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Humanism, post-humanism and the risks of adopting AI.

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Friday, 7 May 2021, 16:22

Book cover saying 'small is beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered. E.F. Schumacher.'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 University.

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).

Blonde woman with robotic smile pushing a shopping trolley with a background of different coloured egg cartons.

The robotically perfect Rachael from Blade Runner, blowing cigarette smoke out.

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 consider:

  • 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 therefore funding.

Purple background with gold letters saying: Things are getting worse. Please send chocolate.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.)

Picture of a Raspberry Pi.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 competence.

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 learners are.

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 cannot reach.

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.


List of References

Benjamin, R. (2019) Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Brown, M. et al. (2020) 2020 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report TM Teaching and Learning Edition Teaching and Learning Edition Thank You to Our Horizon Report Sponsors Platinum Partner Platinum Partner. Available at: https://www.educause.edu/horizon-report-2020 (Accessed: 18 February 2021).

Cochrane, T. and Bateman, R. (2010) ‘Smartphones give you wings: Pedagogical affordances of mobile Web 2.0’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 26(1).

Haraway, D. (1992) Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. London and New York: Verso.

M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (1947), ed. G. S. Noerr, trans. E. Jephcott, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Felski, R. (2000). Doing Time : Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture, New York: NYU Press.

Freire, P. (2020). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Grix, J. (2002) ‘Introducing Students to the Generic Terminology of Social Research’, Politics, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 175–86.

Kukulska-Hulme, A. et al. (2020) Innovating Pedagogy 2020 Exploring new forms of teaching, learning and assessment, to guide educators and policy makers. Available at: http://oro.open.ac.uk/69467/ (Accessed: 15 March 2021).

Kukulska-Hulme, A. et al. (2021) INNOVATING PEDAGOGY 2021 Exploring new forms of teaching, learning and assessment, to guide educators and policy makers. Available at: www.open.ac.uk/innovating (Accessed: 10 March 2021).

The Labour Party (2019) Manifesto 2019 - The Labour Party. Available at: https://labour.org.uk/manifesto-2019/ (Accessed: 15 March 2021).

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Noble, S. U. (2018) Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press.

The Open University (2021) ‘What is innovation?’, H817 Week 2 Innovation, an introduction [Online].  Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1729423&section=3 (Accessed 17 February 2021).

Oxford University, D. of E. (no date) The Political Economies of School Exclusion and their Consequences: Policy recommendations. Available at: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/blog/lessons-learned-from-six-years-of-learning-analytics-at-the-open-university-18-jan-2021 (Accessed: 10 March 2021).

Pilgrim (4 Mar 2021 7.27) ‘Activity 14: Evaluating an innovative pedagogy’ in H817-21B Week 5 Tutor Group Forum. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/forumng/discuss.php?d=3526321#p25349630.  (Accessed 15 March 2021).

Pilgrim, A.N. (undated). ‘Anita P Animoto Projects’. Available at : https://animoto.com/projects. (Accessed 15 March 2021).

Richardson, M. (8 Mar 2021 10:11). ‘Activity 14: Evaluating an innovative pedagogy’ in H817-21B Week 5 Tutor Group Forum. Available at:  https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/forumng/discuss.php?d=3526321#p25383624. (Accessed 15 March 2021).

Rienties, B. (no date) The power of learning analytics for a better study experience | The Open University. Available at: http://www.open.ac.uk/research/events/power-learning-analytics-better-study-experience (Accessed: 12 March 2021).

Schumacher, E. F. (1973) Small Is Beautiful Economics as if People Mattered. doi: 10.1007/9783642532580?COVERIMAGEURL=HTTPS://STATICCONTENT.SPRINGER.COM/COVER/BOOK/9783642532580.JPG.

Schleicher, A. (2020) The Impact of COVID-19 Education Insights Education at a glance. OECD. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/education/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-education-insights-education-at-a-glance-2020.pdf (Accessed: 5 May 2021).

Weller, M. (2019) Aspects of the Open: The evolution of the meaning of open education | The Open University. Available at: http://www.open.ac.uk/research/news/aspects-open-evolution-meaning-open-education (Accessed: 15 March 2021).




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