the physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral development of the great majority of children in our culture. Hence, radical educators argue, ‘pedagogy should become more political and the political more pedagogical’. This implies three major changes in our educational system. It requires:
that educational discourse, policy, and practice would deal directly with the notions of power, struggle, class, gender, resistance, social justice, and possibility;
that teachers would aim to emancipate and empower their students towards the kind of critical consciousness and assertive point of view that allows people to gain control over their lives; and
that teachers, in the words of Giroux, ‘would struggle collectively as transformative intellectuals. . . to make public schools democratic public spheres where all children, regardless of race, class, gender, and age, can learn what it means to be able to participate fully in the ongoing struggle to make democracy the medium through which they extend the potential and possibilities of what it means to be human and to live in a just society.’
Good news for fans of the wonderful Inanimate Alice series. The long-awaited Episode 5 will be released on 1st December along with a newly re-vamped website, access to designer’s journals and a gallery of student-created content. If you haven’t met Alice before, now is the time to catch up!
This week on the MOOC we are being asked to look at and consider utopian and dystopian visions of the future through a different lens – the ways in which metaphor influences and shapes our views of technology, and specifically the world wide web. The course materials take the same format as before: a selection of short films (in this case two adverts for future educational technology products and two fictional representations of a technology and communications-enhanced world in which the ‘Internet of Things‘ becomes increasingly pervasive and digital communication is ubiquitous), core reading materials and extended reading on the present and future roles of MOOCs in education. Participants, of whom there are now apparently something in the region of 8,000, are encouraged to respond to a number of reflective questions on their personal blogs, via Twitter, and on the online discussion forums.
To begin to understand how attitudes to the Internet are shaped and embedded in the collective consciousness through the metaphors we use, Rebecca Johnston, a PhD student at Texas Tech University, conducted a micro-study of newspaper and magazine editorials in the US with the term ‘Internet’ in their titles in the period September-November 2008, and concluded that those which occurred repeatedly fell into one of four categories – those of physical space, physical speed, salvation and destruction – the latter two coinciding naturally with notions of utopia and dystopia respectively. Most of them, however, related to images of destruction:
“Multiple metaphors compared the Internet to nature, usually comparing the Internet to phenomenon (sic) that caused destruction and death in nature. In these articles, Web sites were flooded, experienced a wave of hits, eroded revenue, acted like fast–flowing waters, and had comments poured on them. These metaphors all related to water, a moving, powerful, life–giving force. However, these metaphors particularly emphasised water’s ability to break elements down and cause destruction (erosion and floods)…Multiple metaphors gave the Internet negative human traits, emotions, and practices, painting the Internet as a villain or an enemy…
As these Internet and computing metaphors, such as ‘the Web’, become embedded in our society, they in turn spawn new metaphors for understanding our experiences. For example, computer and Internet metaphors now determine our very sense of selves: We describe ourselves and others as binary; we describe our brains as hard drives or storage systems; we talk about thoughts as being coded in memory (Denny and Sunderland, 2005).”
The last point is a fascinating one. The suggestion here is that not only is there a preponderance of ‘internet as extended or collective human brain’ metaphors, but that in fact the metaphor works the other way as well. Often, we will see or hear the human brain defined in computing or technological terms, with references to ‘software’, ‘hardware’, ‘hard-wired’ and so on. This kind of thinking has been around for a long time. Ray Bradbury’s dystopian story ‘There Will Come soft Rains‘, first published in 1950 and reflecting the Cold War tensions of the era, memorably features a fully-automated house which continues to function for a while after its occupants have been wiped out in a nuclear disaster, the ‘computer brain’ (appropriately located in the attic at the top of the house) finally imploding in the ultimate metaphor of destruction by technology.
It is also true that much of the metaphorical language we use to describe technology is related to the human body, bodily functions, and in many cases the breakdown of these functions. A very good example can be found in the 2009 short thriller ‘Virus‘ by Simon Hynd, a clever exploration of the relationship between the physical and the technological spaces, with a fairly obvious metaphor in the title.
Under the heading ‘Perspectives on Education’, further reading assignments this week are designed to address the potential development of MOOCs themselves, with a focus on literacy and assessment, raising two major questions about the future of this kind of learning – how are online courses changing the nature and definition of ‘literacy’ and what does effective assessment look like in this relatively unexplored context? Consider first of all this arguably utopian view of new literacies from Bonnie Stewart of the Faculty of Education at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada:
“The studies in new literacies (Barton, 1994) established the use of the plural ‘literacies’ rather than the singular ‘literacy’ in order to push beyond the binary of ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate’ that still shapes our cultural threshold-based conceptions surrounding literacy (Belshaw 2012). Lankshear and Knobel (2007) frame new literacies as follows:
The more a literacy practice privileges participation over publishing, distributed expertise over centralized expertise, collective intelligence over individual possessive intelligence, collaboration over individuated authorship, dispersion over scarcity, sharing over ownership, experimentation over ‘normalization’, innovation and evolution over stability and fixity, creative-innovative rule breaking over generic purity and policing, relationship over information broadcast, and so on, the more we should regard it as a ‘new’ literacy. This is what Gee (1996) calls ‘literacies as social practices’…
It is particularly in the shifting of teacher and student roles that I suggest MOOCs may inadvertently create conditions for the development of new, participatory literacies. First, in all MOOCs that enable voluntary, open, free registration, learners set some of their own terms for participation in a way that differs from conventional higher education offerings. The fact that a learner need not qualify nor complete a MOOC in order to be considered a legitimate student within that course creates a very different relationship to course requirements and to the instructor, and alters learners’ agency over the terms of their experiences. This decentered, fluid notion of what a course is corresponds with the participatory ethos outlined by Lankshear and Knobel (2007).”
The idea that ‘a learner need not complete a MOOC in order to be considered a legitimate student within that course’ – allied to the fact that only around 10% of learners who enrol in larger MOOCs actually complete the course (Balfour 2013), would no doubt have traditionalists working themselves into a lather, as it brings into question not only the nature of assessment in learning, but the very definition of ‘success’, a topic which excites me greatly and which I will return to in the very near future.
“What is a television apparatus to man, who has only to shut his eyes to see the most inaccessible regions of the seen and the never seen, who has only to imagine in order to pierce through walls and cause all the planetary Baghdads of his dreams to rise from the dust.”
I suppose it is entirely appropriate that the first week of my MOOC coincides with a week away from home. I am currently in Girona, where the people are preparing for an ‘illegal’ referendum on independence for Catalonia. It really is a beautiful city, but it means that I am at the mercy of the hotel wi-fi to access the course materials: so far it has been impeccably-well behaved. With so many strands to the course it would be easy to be overwhelmed, or to try to cover all the bases simultaneously, but fortunately there is good advice from the course tutors:
Last time we ran the MOOC, some key strategies emerged on how to manage it as a learner:
Read selectively: you are not expected to engage with every single area of course content
Choose one or two media streams only to focus on: you can’t be everywhere at once
Let go of the notion of ‘being on top of things’ – this is also impossible – instead, enjoy the serendipity of the random encounter
Relax, select, investigate, think, write when it makes sense to write, and write in a space that you enjoy
Forget traditional online teaching methods: there are around 7,000 people on this course, only 5 teachers and 6 Community Teaching Assistants
Many of these strategies are of course counter-intuitive to traditional learners and teachers, where ‘being on top of things’ is essential to survival. Which again has me wondering whether, and how, these principles could be applied in a secondary school setting.
In terms of personal learning, we are still in the early days of the course, but I do like the use of short films as media artefacts, and already I am beginning to recognise some of the main themes and concepts coming to the fore, and to relate them to much of the reading I have done quite casually in the past. For example, Dr Daniel Chandler‘s term ‘technological or media determinism’ sounds quite daunting in itself, but it isn’t too difficult to find examples when you understand the definition (see below). Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows immediately springs to mind, tending as it does towards a dystopian view of the internet and its effects on our ability to read and think effectively.
“According to technological determinists, particular technical developments, communications technologies or media, or, most broadly, technology in general are the sole or prime antecedent causes of changes in society, and technology is seen as the fundamental condition underlying the pattern of social organisation… As an interpretive bias, technological determinism is often an inexplicit, taken-for-granted assumption which is assumed to be ‘self-evident’. Persuasive writers can make it seem like ‘natural’ common sense: it is presented as an unproblematic ‘given’. The assumptions of technological determinism can usually be easily in spotted frequent references to the ‘impact’ of technological ‘revolutions’ which ‘led to’ or ‘brought about’, ‘inevitable’, ‘far-reaching’, ‘effects’, or ‘consequences’ or assertions about what ‘will be’ happening ‘sooner than we think’ ‘whether we like it or not’. This sort of language gives such writing an animated, visionary, prophetic tone which many people find inspiring and convincing.”
You recognise any of that? It is a tone adopted by many bloggers (including in all likelihood this one!) which may suggest that it is linked to the quality of writing, where the author has a pre-conceived view of technology in the classroom and is determined to stick with it, no matter what.
Now we are asked to consider two other perspectives on the web and e-learning, alongside Chandler’s technological determinism (No.2). These are posited by Dr Lincoln Dahlberg of the University of Queensland and summarised as follows.
Uses determination: technology is shaped and takes meaning from how individuals and groups choose to use it. Technology itself is neutral. An example of this way of thinking can be seen in the educational mantra: ‘The pedagogy must lead the technology’.
Technological determination: technology ‘produces new realities’, new ways of communicating, learning and living, and its effects can be unpredictable. This is the position Chandler explores in detail in our core reading.
Social determination: technology is determined by the political and economic structures of society. Questions about ownership and control are key in this orientation.
Dahlberg argues that none of these perspectives, on its own, is enough to explain everything that needs to be explained about the internet. Each is useful, and each is overstated. Depending on the questions we need to answer, different approaches may be necessary. The same could be said about e-learning – that we need more complexity, more nuance, than any one determinist position can offer us. It’s therefore extremely useful to be able to identify these positions, and in particular to know what we are dealing with when grand narratives are told about how great, or how terrible, technology is.
I have to say that many of the blogs I read, and the educators I follow on Twitter, tend to adopt the ‘uses determination’ approach, but we are inclined to follow those who are in broad agreement with ourselves (or in fact those in direct opposition). Perhaps we are all guilty to a greater or lesser extent of technological determinism. Which of these three perspectives do you lean towards in your understanding of the relationship between technology and pedagogy?
Everything is connected. Earlier today I visited the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. For me the most interesting part of the collection was the jewellery, which is quite exquisite and includes a pair of ‘telephone’ earrings which it would be easy to dismiss as frivolous, but about which Dali himself had this to say:
“The Dali jewels are totally serious. I am pleased if my telephone earrings bring a smile. A smile is a pleasing thing. But these earrings, as with all my jewels, are serious. The earrings express the ear, symbol of harmony and unity. They connote the speed of modern communication; the hope and danger of instantaneous exchange of thought.”
Today sees the start of my E-Learning and Digital Cultures Mooc and I’m really looking forward to the adventure. The topic for Block One is an exploration of ‘Utopias and Dystopias’ – more of that later – but this morning I have been watching some introductory video clips about the course and about the nature of Moocs themselves, which is one of my main motivations for enrolling on the course, to explore what the future of ‘formal’ education looks like, and whether it has a future at all! The concept of the ‘flipped classroom’ is one which I have discussed before on the blog (see Flipping Socrates), so my curiosity was aroused again by this Ted talk from Anant Agarwal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the growth of online courses.
A few key questions remain unanswered for me in relation to blended learning, and I would like to explore these issues further in the next few weeks. They could be summarised as follows:
Most of the references i have seen to the flipped classroom appear to relate to aspects of mathematics and science. Do the principles apply equally to the arts and humanities?
Agarwal talks about ‘instant feedback’ and computer-generated assessments. Is that possible, or even desirable, in relation to non-mathematical subjects?
This kind of ‘blend’ – combination of online and face-to face interaction – seems to work well for post-compulsory education, but can it work equally well for 12-16 year-olds, or even younger?
Will e-learning ultimately sound the death knell of compulsory schooling?