This week’s topic in #edcmooc is “reasserting the human” – a look at various responses to the apparent threat to humanity posed by the ever-increasing presence (intrusion?) of technology. It’s an interesting setup; forcing a debate on what, in fact, does it mean to be human? What are the most fundamental, essential elements that make us human? And for educators – what does it mean as we look at technology and learning?
Of interest to me are two ideas that emerge from this consideration: 1) identity and 2) embodied knowledge. I am struggling to find a proper understanding of both in hopes that it will lead to a deeper synthesis of ideas in relation to my own work in technology and learning.
Digital identity has been on my mind of late (see Personal brand and digital identity: Which I am I? for example). And it came to mind again in reviewing the TEDx Warwick talk of Steve Fuller, a professor in the department of sociology at the University of Warwick. Fuller provides historical perspective that helps in understanding “human” and “humanity” as social constructs. His talk also gives us permission, I think, to reconsider this construct. We’ve been having this debate for a long time. It should be a serious debate but nonetheless if we need to go off and add a few more spices to the current dish we call humanity, it’s ok. Or let’s re-imagine humanity altogether.
It is during Fuller’s overview of post-humanism that he brings me back to my current fixation with identity. Fuller notes that some people now identify more closely with their online self than their offline self. Now, you can take this as a phenomenon that will slide you quickly down a dystopian slope. But the aha that occurred to me when he shared this insight is this: We could be allowed to have multiple selves, with each self providing a value to our overall being. This is not a new idea obviously. I have a professional self. I have a personal, family self. And I am starting to become more acutely aware of a biological self – as I get older, watch my father age, and begin to more deeply feel the changes associated with that process.
But Fuller’s comment got me thinking about a learning self. And in particular, a digitally networked learning self. This actually connects with a pattern I have seen in non-digital classroom learning environments. I teach graduate students who are all working professionals. Students get to know each other well as they work closely together on projects. When doing this project-based work in our classes, there is a strong perception that “learning” as equally valued in comparison to performance (project outcomes). Is it the same as in their actual workplaces? Not really. Much more performance driven in the workplace. Why is that? The overriding power of organizational focus on performance, they answer.
What is interesting to me is that the people involved are identical. Just working in different contexts. I suspect — suspect — that there is an identity thing going on here that contributes in some way to the difference in experiences. The students take on an identity of “learner-professional” that is different than “worker-professional.” And that releases something. It allows them to be a different but still authentic self. The organizational context (an academic institution, presumably focused on student learning and self-discovery) still creates some constraints and is subject to power dynamics (see Rhizome-plosion for example). But my perception is that individual students may actually identify more closely with their student/learner self than their worker-professional self. The learning part is a strong attractor.
And I am very conscious of this same phenomenon in the digital learning world. Only it seems more pronounced and accelerated when it is working at its best in a networked environment. Which makes me wonder just how identity and networked digital learning come together. What helps us create a digital learning-self that stretches all aspects of our humanity? (See Learning in the Open: Networked student identities for a much more thoughtful treatment of this topic by Bonnie Stewart). Is that our role as educators – to discover the magic that helps networked, digital learners find that rich, post-humanist learning self?
At the same time I am acutely aware of the tension created by holding this vision of a post-humanist, digital learning self and the necessity of embodied experience and knowledge. Lowell Monke gets at one aspect of this in his piece The Human Touch but I don’t think he goes far enough. He certainly expresses well the importance of ethical and moral grounding as a pre-requisite for life, digitally connected:
Trying to teach a student to use the power of computer technology appropriately without those moral and ethical traits is like trying to grow a tree without roots. (Monke, 2004)
He also notes that the high-school students he’s taught who came to advance computing courses with rich life experiences were much better with the technology than those whose life had been more singularly focused on the technology. But what about sensory experience in general? There is a wonderful video used as part of #etmooc – Girls first ski jump – that touches you emotionally and provides a great metaphor for the leap we all need to take when learning something new. But there is no way the digital version can recreate the sensory experience of the girl executing the ski jump. The feel of her feet in ski boots. The sound, head in helmet. The muscle memory and mental processing necessary to actually jump, land, balance and stop.
All learning relies on sensory experiences like this. I can read and write forever about leadership or change or driving innovation in organizations. It’s a different experience altogether to be face-to-face with a group of people who are struggling to find that path to innovation, are looking directly at you in a conference room waiting for you to give them an answer, and your brain is working overtime wondering whether you say something (and what to say?) or shut up and let it play out a little longer. You feel it in your head, your heart. You hear. You see. You sense.
What I am missing in my own personal construct re: technology, humanity and education is a resolution to this tension between the sensory, embodied aspect of learning and knowledge and the wonderful, expansive, enriching digital learning self.
Someone please pinch me. In a digital networked kinda way.