Redefining The Human #edcmooc

brain

Creative Commons Image by digitalbob8.

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;-
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Responsible Citizens in the Digital Age

One of the four key aims of the Scottish Curriculum is to develop ‘responsible citizens’, ‘with respect for others’ and ‘ a commitment to participate responsibly in political, economic, social and cultural life’. One’s immediate thoughts are perhaps drawn to the life of the community, or the country, and the challenges of encouraging young people to engage in the democratic process at a time when trust in politicians is at an all-time low, but in an increasingly connected world, we have to think of responsible citizenship in global terms, especially in relation to the internet and social networks.

I learned the other day that YouTube is now the number one source of music for most young people. What happened to Top of the Pops while I looked away? Is it still on at seven o’clock on a Thursday? In reality, what is happening here is that the media which were once produced by the few and consumed by the many (and all at the same time), are now being produced by the many and shared by the many, at a time of their own choosing. To paraphrase transmedia guru Henry Jenkins, sharing is the new form of distribution. The implications of all of this are still emerging, but range from the ethical issues surrounding ownership, through digital literacy to e-safety and carbon footprints. How do parents and teachers begin to understand the issues, never mind teach the social responsibility which is such an essential part of the curriculum? Well appropriately enough, the answer may lie in the internet itself, and particularly in Google, which has developed an interactive curriculum on YouTube to support teachers in educating students on how to be safe, engaged and confident model ‘netizens’.

The initiative is aimed at students aged 13 to 17 and will help them to develop digital literacy skills on YouTube that would be applicable across the web. A list of 10 lessons has been devised, in which students can learn about YouTube’s policies, how to report content, how to protect their own privacy, and how to be responsible YouTube community members and, in the broader picture, digital citizens. The curriculum helps educate students on topics like:

  • YouTube’s policies
  • How to report content on YouTube
  • How to protect their privacy online
  • How to be responsible YouTube community members
  • How to be responsible digital citizens

Each lesson comes with guidelines for teachers and ready-made slides for presentation. There’s also a YouTube Curriculum channel where videos related to the project will be posted. Get started today by downloading your free Teachers’ Guide here.

Who Needs Teachers?

Thanks to Dave Terron, I’ve just finished reading Why Do I need a Teacher When I’ve Got Google?’ by Ian Gilbert, a book which will make you reflect on everything you thought you knew about learning and teaching. Incidentally, the author provides what I think is a fair attempt to answer the question posed in the title as early in the book as page 22:-

‘The role of the twenty-first century teacher, I am suggesting, is to help young people know where to find the knowledge, to know what to do with it when they get it, to know ‘good’ knowledge from ‘bad’ knowledge, to know how to use it, to add to it even, to know which bits to use and when and how to use them and to remember the key parts of it. Add to that your powerful role in helping them develop their communication skills, their creativity, their curiosity, their ability to work well as a team, their confidence and self-esteem, their sense of what is wrong and what is right, their ability to deal with adversity, their understanding of their role as a citizen of the world – in other words all the things which computers can’t do yet – then you have a powerful role for the twenty-first century teacher. If the end of the twentieth century saw the democratisation of knowledge, then the role of the twenty-first century teacher is quite simple – to preside over the democratisation of learning. That’s why I need a teacher when I’ve got Google and Wikipedia and O2 and an iPhone and an iPad…..’