Sunday, February 17, 2013

#EDCMOOC Week 3: Seeing Humanity as Part of and Not The Center of the Universe

#EDCMOOC Week 3: Seeing Humanity as Part Of and Not the Center of the Universe
Being human

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My #EDCMOOC (eLearning and Digital Cultures Massive Open Online Course) posts spring from my participation in the course offered for free by the University of Edinburgh via

Film 1: Toyota GT86

The opposition created here is between digital technology as ‘unreal’ and de-humanising, and the natural world as authentic and living; how does this opposition continue to be played out in popular discussions about technology-mediated education?

The natural vs. technology-mediated is most prominent in Monke's argument for the human touch. As a parent, it's also commonsensical to think that going out to see a real tree is vastly different from accessing a tree simulation on a computer or tablet. More senses are engaged, the whole context of the tree is accessible. But is digital technology necessarily "unreal" and de-humanising? It depends on one's perspective and how one sees the role of humans. It's arguable that the world of nature doesn't necessarily favor human values. The natural world favors the beast of prey, the strongest, the fittest. Here, human values of "kindness" and "compassion" are not compatible. One is not necessarily "better" than the other.

Film 2: BT heart to heart ad

This advert takes on the theme of mediation and, again, the nature of ‘authentic’ human contact. What aspects of ‘the human’ do you see as being ‘re-asserted’ here? Can you link this clip with the notion of ‘the illusion of non-mediation’ referenced in the Kolowich article we are also looking at?

The aspects of "the human" that is being re-asserted here is that nothing can replace human communication in all its aspects. That means, the closer the communication between humans (the more senses engaged), the better. This "illusion of non-mediation" is emphasized by Kolowich when he calls for more video and interaction between and among students and the teacher.

For me, this actually depends on what the communication is for. In cultures where non-confrontation is valued, then mediation actually helps.

Film 3: World Builder

World builder is a short film which explores some of the same themes (simulation, immersion, artifice) as the Toyota advertisement, though in a slightly more nuanced way. What is your interpretation of this film? In what ways does it position ‘the human’ in relation to the technological? What does it say about ways in which human emotion can be manipulated by digital simulation?

This film reminded me of another film, Inception, wherein a human can use his or her imagination and create an immersive experience. In this kind of scenario, the "real" and the "simulated" can be be confused or mistaken for the other. In the film, it is still the human that creates the simulation and this simulation can evoke "human feelings" in the object of the simulation. This is the more positive aspect of the simulation. In the negative sense, as in Inception, the simulation can be used to replace "real life."

Film 4: They're made out of meat

This short film has a darkly comic grounding idea which we won’t spoil here! The vision of humanity it constructs is one which is rich but also slightly repellent - it works to make the notion of ‘the human’ seem strange. What conclusions might you draw from this about the human body, and whether we can see the body as providing a stable basis for defining what it means to be human? This is a theme we will return to in week 4.

The conclusion I drew from the film is: we are organic...but not all-organic or all-material. Humans are made out of muscle, bone, fluid...and the elusive "consciousness" which is not material. Definitely, the body cannot be a stable basis for defining what it means to be human as what makes "us" human is precisely the non-material "consciousness," or "soul."

Ideas and Interpretations

Humanity 2.0: Defining humanity by Steve Fuller (TEDxWarwick)

Why does Professor Fuller say (almost as a joke) that education is ‘a dying art’?

He talks about education as a dying art in context of discussing an "artifice" of humanity introduced by the Greeks, Paideia: inhabiting the right mental space to deal with others and the world. Education, when viewed in context of assessment, "leveling up" and preparing children and adolescents for "work," loses its connection to Paideia or the human ideal of right mental space in dealing with others and the world.

Professor Fuller argues that there’s historical precedent for considering only some homo sapiens to be ‘human’: what are the political implications of this in contemporary times? And how might such a notion position education?

Only some Homo sapiens as "human" can be linked back to the time of slavery when some humans are considered as not having any inherent rights. Political implications of this become apparent when, in some instances, some humans lose their right of autonomy (the disabled, the mentally ill, etc.) and the institutions that decide who should have the right of autonomy. This affects education in the sense that education is considered a human right. If one does not "qualify" as human...then one is not entitled to education. One can see this even until today in some Middle Eastern countries where females are not considered as having the right to education.

He suggests that we are questioning the very existence of the ‘human’ because we have failed in the humanist project (for example, we are far from achieving racial, gender or class equality): do you believe this?

In a sense, yes, because racial, gender or class equality are far from the status of "achieved" in some parts of Africa and the Middle East.65 million girls in the world are denied the basic right to education.

In claiming that ‘the old humanistic project should not be dropped’, Professor Fuller links his talk to our key theme of re-asserting the human. His stance seems to be that ‘you can only be morally credible’ if you are addressing issues of human freedom and equality. Thinking about education specifically, might we see MOOCs as an example of an ‘old humanistic project’, particularly in the promise they appear to offer for democratisation, equality of access and so on?

I definitely see how a MOOC is an example of the "old humanistic project" in the sense that it has given me, someone who belongs to the "third world," equal access to an education course from university that I would, otherwise, not have been able to access. I also don't see why the "old humanistic project" should be dropped. Maybe it should be updated to put humanity in context of a larger universe.

Post-humanism, Neil Badmington

This chapter is the editor’s introduction to a collection of essays by thinkers on posthumanism. It gives a very useful overview of some of the philosophical and cultural bases for arriving at a position we might reasonably call ‘posthuman’. It is important to understand that ‘posthumanism’ is not simply another way of talking about cyborgs or other fantasies of human enhancement - it has a philosophical and critical inheritance which is far more to do with the question of how we define and value what it means to be human. In this sense, it is much more theoretically rich than the ‘transhumanism’ with which it is sometimes confused.

Unlike the other readings this week, Badmington’s text is not really about the ‘re-assertion’ of the human - rather it is about achieving a richer understanding of how the human and the posthuman relate to each other, and it provides a theoretical basis for our move into considerations of the posthuman next week. Use this reading to give some historical and critical perspective to the questions raised by the film festival, and by the historical overview of the ambiguity of ‘the human’ given by Steve Fuller.

Post humanism is important to study in the sense that the human is not all about conscious thinking. Much of our lives are governed by the subconscious, the automatic reaction. Knowing more about ourselves challenges us to always go beyond what we already know and seek to discover new paradigms. Is there value in going beyond paradigms? This question is in the vein of, "Is it important to know our purpose?" It least to us. It gives us something to aspire for and work for while we are alive.

Perspectives on Education

Kolowich, The Human Element

This article attempts to make a case for the inclusion of more video and audio in online teaching, in order to increase the sense of presence and ‘human-touch’ for distance learners. Articles like this are standard fare in popular discussions of technology-mediated education. What happens if we look at it from a perspective informed by the readings we have been doing this week? If we accept that ‘humanity’ is an ambiguous category at best, where does that leave claims like the ones made here for ‘the human element’ as a touchstone for good course design? And why are video and audio constructed here as being ‘more human’ than, for example, text? What assumptions are at play here, and what do they say about the broader discourses which dominate discussions of technology and education?

As I mentioned earlier, "humanity" as rational thought using all of the senses is in question already. As in the paper on posthumanism, humans are not always guided by rational thought. "The human touch," as Kolowich calls it...depends on who is learning and what the learning is for. If one would argue that the only way a human could learn would be through all the senses...then technology-mediated courses should be scrapped altogether. There is an underlying assumption on what it is to be human and what it is to be "more human." The fact is, different people learn different ways and it doesn't have to do with the technology being "more or less" human.

Monke, The Human Touch

Monke’s article is a plea for a re-thinking of education policy prioritising technological ‘literacy’ in schools from the earliest years of education. It is intriguing to read this in the context of some of the thinking we’ve been exploring in this and previous weeks. Here are some questions you might consider in reading and discussing this:

Monke relies on a set of principles defined by ‘human purpose and meaning’ which set ‘the human’ very much in opposition to the technological. Technology education should be driven by ‘human values’ rather than by the prerogatives of the technology - is this simply a re-working of the ‘technology should follow pedagogy’ mantra we have already discussed?

Yes, I believe so. "Technology" as tool. However, as our previous readings have also pointed out: technology has also shaped our social lives such that it is no longer simply a tool but also a kind of reality that we live in.

What kinds of divisions and oppositions does Monke set up between nature and technology? Between experience and mediation? Between ‘inner’ resources and external power? Between information and meaning? And what kind of perspective on ‘human nature’ does he rely on to maintain these divisions?

Monke makes this conclusion: “There have been no advances (measured by higher academic achievement of urban, suburban, or rural students) over the past decade that can be confidently attributed to broader access to computers. . . . The link between test-score improvements and computer availability and use is even more contested.”

In a way, Monke is also relying on a model of education that is also being contested in this day and age: that test-scores are the best way to measure learning. Monke assigns nature, experience, "inner" resources, and "meaning" higher values over technology, mediation, and external power. This is an "either or" type of thinking that might not serve anymore when one sees each pair not as opposed to each other but linked together. It depends on who is looking. He is obviously coming from the "humanistic" world view that puts humanity at the center of creation.

Does his vision of education count as one of Steve Fuller’s ‘old humanist projects’ - the kinds of projects we need to ensure our ‘moral credibility’? Or is it simply a luddite view which fails to ‘get’ the new ways of being human that technology makes possible?

I think Monke's measure of learning is still dated in the industrial times. Why shouldn't it be possible to teach children direction, morality and ethics even as we employ technology? They are not necessarily opposed to each other.

We might find it quite easy to agree with his statement that young people should be helped to ‘think about, not just with, technology’, but do we need to depend on an oppositional relationship between the human and the technological to do this?

Essentially, no. Technology is not necessarily against what is human. What we take for granted is how much importance we put on being human over other forms of existence. What if we looked at humanity as side-by-side and as important as other life forms? What if we looked at humanity from the broader perspective?

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