In their 2020 review of innovations in pedagogy, Kukulska-Hulme
et al suggested we take a post-humanist approach in education. Here I argue
instead for a ‘small is beautiful’ (Schumacher, 1973) humanist approach,
particularly for distance and online learning institutions like the Open
For Kukulska-Hulme et al (2020) post-humanism supports
understanding of humans as part of the natural and also the technological
world. They acknowledge dystopian fears of robots blurring with human (p.14),
such that they take over our selves (Stepford Wives) and world (Blade
Runner). I would argue that these fantasy visions hide a ‘Real Life’ mirror
problem. Artificial Intelligence (AI) actually has human flaws. Racism is
embedded in algorithms which drive search engines (Noble, 2018; Benjamin, 2019),
sexist bias in AI recruitment programmes (Kukulska-Hulme, 2020).
The post-humanist blurring between human and machine fits with ‘progressive’ enlightenment thinking: aiming to get further, faster, higher, more efficient. The enlightenment ideal of perpetual progress was comprehensively demolished by Horkheimer and Adorno (1947), who demonstrated how continual advances that were solely technological ultimately led to National Socialism in
Germany. A critique of Lefebvre’s sexist celebration of masculine enlightenment
time as linear and progressive, compared to women who live in mundane cyclical
time (Felski 2000) can also be drawn on here to support thinking in reflective
spiral time. Passing back over the same point, at higher levels, allows for a
perpetual feminist, humanist reflection on previous action: a considered
progression which might even go back to previous (lower) levels if these are
seen to have more value.
Post-humanism also fits with the neo-liberal approach in
education criticised by Brown et al, who state that: “[t]eaching and learning
is [sic] a human endeavor” (2020, p.8). Brown points to the use of learning
analytics to recommend students not achieving optimum grades should just do
another course, regardless of their own aims in undertaking studies. (However Rientes’
humanist work on learning analytics looks at supporting students as unique
individuals with personal motivations (n.d.).)
Progressive neo-liberal e-learning projects often have a
hidden cost carried by casualised teaching staff. For example, Cochrane and
Bateman (2010) describe the successful adoption of online portfolios for
student assignments. These offered added value as they had potential as an
online showcase for students’ work to prospective employers at the end of the
course. Cochrane and Bateman report students valuing round the clock answers to
questions in study support forums. However they do not report on who moderated the
forums 24/7 – probably postgraduate teaching assistants whose labour is not
highly valued in a neo-liberal institution.
A humanist approach to e-learning projects allows us to
- Those who will learn from; and also,
- Those who will teach via; the e-technology, and,
- Senior members of the university or faculty
whose sponsorship is needed to adopt it.
One example of a low-level e-learning innovation, which can
be seen as a return to an earlier way of working if it is judged to have suited
some learners better, is offline learning (Kukulska-Hulme et al, 2020).
Across the Higher Education sector, and particularly during
the recent pandemic, there is a trend for new ‘improved’ e-learning technology,
frequently supported by data-hungry software. These e-technologies are presented
during tendering in a seductive manner by practised sales people. This cashes
in on anxiety among university technology managers not to be left behind in a
highly competitive neo-liberal Higher Education market where image as much as
actual learning provision is significant in attracting new students, and
The extreme variability of broadband provision across the UK
is such a known issue that it formed part of the Labour Party’s last election manifesto
(2019). A tutor for the Open University in South Wales, I am constantly minimising
the data used in my online teaching, to ensure access for students in remote
rural and coastal locations with poor broadband and mobile signal provision. I sometimes
have to go back over tutorials in one to one sessions with students who dropped
out of the tutorial. When teaching colleagues have asked about problems
dropping out of their own tutorial because of issues with their broadband
provision, we have been advised to tell our children not to livestream while we
teach. This is not a sympathetic humanist or feminist solution. (I wish those
people would try teaching with a small child loudly demanding chocolate down
the microphone because they aren’t able to watch what they wanted to for the
hour of the tutorial.)
Kukulska-Hulme et al (2020) provide examples of education
projects in the global South which successfully engaged learners with offline
learning, connecting them in ‘communities of practice’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991).
These could offer value not only to students with poor broadband; also to Students
In Secure Environments (prison). (Illustration on the right is from the report.)
Looking to the global South for good practice examples
offers practical solutions to similar problems in the global North. In doing
this, we also humble ourselves to an equal level with former colonies, which we
still often treat in an arrogant inequitable manner. A more equal relationship
with the global South, seeking mentoring in delivering low-tech e-learning, allows
us to hear about other ways of supporting learning. This will support a deeper
decolonisation of our curriculum delivery, and better relationships with
learning/teaching communities in the global South.
Offline networked learning supports our most excluded
students and also tutors who live in areas of poor broadband provision, by
recognising the ‘Real Life’ technological deprivation which impacts on their/our
studies/work. It also offers connections on a more equal basis with the global
South. However, it is possible that senior management in the university or
faculties will resist its adoption, if they feel pressure to buy high end data
hungry technology in order to project a glamorous image of technological
As I often tell my postgraduate students in relation to
their proposed research, Hay (2002, quoted in Grix, 2002, p.178) comments that:
“ontology logically precedes epistemology which logically precedes
methodology”. In the management of e-learning projects too, ontology should come
first. Before we decide what innovations best support e-learning, we should
decide what kind of ‘knowledge’ we want our learners to gain, and who those
At the Open University, we pride ourselves that our name suggests
citizenship values and a democratic learning (Weller, 2019). Looking to
up-skill students from disadvantaged and deprived communities, we support critical
thinking rather than banking factoids in student heads (Freire, 1973). We work
primarily with the disadvantaged, who are disproportionately less likely to
have access to technology and internet; we pride ourselves on our support for
Students in Secure Environments, on reaching the students other universities
The post-humanist stance adopted by Kukulska-Hulme et al,
encourages us to consider humans as part of the technological world. However,
this approach struggles to comprehend that the risk of engaging with
e-technology is not that humans might turn into cyborg techno-beings (Harraway,
1992); it is that our technology is always already imbued with human values.
These values include discriminatory attitudes such as racism and sexism.
We have seen how many were excluded from education during
the pandemic because they did not have the top end devices which could allow
them to access online learning from home (Schleicher, 2020). The leap to a
post-humanist approach is largely a white, middle-class and masculine leap, much
of humanity: black and minority ethnic communities, women, populations in the
global South, have been excluded; in some cases written into technology as
denigrated and lesser beings. A humanist approach allows us to return over and
reflect on these omissions (in spiral time); to check who is being excluded, fill
in gaps, identify and dismantle barriers to e-learning and to return to simpler
ways of working if we remember that these supported those of our students who
are most in want of education better.
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