Being Human: redefining the human #edmooc

This week on the E-learning and Digital Cultures course we continued to focus on the topic being human. The four short films (1) explored ideas of trans- and post- humanism. These were supported by the core reading (2) which focused clearly on the ethics and values surrounding transhumanism.

Emma’s response:
This week I think I saw my first glimpse of utopia with Gumdrop. In my notes on this video I found myself writing positive words like integration and equality. Prior to this week’s discussion group Emma King shared our ideas about what it was that made Gumdrop seem human. We decided that it was the emotion expressed in her voice and the associated mannerism, her capacity for reflection, the slight pause before responding to difficult or unexpected questions and perhaps her sense of humour.

In response to True Skin we got into a very deep conversation about the difference between replacement and enhancement, and evolution. We talked prosthetics, heart surgery, IVF and orthodontics. Through this conversation we stumbled upon one thing that we didn’t discuss last week in relation to what defines us as human: we have opinions, for example on IVF, which we will stand by and fight for, but these opinions are subject to change if a case is presented where someone close to us is involved.

Once again we came back to an unanswered question:

what have any of the resources that we’ve been looking at throughout this course got to do with eLearning?

I feel like now we’ve come to the end of the directed learning I have an answer. The resources have provided us with some background and context on how society and culture could change based on future technological developments. Education is influenced by society and culture and so will be affected by any changes. Now after four weeks of the course I feel like I am in a position to begin making connections between these two elements and to start envisioning a future for education.

Cate’s response:
I was briefly moved by Robbie, the Catholic robot astronaut, and the human traits that he expresses, wonder, imagination, fear, could certainly trick you into believing that he is more than just a robot. It was when he came to talk about hope that my concentration wandered, as I tried to understand how a robot could possibly have such a reaction, and the rest of the video started to seem more tenuous. Unlike Emma, I didn’t find Gumdrop to be a utopic vision. Despite some rather endearing characteristics, I mainly found Gumdrop hesitant, vague and vain. I somehow expect that a robot would have the capability to avoid these traits. It is interesting, though, that the flaws I found in her are very human ones.

From the touching to the downright disturbing, the second two videos deal with the robotic in the human. Building on the eerie ‘Sight’ video from week 2 of the MOOC, ‘True Skin’ shows humans using various embedded software and hardware to enhance their experience of the world around them. I thought it was interesting that here we see technology greatly widening the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in society, demonstrating that in this world, technology is not the great democratiser that we sometimes expect. Those who cannot afford any enhancements languish in the gutters. Whilst those with the enhancements seem super-human, those without having been demoted to sub-human status.

Waiting expectantly for some clear connections to e-learning to be made, and despite some interesting points, week 4 left me disappointed. Emma is right that technology will affect education as a sub-section of society, but I feel that the MOOC and its course leaders have not really given enough direction in this area, and it has therefore not really lived up to its name. I don’t expect to be spoon-fed, and admittedly, overwhelmed by the pure volume, I have not managed to take part in discussions with my MOOC peers, but so far I don’t think I have grasped much more than I could have by picking up a good book myself. It will be very interesting to see how future MOOCS address this in terms of their content and interaction.

1. Robbie, Gumdrop, True Skin, Avatar Days
2. Bostrom (2005) €˜Transhumanist values€™ reproduced from Review of Contemporary Philosophy, Vol. 4, May (2005)

Being Human: reasserting the human #edmooc

This week on the E-learning and Digital Cultures course we moved on to the second main topic: being human. The four short films (1) explored ideas of what is valuable about being human and we were asked to think about how this can be re-asserted when human existence may be seen to be under threat from technology. Instead of core reading this week we had a recording of a talk from TEDx Warwick on the topic of defining humanity (2).

Cate’s response:
In our edcmooc discussion group (Thursday, Teaching Grid, 3pm. Shameless plug.) we demonstrated some key elements of the definition of what it means to be human. As humans we are, I think, the only race on the planet to discuss, compare, debate. And this week, all pretty stuck for ideas, we needed it! Moving on from how technology affects us, we have arrived at what it means to be human in today€™s world. Is there some irreplaceable value in human ways of being and learning? Is this undermined by technology and science?

I think that my lack of ideas this week was not helped by the €˜film festival€™ clips. From a car advert, to a short film depicting two aliens trying to understand the nature of humans, and a man creating a virtual world in an attempt to treat an ill partner, the overwhelming thrust of the clips seems to be that we can only be interesting through technological involvement. This is pretty uninspiring. We have undeniably come far beyond the hunting and fishing stage of humanity. Through using our brains to research the world around us we have earned the right to go beyond the simple Darwinian ideas of survival. In my free time I like to cook, read, go to the theatre, travel. None of these activities necessarily further my chances of survival on this planet. Frankly, I€™d be no good at hunting, I€™m much happier reading a good book, so I€™m glad that we have developed systems which allow me to partake in developing a wide understanding of the world around me.

When developing technologies then, or deciding which ones we want to use, we must not forget that we should only adopt them if they enable learning and understanding, which are the things which make us human. This could be through facilitating scientific research (the Hadron collider comes to mind), or by saving us time which we can then use more beneficially elsewehere (and here I am thinking of€¦ the washing machine!) With some rather dystopic images still hanging around from previous MOOC weeks, I tend towards the pessimistic, but maybe the chance to enhance ourselves with the aid of technology, to add or remove things from an (imperfect?) human nature, is actually rather exciting.

Emma’s response:
I’ll be honest, I struggled this week. In previous weeks we’ve seen a collection of films which shared common themes and that each seemed to build on the ideas of the former. This week the collection felt disconnected. That’s not to say I didn’t engage with them though. The short clip from the BT advert resonated; I’m currently living 250 miles from my partner and much of our communication is through social media. It makes you think about the quality of human interaction when it is through a layer of technology. Themes that I think came through and were discussed in relation to last week’s resources. We talked a little about the quality of relationships made online and the awkwardness of finally meeting someone who you have previously only known virtually. I was also oddly gripped by They’re Made of Meat. It was quirky and comical, but I’m not sure what it added to my understanding of this week’s theme.

The resources I got most from this week were the further readings (3) under the heading Perspectives on Education. These had a lot of interesting ideas that relate to the experience of students through online learning. Both suggest that there is a requirement for the human touch in the delivery of education in a virtual environment. It is something that I am very aware of when delivering live sessions online; your voice is not enough, people want to see you sitting in front of your computer too. I was particularly interested in the ideas around the development of literacy and communication skills presented in The Human Touch. To communicate effectively online, we need to have the skills to communicate offline. In using social media, we already need to have an understanding of the social contract and the responsibilities of being part of any community.

  1. Toyota GT86BT heart to heartWorld BuilderThey’re Made of Meat
  2. Humanity 2.0: defining humanity – video of Steve Fuller€™s TEDx Warwick talk3.
  3. Monke, L (2004) The Human TouchEducationNext
    Kolowich, S (2010) The Human ElementInside Higher Ed

Dystopias and Utopias: looking to the future #edmooc

This week the E-learning and Digital Cultures course continued to explore the topic of dystopias and utopias. Again we were given four short films to watch (1). The theme of the week was popular cultures and the films all focused on the blurred line between the real and virtual worlds. Through the readings (2) we branched in to looking at the impact of technology on education and specifically the emergence of MOOCs.

Cate’s not around this week so it’s just my response for now:

With the video A Day Made of Glass I felt I’d seen something close to my first vision of utopia. When I realised it was an advert I understood why – of course it’s going to depict something close to perfection in order to sell a product! Nevertheless I felt that this world wasn’t so far removed from the one we’re already living in with our smartphones and tablets giving access to information anywhere and anytime. In the discussion group this week (which doubled in size from 2 to 4 members) we talked about how access to the kind of technology visible in the forest in this film, something akin to augmented reality as far as I could see, would change what knowledge meant. No longer would we be required to remember information or use our imaginations. What would it do to conversation or discussion if we outsourced our memories for knowledge storage?

The technologies on view in Productivity Future Vision and Sight quite frankly put the fear of God into me. Productivity showed me information overload in the extreme with a world where we are constantly connected. Sight was just creepy. Both raised serious questions about what would happen to relationships and social interaction in worlds where life was so driven by technology.

One concern I had after viewing all of these films was “what is going to happen to our eyesight?” Will viewing the world through a screen 24 hours a day change our physiology? What if technology advanced but our bodies didn’t and we all ended up reliant on this technology but unable to use it? Scary.

So then we shifted gear quite dramatically to focus on MOOCs. As a group we discussed our personal experiences of this new way of learning. I think we all agreed that we were taking part in this particular MOOC to challenge ourselves and to expand our knowledge in an area that interested us and was aligned to our work; but that we were not necessarily participating for work. Personally I’m not sure whether I’m participating in the spirit MOOCs are intended – I engage with the content, but not the people. I find that there is too much noise in the discussion and other online forums. It actually clouds my ability to engage in the topic and with the resources because there’s too much information and not enough space to think.

Reading Clay Shirky’s article about MOOCs I found myself by and large agreeing with his viewpoint: MOOCs will change the understanding and practice of education. I am very interested in the idea that the disruption (whether it’s in relation to music or education) is in the stories being told, not in the activity or its outcome.

Update 27/2: Cate’s now back and here’s her response

Having been reminded of Orwell’s ultimate technological dystopia in week 1, I was motivated just after week 2 of the MOOC to pick up a copy of 1984. In hindsight, this was not fantastic timing.

I watched the first two video clips for this week without having read the descriptions. When afterwards I spotted the word “advertisement” below, I certainly had a surprise! The first two clips, it transpires, are advertisements for Corning (a speciality glass manufacturer) and for Microsoft, which give us a peek into the world they see for us in the future. Both companies rely largely on touchscreen technology and both bring technology into most aspects of day to day life.

So the day after peering into these futuristic, glass-based, technology dominated worlds, my first adventure into Orwell’s dystopian description of London in 1984 had some uncomfortable similarities. I can’t help but see echoes of the ‘telescreen’ in both the Microsoft and Corning visions of the future. For Wilbur Smith, the telescreen pumps in enforced exercise routines in the morning, and propaganda throughout the day. In the Corning video as soon as one character wakes up, she springs out of bed to choose her outfit on her touch screen. Later the only aspect of play that we see involves a small practical joke played on her father using her glass tablet. At school (even on a school trip the educational activities the class take part in are all delivered through yet more glass interfaces. Even if not overtly controlling, the frequency of the interfaces Microsoft and Corning suggest makes them feel quite invasive.

In 1984 the ubiquitous Big Brother can also use the telescreen to check your compliance with the strict rules that govern every day life. Corning and Microsoft are less forthcoming when it comes to explaining who designs their overruling systems, and whether there is a built in element of surveillance. If we take Google’s current modus operandi as an example, it is perhaps inevitable that where data can be mined, and used for a commercial advantage, Microsoft would be unlikely to miss out on the opportunity. If the systems they design are embedded so far into every element of day to day life then that gives a lot of possible data about a wide range of our preferences or routines. I’m pretty sure Orwell would have something to say about these these fresh-faced, smartly dressed characters, smilingly introducing these ever present and covertly controlling technologies.


  1. A Day Made of Glass, Productivity Future Vision, Sight, Charlie 13
  2. Shirky, C. (2012). Napster, Udacity and the academy. 12 November 2012.
    Bady, A. (2012). Questioning Clay Shirky. Inside Higher Ed, 6 December 2012.