Skills for ‘Being’ in a Digital Age

I have been puzzling over George Siemens’ idea that learners need to develop ‘being skills’ if they are to cope with what it means to be human in a digital age.

George discusses this with Neil Selwyn in an interview recorded for Monash University, Australia, Faculty of Education.

George does qualify, right at the beginning of the interview, that his question ‘What does it mean to be human in a Digital Age?’ is posed from a learning in knowledge development angle. During the interview he says that technology can ‘out know’ us, artificial intelligence is taking over human roles, and that in the future technology will become a co-agent rather than an enabler; you, me, colleagues, algorithms and robots will all work together in a techno-socio distributed learning model. George tells us that learners (humans) need to learn how to participate in this and that this will be through ‘Being skills’ which, as yet, machines can’t succeed at. He says we are necessarily entering a ‘being age’ because the technological systems around us are more intelligent than we are.

My immediate thought was that this is not so much a techno-sociological issue, or even an education issue, as a philosophical, ethical issue, which will involve deep inquiry into robot and machine ethics and the nature of ‘being’.

I have recently attended an ethics day course, in which in one session we discussed robot ethics in relation to whether we can teach robots ethics – see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-41504285  and https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b098ht04 . I have also attended introduction to contemporary philosophy and epistemology courses in which we were introduced to how some of the great philosophers in our history have thought about knowledge and being. So philosophy, epistemology and ethics have all been on my mind recently.

George said that he has only just started this work, and that his ideas are still emerging/forming, but  I wondered how philosophy and ethics will fit into his future work.

I then came across this article – ‘Our Technology Is Our Ideology’: George Siemens on the Future of Digital Learning‘ –  in which the author  Marguerite McNeal (Aug 11, 2016) writes of George

Throughout his various projects, of which there are too many to track, he focuses on education’s potential to develop the capabilities that make humans unique. Affect, self-awareness and networking abilities are all traits that separate mankind from machines and will be important for work and life in an increasingly automated world.

This reminded me of what Iain McGilchrist said about the difference between living organisms and machines, on a course I attended earlier this year (see posts on The Divided Brain):

According to McGilchrist there are eight things that differentiate living things from machines:

  • An organism cannot be switched off. There must be an uninterrupted flow from the origins of life.
  • A machine is at equilibrium. An organism is far from equilibrium. A cell carries out millions of complex reactions every second. Enzymes speed these up to a thousandth of a second.
  • The relationship between steps and an outcome are different in machines and living organisms. In an organism there are no steps – there is a flow of process.
  • In living things there is no one-way step. Interactions are complex and reciprocal.
  • The parts of a machine are static. The parts of an organism are not static, they are constantly changing.
  • An organism is aware of the whole and corrects for it in its parts (see the work of Barbara McClintock)
  • Organisms have no precise boundaries.
  • Machines don’t generate other machines from their own body parts.
  • Machines’ code is externally generated. Organisms manufacture their own instructions.

For McGilchrist, things come into ‘being’ without being forced (p. 230/231 The Master and His Emissary; see reference below)

“The feeling we have of experience happening – that even if we stop doing anything and just sit and stare, time is still passing, our bodies are changing, our senses are picking up sights and sounds, smells and tactile sensations, and so on – is an expression of the fact that life comes to us. Whatever it is out there that exists apart from us comes into contact with us as the water falls on a particular landscape. The water falls and the landscape resists. One can see a river as restlessly searching out its path across the landscape, but in fact no activity is taking place in the sense that there is no will involved. One can see the landscape as blocking the path of the water so that it has to turn another way, but again the water just falls in the way that water has to, and the landscape resists its path, in the way it has to. The result of the amorphous water and the form of the landscape is the river.

The river is not only passing across the landscape, but entering into it and changing it too, as the landscape has ‘changed’ and yet not changed the water. The landscape cannot make the river. It does not try to put a river together. It does not even say ‘yes’ to the river. It merely says ‘no’ to the water – or does not say ‘no’ to the water, wherever it is that it does so, it allows the river to come into being. The river does not exist before the encounter. Only water exists before the encounter, and the river actually comes into being in the process of encountering the landscape, with its power to say no’ or not say ‘no’. Similarly there is ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves’, but ‘whatever it is that exists’ only comes to be what it is as it finds out in the encounter with ourselves what it is, and we only find out and make ourselves what we are in our encounter with ‘whatever it is that exists’.”

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

For McGilchrist the way forward is to recognise the nature of the problem, that we are living in an increasingly left hemisphere dominated world. He thinks we will have to cope with profound change and that will involve our individual practical selves and training ourselves out of habits of mind. We will have to question and invert things to see if we can find truth. We will have to change the way we spend our time, by first stopping a lot of what we do, switching things off, making space, and being quiet. For McGilchrist the answer is to create a different world and change our culture.

McGilchrist didn’t mention ’being skills’, but it seems to me that his concern is that we need to find a new way of ‘being’ in this technological left-brain dominated world. His work is steeped in philosophy, ethics and scientific research.

I wonder if George’s work on ‘being skills’ will cover any of this.

There are No Things. There are patterns.

As we can see from his website, Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,  is working on a number of further books, but the one that he talked to us about on the Field & Field course that I recently attended in the Cotswolds, was the one which bears the title: ‘There are No Things’, a book on epistemology and metaphysics.

Iain told us that this follow up book to The Master and his Emissary will focus on how everything is changing, flowing, connected and never fixed. He told us that if we could slow things down enough we would be able to see the mountain behind his house flowing.

Source of image: http://player.lush.com/tv/matter-relative-matter-iain-mcgilchrist

Iain’s new book will make the case for no static and separate things, but instead relationships and patterns. For me, this brings to mind Stephen Downes’ work on the theory of connectivism and an early article that he wrote on his blog in 2009, where he wrote:

[Knowledge] is not an object (or objective), it is not discrete, it is not a causal agent. It is emergent, which means that it exists only by virtue of a process of recognition [pattern recognition], as a matter of subjective interpretation. 

  • Knowledge is not an object, but a series of flows; it is a process, not a product.
  • It is produced not in the minds of people but in the interactions between people.
  • The idea of acquiring knowledge as a series of truths, is obsolete

Even earlier than this in 2007  Stephen was writing about connectivism as follows:

At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.

It shares with some other theories a core proposition, that knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing (https://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html)

The first time I heard Iain speak he told us that his follow up book to The Master and his Emissary would be a book entitled: The Porcupine is a Monkey.  The intention was to write ‘a popular Master and his Emissary’, a book that would discuss how science and education have become increasingly left-brained, but this book has been abandoned. He felt it would be repeating much of the work he has already done.

So Iain has moved away from an explicit focus on education, although clearly his work has implications for education, but Stephen has addressed how connectivism might influence pedagogy. He has written that connectivism:

… implies a pedagogy that (a) seeks to describe ‘successful’ networks (as identified by their properties, which I have characterized as diversity, autonomy, openness, and connectivity) and (b) seeks to describe the practices that lead to such networks, both in the individual and in society (which I have characterized as modeling and demonstration (on the part of a teacher) and practice and reflection (on the part of a learner)). https://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html 

But both authors, as philosophers, are interested in the relationship between knowledge and ‘truth’.

Iain told us that the first part of his new book will attempt to answer the question of what we mean by ‘truth’. In the Master and his Emissary he writes

‘Truth is a process.’ (McGilchrist, p.154).

‘No single truth does not mean no truth.’ (McGilchrist, p.150).

‘The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’. If we had no concept of truth, we could not state anything at all, and it would even be pointless to act. There would be no purpose, for example, in seeking the advice of doctors, since there would be no point in having their opinion, and no basis for their view that one treatment was better than another. None of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.’ (McGilchrist, p.150)

Stephen, in one of the quotes above, doesn’t write about a single truth so I am not sure what he thinks about this or whether or not he and Iain would agree about what we mean by truth. But it does seem to me that they agree on some epistemological positions, principally that ‘One must never [] lose sight of the interconnected nature of things’ (McGilchrist, p.154). The importance of patterns, relations and processes seem to be recognised by both.

The work of both authors work has implications for education, epistemology, and understanding our world and our existence.

16-03-2018 Update: Stephen Downes’ responds (Thank you).

I’ve said in the past that knowledge is recognition, and if I were pressed to describe what I think truth is, I would say that it is a strong feeling of recognition. This I think is consistent with what the early empiricists (like David Hume) would say. Formally, truth is an attitude toward a proposition: we say that a propositoon is ‘true’ or ‘not true’ and then try to explain that through an interpretation (such as Tarski’s theory of truth, or model theory, or some such thing). That makes truth easier to work with, but only because it abstracts the messier reality. Having said all this, I think this puts me in accord with Iain McGilchrist, cited by Jenny Mackness in this article, when he says things like ‘No single truth does not mean no truth.’ http://www.downes.ca/post/67894 

16-03-2018 Update

See also notes from last years course – Where we can go for Truth – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/08/31/exploring-the-divided-brain-where-can-we-go-for-truth/

Ontology, epistemology and pedagogy of networked learning

This was the subject of one of the threads in the 4th Networked Learning Hot Seat  last week.

Teresa’s request in a comment on my last post –   that I write something about this has prompted this attempt – but I am writing this as notes to myself and therefore am only including here the aspects of discussion that were of interest to me and from my own interpretation. To get a full picture of the discussion you will need to go to the Hot seat link.

I had difficulties relating to some of the ways in which networked learning was being discussed.  In the first Hot seat it was defined by Peter Goodyear as:

learning and teaching carried out largely via the Internet/Web which emphasises dialogical learning, collaborative and cooperative learning, group work, interaction with on-line materials, and knowledge production.

And then in this Hot seat it was defined by David McConnell as:

the use of Internet-based information and communication technologies to promote collaborative and co-operative connections: between one learner and other learners; between learners and tutors; between a learning community and its learning resources, so that participants can extend and develop their understanding and capabilities in ways that are important to them, and over which they have significant control.

And as I mentioned in my last post about this, David McConnell wrote:

Networked Learning is based on:

  • Dialogue
  • Collaboration and cooperation in the learning process
  • Group work
  • Interaction with online materials
  • Knowledge production

It was the emphasis on collaboration and cooperation that made me feel a bit as if I was on a different planet, but because I arrived late in the Hot seat I had missed David McConnell’s explanation….

I think the definition is narrow in the sense that it reflects an interest in NL within formal educational settings which are defined by students taking courses, being assessed and gaining credit, where they are learning in groups and communities of a well defined nature where members know each other (intimately, intellectually, socially etc) and are working towards collective goals.

Once you move beyond these confines into “networks”, the meaning of networked learning changes I think. I am aware that in the discussions here there are differences in the way members are conceptualising networked learning, and I think some have in mind “networks” (of learners) rather than networked learning in the way we have conceptualised it.

….which exactly describes where I am coming from and why I initially felt at sea with what was being discussed. Having accepted that the definition that was being used as the foundation for discussion in the Hot Seat was narrower than one I would use in relation to my own work, I was able to turn my turn my attention to the aspects of ontology, epistemology and pedagogy that were being discussed, which were not confined to that discussion thread and which were not kept in discrete discussion areas either.

These are the ideas which I found most interesting:

Relational dialogue for me is an integral part of a social constructionist view of learning where what we know and who we are gets constructed in the interactional and relational dialogue, or some prefer to say, learning conversations that we engage in, in general as well as online.

We can look at this in the very conversations we are having in this hot seat – in terms of what we are coming to know through these exchanges/conversations and how we are each being ‘constructed’ in terms of our online and also offline identities. Something worth considering and reflecting on as we proceed I think.  (Vivien Hodgson)

It’s the process of dialogue that helps them (students) reflect on their learning, be open to asking and responding to questions about their learning. It’s that reflective process that can help learners go beyond just sharing views and beliefs, to digging into them and trying to work with them. (David McConnell)

Networked learners will be “critically reflective and seek to take an ethical and responsible perspective to what they learn and how they act in the world (Vivien Hodgson)

Important to us is the nature of meaning and understanding of knowledge and of the world that is constructed and how it contributes to the wellbeing of society and the world in which we live. (Vivien Hodgson)

There were also interesting discussions related to assessment and whether or not participation in online discussion/networks should be assessed. For example:

David provided further information in an excerpt from Chapter 4 of his book

McConnell, D. (2006) E-Learning Groups and Communities. P. 209) Maidenhead, SRHE/OU Press      Onlineassessment_DMcC-1

And Vivien provided a link to her interesting paper on the tyranny of participation.

Ferreday, D. & Hodgson, V. (2010) Heterotopia in Networked Learning: Beyond the Shadow Side of Participation in Learning Communities. Lancaster University Management School Working Paper.  http://www.lums.lancs.ac.uk/publications/view/115/

It was acknowledged that a course based on principles of participation and collaboration will fail if participants do not interact, ‘listen’ and ‘take care of the community, but the potential for marginalizing students who do not, for one reason or another, embrace this culture, was also recognized. This led to a brief discussion on power relations in networks.

The constraints of assessment on learner autonomy were also recognized, hence the emphasis on self-assessment, peer-assessment and negotiated assessment.

But the Hot Seat ended with a recognition that:

Each context is different, and each context has conditions framed by the teachers and the learners. So, as you say, we do have to be aware of who the learners are and what they are there for.

I think we can design courses and learning events that are built on socio-constructionist principles and which reflect many of the networked learning attributes that we outline in our introduction. But their implementation then requires negotiation with learners, and the final learning and teaching processes may then take on their own particular ‘shape’ depending on those negotiation processes. (David McConnell)

So plenty  here to think about in terms of pedagogy, ontology and epistemology (in that order?)