#EDCMOOC: being human – reasserting the human

I’m horrendously behind with E-learning and Digital Cultures – I’ve not yet looked at the fourth week’s material, but I’m still hoping to get my ‘digital artifact’ in by tonight’s submission deadline. In the meantime, here are my thoughts and reflections on the week three material. The broad topic is ‘being human’ and the threats that technology poses to ‘the human’, and this week’s resources focus on re-asserting the human.

Mediation and the illusion of non-mediation

Several of the resources this week raise the question of mediation, non-mediation and the illusion of non-mediation. It’s interesting: some accounts suggest that moving images on a screen act as barriers between us and reality, while others suggest that they break down barriers.

This year’s series of Black Mirror has come at the perfect time, as many of the ideas and themes link to this course. Without wanting to spoil the story, the second episode, White Bear, looks at the way in which mediation via a screen affects our moral compass. Why do so many of us watch real things happening on screen that we’d never tolerate in person? Why are we prepared to be passive voyeurs just because there’s a screen between us and what’s happening, rather than step in to stop something bad unfolding?

It’s inevitable that brands will find the positive spin on things in their advertising (there was a stark contrast between the adverts and the short films in the second week’s materials too). But BT’s ‘heart to heart’ advert is actually closer to the White Bear position than I’d have expected. It rejects the vision painted by Corning and Microsoft of screen-based technology bringing people together, suggesting that while it’s good for immediacy it lacks emotion and truth. For quick chats and trivialities, online is fine; for the meaningful heart-to-hearts, the phone is better: it’s ‘the closest you can get to actually being there’.

Unfortunately (though not surprisingly) BT have done exactly the same as Microsoft and Corning by painting an ideal and incomplete picture. The only alternatives to phones that the advert shows are text-based online communications, when in reality screen-based technology can do a lot more than this with video chats and so on. It also uses nice filming techniques to illustrate their tagline, conveniently ignoring the fact that phone calls are still mediated communication. You can’t see what the person at the end of the line is doing, where they are, what emotions are passing across their face…

Both White Bear and the BT advert position the screen as divisive, mediation which results in something being lost: emotion, morality, authenticity, closeness. In contrast, Steve Kolowich’s 2010 article (‘The Human Element’) argues that the screen has the power to make interactions more human.

In a nutshell, Kolowich asks why distance education can be just as effective as classroom education but struggles to retain students. His suggestion is that it’s the lack of the ‘human’ in distance learning. And his solution is to add more video into course delivery. (He actually advocates audio interactions, too, but for me the bulk of his argument is centred around video.) Acknowledging that there are downsides – such as webcams or other visual engagement inviting prejudices or distractions – Kolowich argues that the illusion of non-mediation (that is, the sense of ‘being there’ facilitated by seeing the other participants) encourages increased trust and investment from students.

What is ‘the human element’?

It’s interesting that for BT that sense of ‘being there’ comes from hearing a voice, but for Kolowich it comes from seeing a face. And – as far as e-learning is concerned – this is the crux of the matter. What is that ‘human element’ that we so often seek to achieve in online learning?

When I started out in instructional design five years ago, we tried to achieve it through using photographs of people, good quality voiceovers rather than computer-generated audio, and a natural and conversational tone of voice in the copywriting. As video became more ubiquitous, this became the favoured mode of inserting the human into online learning. Unfortunately, a stilted talking-head clip of someone who’d rather be anywhere but in front of the camera reading from an autocue doesn’t necessarily cut it. Documentary-style clips of life in the workplace, interviews with employees, more sophisticated character-led dramas: all these approaches are attempts to make what we do more ‘human’.

The evolution of live online facilitation has been shaped by similar questions. The standard was once a PowerPoint slide deck, one-way audio presentation and perhaps a Q&A panel for participants; now the LPI is helping people make the most of the available technology to create a more effective – and more human – experience, incorporating webcams and freer two-way conversation via chat panels and microphones, for example.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that it’s about more than voices or faces. A human presence doesn’t necessarily equal a human experience. Haven’t we all had frustrating conversations with people in call centres? It’s a real person, you’re hearing a real voice, you’re talking in real time – and yet it doesn’t feel ‘real’. They’re reading from a script, or the discussion is driven by the boxes they need to fill in on their computer system. Likewise, most of us have experienced disappointing presentations or classroom training sessions: being in the same room as colleagues and the trainer doesn’t guarantee a good experience. If it’s not brought to life, if it’s not invested with emotion, then what benefit does this live set-up offer over a mediated or non-human offering (like an online course or a textbook)?

Insights, not outcomes

Having reached this point in my thinking, I turned to Lowell Monke’s article, ‘The Human Touch’, and found it articulated a lot of what I was thinking. In worrying about how best to use new technologies to make virtual experiences more ‘human’, we are perhaps missing the point.

There are so many things in Monke’s article that interest me. He compares the current failure of computers to improve education and attainment with the failure of motion pictures to replace textbooks in education, as was predicted decades ago. It seems we’ve always had a (technologically deterministic?) tendency to assume that each new milestone in technological advancement will revolutionise education in and of itself. Unfortunately those assumptions and predictions rarely become reality, and there has yet to be any evidence that the massive investment schools are making in computer equipment leads to higher achievement. His take on the problem is, I think, that we devote too much energy to teaching students the technicalities of how to use technology: how to use various software to speed up calculations or processes; how to use the internet to research topics. We don’t invest in teaching them how to really make the most of it – how to use it to enhance, not define, their lives and learning.

Monke notes that teenagers with access to the internet have a huge amount of power and the potential to do a lot of damage. So if schools need to teach children how to use technology, they also need to help them develop the ‘moral and ethical strength needed to resist abusing’ that power. This made me immediately think of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, a book I’ve just read after it was recommended earlier in the course. This novel is all about the damage that tech-savvy teenagers can do when they put their minds to it, because their experimentation and fearlessness means their understanding of technologies so quickly overtakes that of their teachers and the authorities. It’s a great read and – as the postscripts at the end of the book show – rooted far more in reality than science fiction.

However, Monke also rejects technological determinism and argues that we need to ‘not start by asking what children need to do to adapt to a machine world, but rather, which technologies can best serve human purposes at every educational level and how we can prepare children to make wise decisions about their use in the future.’ I do agree with this, but I think there is an important way in which we do need to teach children to adapt to a machine world. Kids are online so young these days and have only a superficial understanding, if any, of the dangers this exposes them to. I strongly believe that schools (as well as parents) have a responsibility to teach children how to use the internet responsibly in terms of keeping themselves safe.

The phrase that really stuck with me, though, was this: ‘the task of early education is not merely to prepare students for making a living; it is to help them learn how to make a life.’

In this, I saw a link to Steve Fuller’s TEDx Warwick talk, ‘Humanity 2.0: Defining humanity’, in which he establishes humanity as artifice and education as one of the most ancient forms of that artifice. He jokes that education is a dying art, which I interpreted as meaning that its original shape and purpose has changed to the point of disappearing. These days, in the Western world at least, education is imposed on the masses and is increasingly about rote-learning information. In ancient times, education was something for a select few, and it was about teaching people to live and work together – to develop skills for interacting with other people and with the world. Likewise, Monke regrets that – in part because it is allowing itself to be shaped by available technology – education is no longer about ‘wisdom, truth, imagination, creativity, and meaning’. Instead it’s about empowering students to take control of learning, setting and meeting standards, assessments and productivity.

This is something we are guilty of in corporate learning, too, perhaps. Are we (not just in online, but in all forms of workplace learning) in danger of letting outcomes replace insights? Clearly, workplace learning has a different purpose from school education, but perhaps we do sometimes forget the ‘development’ part of L&D, focusing too much on training and not enough on personal growth, learning and development. For me, ‘the human touch’ in learning comes not from a physical presence in a room or from a streamed video via a webcam, but from building a human perspective into the content, regardless of the delivery mechanism.

The other resources

There was such a wealth of resources this week, touching on so many different ideas and themes. I tried to keep myself focused on things that I could most easily link back to my work or to ideas from previous weeks, but here’s a quick round-up of the rest (excluding Neil Badmington’s ‘Introduction: approaching posthumanism’ and the short film World Builder, both of which are worth a look but didn’t quite fit in to my trains of thought here).

The Toyota ‘real deal’ advert addresses the opposition between technology and reality that’s suggested in the BT advert, amongst other resources. In this pixellated world, we are not just surrounded by but immersed in technology, and authenticity has become a black market commodity. As the main character drives the car, he starts experiencing ‘authentic’ emotion and then literally breaks out of the artificial world and into the real world (there’s also an opposition set up between the urban and the rural). Of course, his means of breaking out relies on technology – albeit not digital technology – and I also found it interesting that he doesn’t appear to become ‘real’ himself. I wonder whether this mirrors the BT advert in that they both try to present an unmediated ideal, but our reliance on technology (the telephone, the car) is such that this ideal proves impossible – and whether this parallels our attempts in education and workplace learning to inject something human into technology-mediated experiences or to create that illusion of non-mediation.

I just picked out a small moment from Steve Fuller’s TEDx talk, but his main focus is what defines humanity. He concludes that humanity is artifice, not least because there has always been ambiguity and shifting ideas about where the line is drawn between humans and non-humans, because there is such diversity in the physical and mental qualities that might define us as humans, and because not everything about us is necessary for us to be classed as human. They’re made out of meat is a darkly funny take on the same topic: what it is to be human. Initially, we assume the two characters in conversation are human because that’s what they look like – suggesting that we, at least in part, define ‘being human’ in terms of physical form. As their conversation unfolds and the situation becomes clearer, this definition of humanity collapses and lines between humans and animals (beings we’d define as non-human) becomes less clear. 

1 thought on “#EDCMOOC: being human – reasserting the human

  1. paul martin

    To me both ads are successful (unlike your final clip that I never got beyond 5 seconds) – they touch.


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