And no, I’m not talking about the controversial song by Robin Thicke. I’m talking about how humans and technology are increasingly overlapping, interacting, merging into one and the same. Although not as popular as the internet ragings of Mylie Cyrus and her performance at the MTV music awards, critically exploring the impact of technology on humans, cultures, and the implications for learning does make for an interesting debate.
On Human Needs
In my MOOC on eLearning and Digital Culture (EDC MOOC), we spent the past two weeks debating what it means to be human – capacity to reason, ability to feel complex emotions, among other variables – and whether or not it is possible for technology to take on human characteristics. We watched several futuristic videos where robots possessed these very human qualities. And so the debate focused around whether technology was positively or negatively impacting our very quality of life as human beings.
It is without question that technology has allowed for a better quality of life for human beings today. Technology saves and extends life: we do not question the value of devices such as pace-makers for those with heart-conditions, or advancements in ultra-sound technology that allows doctors to diagnose life-threatening issues long before what was previously possible. But, as we move past the basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, does the role of technology change? Is the increasing presence of technology still a positive force?
Some researchers say that technology is negatively impacting how we process emotions and interact with others. In Prof. Susan Greenfield’s article, “How digital culture is rewiring our brains“, she argues that with social networking, there is less body language and physical contact, which has resulted in a decrease in ’empathy’ in society today; she even points to recent studies that validate her perspective. Susan’s argument is not new. In fact, Robert Putnam lamented the same sentiment over a decade ago in his book “Bowling Alone: the Collapse & Revival of American Community“. The following video from Geof Glas, PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University, builds off of Putnam’s book, illustrating how the internet has pivotally changed how communities, neighbours and even immediate families interact. It also explains why there are so many cat videos on the internet, something that truly fascinates me!
Perhaps the transformation of how we interact with others and the need to communicate through online channels was the foundational piece for MOOCs. Humans – at least in the developed world – are spending more time in the privacy of their home, behind a screen, but still have to satisfy their need for belonging, relationships and accomplishment. Enter MOOCs – a platform to engage learners, channel their conversations, create new communities based on interests, and allow self-guided learning. MOOCs are a new method of delivering on the changing psychological needs of society, while allowing new opportunities for those that previously did not have access to such institutions. Is this the future of learning? Will my children attend university online, from home? If you read my previous post, you will see how far we are from reality today – yet the current of change is real, will happen, and once in motion it will pick up speed.
Clearly, to me at least, the impact of technology on humans cognitive abilities is profound. For better and for worse, our society is evolving to a new reality where technology plays an integral role in all facets of our lives. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D., explains in his article in Psychology Today that there are two types of intelligence:
- Fluid: the ability to acquire and process information. Like computers, humans’ RAM capacity has been increasing over time.
- Crystallized: stored knowledge. However, Tomas suggests that intelligence today is less about the “knowledge they can store [and more about the] capacity to connect to a place where they can retrieve the answer to find a solution” (Is Technology making us stupider?)
Tomas concludes by arguing that the education must adapt to these new learning realities – from K-12 through to higher education. Schools need to be teaching students how to find, retrieve, and assess information, translate it into knowledge, and use it to solve complex problems. Memorizing is not useful as today more information than one could ever want is available in one simple search. We need to start seeing this shift in our classrooms today.
So what does this new learning environment look like? Many have documented their perspectives on the future classroom, where technology allows the lines between classroom and environment to dissolve, and hands on, applied learning is an integral part of learning. In the EDC MOOC, we reviewed a few videos and articles that hypothesized what the classroom might look like. Here is one new video that I found particularly interesting:
In the above video, although the device is a core part of their class, it is not the focal point. Rather, the device serves multiple purposes – a camera, an interactive multi-dimensional screen, a communication tool. It allows students to interact on a share project, and to take their learning beyond a desk and even classroom walls. Learning likely is much more fluid – ebbing and flowing with the dynamics of the student body – and much less crystallized. One very interesting observation on the video — the students are learning, working, and interacting – but not writing. Even this MOOC encouraged visual artefacts over word. Is the written word becoming less relevant, and eventually unnecessary?
There is no stopping the technology train. The benefits of technology are profound. Technology will continue to enable humans to serve our basic human needs more efficiently, using less resources, reaching more parts of the world than ever before. And as this article suggested, societal norms are already changing with the widespread adoption of not only social networking, but also gaming. Technology is increasingly a tool we rely on for basic, every day needs. Indeed the lines are blurred.
What we as educators need to do, is truly understand the full impacts of these changes and begin to adjust how we delivery curriculum across all school levels, to better engage all learners, young and old. We need to now blur the lines of technology and learning, so that the technology is ubiquitous in the classroom, allowing students rich and engaging learning experiences.