#edcmooc week 3 – computer says no

It’s been a very reflective week for me in #edcmooc as we move to the “being human” element of the course. In week three we’re being specifically asked:

“what does it mean to be human within a digital culture, and what does that mean for education?”

and more specifically:

“Who or what, in your view, will define what it means to be human in the future? Who or what defines it now? These are crucial questions for those of us engaged in education in all its forms, because how we define ‘desirable humanity’ will inform at the deepest level our understanding of how and why education might be conducted and why it matters. Paying attention to online education foregrounds these issues in a new way, helping us look at them afresh.”

Fantastically chin stroking stuff :-) As usual there are a good range of readings and videos. David Hopkins has written an excellent critique.

I’ve had quite a surprisingly emotional response to all of this and I’ve been finding it difficult to articulate my thoughts. Maybe it’s because the resources and questions are making me question my own humanity. As educational technology is central to my job and takes up a huge amount of my life, and I am a fairly optimistic wee soul perhaps what’s been nagging away at me is a fear that I am contributing, without thinking of the consequences, towards a horribly dystopian future where we those that can afford it are bio-engineered up to the max, controlled by technology which allows us to think humans are still in control whilst it plots humanity’s demise.

On the other hand, my other reaction is that this is all a load of academic nonsense, which allows people to have never ending circular discussions; whilst in the ‘real world’ the rest of humanity just get on with it. We’re all going to die anyway and our species is just a blip in the history of our planet. For some reason this phrase from Little Britain keeps running through my head, it seems to sum up the wonderful way that humans can subvert technology.

As I’ve been reflecting on my experiences with technology in an educational context. I have to say that overall it has been the human element which has, and continues to be, the most rewarding and most innovative. I’ve seen online education offer alternative access to education at all levels from the most under-privileged to the most privileged. Technology has allowed me to connect with a range of wonderfully intelligent people in ways I would never imagined even less than 10 years ago. It has in many ways strengthened my sense of being human, which I think is fundamentally about communication. I still get very frustrated that there isn’t equal investment in human development every time a new system/technology is bought by a school/college/university, but I’m heartened by the fact that almost every project I know of emphasises the need for time to develop human relationships for technology to be a success and bring about change.

One thought on “#edcmooc week 3 – computer says no

  1. Hi Shelia,

    When I hear questions such as “What does Humanity mean …” I’m reminded of the nominalist/essentialist debate in philosophy. Nominalists tend to read definitions from right to left, whereas essentialists read from left to right.

    For example, an essentialist asks “what does this term X on the left really mean, what is ‘the correct’ definition on the right.” The nominalist, on the other hand, asks: “Since we have a number of interesting definitions on the right, let’s agree for the sake of this discussion what short hand abbreviations (terms) we would like to assign to these definitions.”

    Historically, it was fairly easy to come to some agreement on what the term “human” ment because all flesh-and-blood humans were largely determined by their genetic code. Human babies grew up to become adult humans and not trees or some other life form.

    However, as we gain mastery over nature we gain the ability to fundamentally transform ourselves and our species. Education as we know it today – communication through the spoken word, writing, printed books, television, and audio/video/mouse/keyboard computer interfaces – is just the tip of the iceberg. We are now beginning to gain mastery of our genetic code; we are finding better and better ways to scan and understand our brains; and, we are building better and better direct brain-computer interfaces.

    Some futurists, such as Ray Kurzweil, believe that machines will attain a mastery of natural language in about fifteen years, they will far surpass unenhanced human levels of intelligence in about thirty years, and that enhanced humans will also merge with their machines to transcend biological evolution in about thirty years.

    According to Kurzweil, humans enhanced with direct brain-computer interfaces will do “most of their thinking in the cloud.”

    In your post you say: “I’m heartened by the fact that almost every project I know of emphasises the need for time to develop human relationships for technology to be a success and bring about change.”

    I’m not sure how Kurzweil would respond, but he might say that enhanced humans will do most of their “relating to one another” in the cloud as well.

    If Kurzweil is right, it would be an absurd understatment to say – “Oh yes, I think this might have a significant impact on Higher Education as we understand it today.”

    Some economists and educators might say – this is all idle speculation; it has nothing to do with lowering unemployment today; it has nothing to do with lowering the cost and improving the quality of education today.

    As for myself, I do think it’s time for economists to re-examine their long-held beliefs that workers displaced by technology will always be able to be retrained to find new jobs. And, I do think it’s time for educators to start asking themselves if education as we now know it will be able to help unenhanced humanity keep up with its race against the machine.

    Finally, I would hope that educators will be able to help both those who want to become enhanced humans and those would would rather die first find understanding and compassion for one another. If both can do so, then I would say that both deserve to be known as Human.

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