Friday, 22 February 2013

E-Learning and Digital Cultures (#edcmooc) - Being Human, Week 4: Redefining the Human


The fourth and final week of the E-learning and Digital Cultures course looked, like Week 3, at the concept of ‘being human’ – but from the perspective of how technology works to redefine our notions of humanity. The videos provided an interesting introduction to the topic, particularly ‘Robbie’ which imagined a robot with which what many would describe as ‘human’ attributes, floating around in space at the end of his ‘life’. I found this moving and quite sad – but I’m not convinced that artificial intelligences with ‘human-like’ thoughts and feelings are the future. Maybe we are imposing our own ideas and values onto these?

The readings, which looked at the concept of transhumanism, were eye-opening. Despite claims of a utopian future characterised by individual autonomy and a projected end of death and suffering, I felt deeply distrustful of the idea that perfection could be achieved. When reading Nick Bostrom’s piece on transhumanist values1, I found it hard to believe it was sincere – it seemed like a spoof. As Hayles2 points out, it focuses on individual choice and autonomy without acknowledging the wider implications of society, and doesn’t look at what will happen in terms of population increase if people are able to live longer.

Despite claims to the contrary, the concept of transhumanism has echoes of Nazi-esque eugenics and cult religion. Many of the ideas seem far-fetched, and I think they are unlikely to be realised in the near future, if at all. The idea that human limitations can be transcended and the ‘evil’ of death destroyed I found alternately silly and terrifying.

The articles exploring educational perspectives were much more palatable and relevant to the online learning context. The EPSRC document on technology enhanced learning3 argues that learning needs to exploit the potential of technology the way other areas of life and work have been doing for years. Broadly speaking I agree with this idea, although I took issue with some of the generalisations made, such as that “almost everyone in the UK has a powerful computer in their pocket” – really? This report, like so many readings from the course, barely acknowledges the digital divide between those who have, enjoy and are competent at using technology and the huge numbers who have difficulty affording and using such equipment.

Carr’s piece4 explores the sobering idea that modern use of technology, particularly the Internet, is changing the way we learn and think. In particular he focuses on a growing inability to concentrate on deep, close reading of longer texts in the face of the mass of information available at our fingertips, which we tend to click through and skim-read. This isn’t necessarily a completely bad thing but it serves as a reminder of the impact technology has on our learning.

Having finished the reading for this course, my next task is to complete the assignment, which involves creating a digital artefact relating to one or more of the topics covered. After that I’d like to have a proper think about what I’ve got out of this course and examine my views on MOOCs as a whole.





1Bostrom, N. (2005). Transhumanist values, Review of Contemporary Philosophy, Vol. 4. http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/values.html [Accessed 21 February 2013].

2Hayles, N. K. (2011). Wrestling with transhumanism. Metanexus. http://www.metanexus.net/essay/ h-wrestling-transhumanism. [Accessed 21 February 2013].

3EPSRC (2012). System upgrade: realising the vision for UK education, EPSRC Technology Enhanced Learning Research Programme. http://tel.ioe.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/TELtaster.pdf. [Accessed 21 February 2013].

4Carr, M. (2008). Is Google making us stupid? The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/. [Accessed 21 February 2013].

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