Human enough

It is with glee that the proponents of e-learning trumpet the results of studies such as the US Department of Education’s Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, which found that, on average, online instruction is as effective as classroom instruction.

And who can blame them? It is only natural for evangelists to seize upon evidence that furthers their cause.

But these results mystified me. If humans are gregarious beings and learning is social, how can face-to-face instruction possibly fail to out perform its online equivalent?

That was until I watched Professor Steve Fuller’s Humanity 2.0 TEDxWarwick talk in Week 3 of The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures course.

The professor explains with wonderful articulation how difficult it is to define a human.

Sure, biologists will define humanity in terms of DNA, yet they can’t even agree on whether the Neanderthals were a subspecies of Homo sapiens or a separate species all together.

If we remove our gaze from the electron microscope, we have our morphology. Perhaps a human is an organism that has five fingers on each hand? But does that mean someone who is born with four (or six) is not human?

Perhaps a human is an organism that uses tools? Well, vultures drop rocks onto eggs to break them open.

Perhaps then a human is an organism that uses language? Whales might have something to say about that.

It is an intriguing conundrum that has occupied our thoughts since anyone can remember.

Title page of the first edition of René Descartes' Discourse on Method.

In the 17th Century, René Descartes made an intellectual breakthrough. He contended that “reason…is the only thing that makes us men, and distinguishes us from the beasts”. In other words, we are the only creatures on God’s earth capable of rational thought. I think, therefore I am.

Descartes pushed his point by arguing that while a robot might one day be developed to speak words, “it is not conceivable that such a machine should…give an appropriately meaningful answer in its presence”. And despite astonishing advances in artificial intelligence, the philosophical Frenchman remains right. Even Watson, who triumphed at Jeopardy! and today mines big data to help humans make better decisions, can not reasonably be considered a human itself. It is simply a product of computer programming.

Speaking of machines, if a human were to progressively replace her body parts with robotics – hence becoming a cyborg – at what point does she cease to be a human? According to the humanist tradition of Descartes, the absolute difference between a human and a non-human is a property of the mind. So, arguably she will remain a “human” until her brain is replaced.

But that begs the question: if we flip the scenario around and place a person’s brain in a robot’s body, does that make it a human?

All this philosophy starts to do my head in after a while, and that’s before getting into Freud’s posthumanism.

Somehow I prefer Joseph Gliddon’s simpler definition of a human: something that drinks coffee.

Cup of coffee next to a laptop

It’s not as flippant as it sounds, for it is our artificial enhancements that paradoxically make us more human.

Riding a bicycle, for example, is a quintessentially human endeavour. No other creature does it. Yes, a monkey might do so in the circus, but the reason we find it funny (or at least unusual) is because it doesn’t normally do that. The poor thing is mimicking a human.

Similarly, digital technology is an extension of our notion of humanity. Humans are the only organisms that use computers, surf the Web, write text, film video, record audio, and engage with one another in online discussion forums.

So when we view online pedagogy through this lens, we recognise very little of it that is not human. Consequently the strong performance of online students becomes less mysterious. In fact, it becomes expected because, just as a bicycle enhances our capability for travel, digital technology enhances our capability for learning.

This expectation is supported by a further finding of the Department of Education’s research – namely, that “blends of online and face-to-face instruction, on average, had stronger learning outcomes than did face-to-face instruction alone”. In other words, students who had the technology via the blended design performed better than those who didn’t.

But it doesn’t work in reverse: “the majority of…studies that directly compared purely online and blended learning conditions found no significant differences in student learning”. In other words, those who had the face-to-face interaction via the blended design performed no better than those who didn’t. Apparently the online instruction was human enough.

OK, on that bombshell, I think I’ll ride my bike to the cafe and pick up a cup of joe…

11 thoughts on “Human enough

  1. “for it is our artificial enhancements that paradoxically make us more human”
    I really like this sentence, a lot of concepts compressed into a handful of words. Used wisely, technology can allow us to more fully express our humanity.

  2. Yeah I highlighted that line too, it’s great!… but I was a bit speechless reading this otherwise delightful post here at the ‘perhaps’ in the statement about language being what makes us human… whales have absolutely nothing to ‘say’ about that, or anything else, as far as I know… of course animals and insects and all living creatures ‘communicate’, to keep the group going, but that isn’t anything like human language… And it language that Descartes is talking about, and that we’re doing in writing and reading here now online, and it’s creative language behaviour that machines are never doing, because they can’t – they aren’t human… the human part is not just the production of text, but its interpretation… the making of meaning.
    Well that’s what I think anyways, because I’m just a mindless tool of such discourse!

  3. @ Joseph Gliddon – Thanks! I like your idea of “expressing” humanity.

    @epurser – “Speechless”… lol, I get it. I take your point though, Emily. I’m no language expert so take my POV on that with a large grain of salt.

    @ Kajal Sengupta – Thanks Kajal. It’s always nice to meet a kindred spirit.

  4. Hi Ryan
    Interesting read! I liked the line “just as a bicycle enhances our capability for travel, digital technology enhances our capability for learning” and I definitely agree with this. Technology is very much the vehicle that can create new and different learning opportunities.

  5. the ‘expression’ of identity and humanity is an established metaphor, but I think this course is actually encouraging a re-think on that one, by preferring the word ‘represent’, and tasking us to create multi-modal texts (ie not just language but also image and sound) to represent our response to what we’re reading and hearing and seeing in this space… there are often a load of assumptions that go along with the notion of ‘express’, such as there being some essential quality or experience that locates ‘inside’ the human body which we ‘bring out’ through media that are themselves then assumed to be neutral – the meaning is ‘inside us’, and we simply pass it along to another person who then ‘gets’ what we mean, passively…. these are inherited metaphors that I think are quite seriously challenged by some of the readings offered here for our consideration… like, where are we if not in the representations we make? And given that so much of what and how we represent to share involves various technologies, how indeed can we continue to image our ‘selves’ separate from all the technologies of our literacy and social being? all great food for thought :)

  6. @ Matt Guyan – Cheers Matt.

    @ epurser – I didn’t realise the EDCMOOC would get so deep! Certainly is food for thought…

  7. Excellent point, Claudia. A monologue is a monologue, whether it’s live or recorded. Nothing else is really achieved in a face-to-200-faces situation.

  8. “I think therefore I drink coffee” could be an adequate definition of being human, especially when dealing with distance learning – I drink more tea (not coffee) when I read journals, textbooks, etc. and i’m learning than at any other stage.

    Conversely, at what point does our digital self, grown from our digital footprint, become ‘human’ and, worse, self-aware? Once we converge the artificial reality of robots with a ‘learned’ history and background based on someones actual online persona … does that ‘entity’ become human?


  9. Excellent points David, and “I think therefore I drink coffee” would look great on a t-shirt!

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