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.

Harmony and hope as pedagogies for 2018

This week’s OLDaily, the online newsletter published by Stephen Downes, includes a discussion about ‘a pedagogy of harmony’. In his commentary on Matthias Melcher’s post, Stephen Downes writes:

Maybe nothing will come out of the idea of the ‘pedagogy of harmony’, or maybe I have at last found a worthy response to the idea of the pedagogy of the oppressed and even the pedagogy of hope. In any case, Matthias Melcher has teased out one fascinating strand, the idea that our expectations make the difference between whether we are in harmony with the world or whether things sound a note of dissonance. It comes from an example offered by Laura Ritchie. Here’s what she says:  “The relationships of the notes, the ratios and intervals found within the natural harmonic series have not changed over the years, but the capabilities of reproducing the notes on manmade instruments has… What has also changed is our tolerance for adding new ideas to the conception of harmony.” As we grow as individuals, as we grow as a society, we can become harmonious in new ways, by changing (and improving) our expectations.  (Stephen Downes, Dec 21, 2017)

 

Stephen Downes’ idea of the pedagogy of harmony, Laura Ritchie’s explanation of the relationship of musical notes, the ratio and intervals found within the natural harmonic series, and Matthias’s/Stephen’s response that our expectations make the difference between whether we are in harmony with the world or whether things sound a note of difference, have all caught my attention for different reasons.

I’m not sure whether I fully understand Stephen’s idea of a ‘pedagogy of harmony’. The idea stems from Stephen’s experience of Mastodon, a calmer, slower, quieter alternative to Twitter as a social media platform. There he has written: ‘What is a ‘pedagogy of harmony’? I’m not exactly sure, but it combines a feeling of well-being and comfort and inclusion’ , which is how he experiences Mastodon.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines harmony as:

  • The combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce a pleasing effect.
  • The quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole.
  • The state of being in agreement or concord.

But, if we agree with this definition, would we want this all the time? My immediate thought was, ‘Don’t we need dissonance to be able to recognise harmony?’ and in terms of pedagogy  ‘Don’t we need dissonance to maintain interest and attention?’

Kevin Hodgson in his response to Laura Ritchie’s post has created a video in which he has written:

Some of us revel in the juxtaposition of dissonances. We are disturbances on the surfaces of one another’s waters.

Perhaps it is more than ‘revel’, more a need for cognitive dissonance to enable learning.

Another question that occurred to me is ‘Can one person’s harmony be another person’s dissonance?’ This question is sparked off by my participation in Dr Matthew Nicholl’s Ancient Rome MOOC. In Week 3 of this course we are introduced to the music of Ancient Rome, in particular the music created by aulos players.

It is clear from the discussion forum posts that this music is not to everyone’s taste. For some it creates a sense of ‘well-being’, for others it does not. Laura’s comment that “What has also changed is our tolerance for adding new ideas to the conception of harmony” makes sense to me, but it must also mean that our understanding of harmony as an idea is a moving feast.

But I like this comment from Stephen: ‘As we grow as individuals, as we grow as a society, we can become harmonious in new ways, by changing (and improving) our expectations’, which was sparked by Matthias’ idea ‘that our expectations make the difference between whether we are in harmony with the world of whether things sound a note of dissonance.’ These ideas fit with those I have been learning about in a wonderfully enjoyable face-to-face course I have just completed – An Introduction to Philosophical Literature, run by Darren Harper. Over the past couple of months we have read and discussed:

  • Week 1: Introduction and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
  • Week 2: The Trial by Franz Kafka
  • Week 3: Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Week 4: The Outsider by Albert Camus
  • Week 5: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  • Week 6: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

All these books are essentially about searching for meaning in life. Can we find meaning and if so what is the meaning of life, or is life essentially meaningless? This week, the last week of the course, when discussing Kundera’s wonderful book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we were asked:  if we knew that our life would repeat itself over and over again, without the possibility of correcting or changing anything, what would we do/change from this moment on to ensure that the repeated life would be bearable. This may not make sense to anyone else, but for me it speaks to both Stephen and Matthias’ ideas and suggests that I must revisit Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope, a pedagogy that believes in the possibility that things can change. Perhaps harmony alone is not enough as a pedagogy.

Both harmony and hope seem like fitting topics for reflection at the end of 2017.

Here’s wishing anyone who visits this post, Season’s Greeting and Best Wishes for 2018.

Developing a connectivist education philosophy

In response to a comment I made on his blog Suifaijohnmak asked me this question:

What do you see might be the philosophy (learning and educational) that could be learnt in networks (or connectivism)?

I’m copying my response here as I think this is a useful question and one worth holding in mind. I don’t have the answer to this question yet – but if for example the question was sprung on me in an interview (and I have in the past been asked to explain my educational philosophy in interviews), I would at the moment probably say something similar to the repsonse I have made to John – which is copied below.

Hi John – it would take me a while and a lot more understanding to formulate an educational philosophy that would be based on connectivism. My current thinking (but this is under continual review) is that it would be one that is based on the belief that

– learners can learn autonomously in the time and space of their choosing,
– they can negotiate their own curriculum and define their own learning paths
– they can find, select, analyse and synthesise the information they need from a variety of different sources,
– they have the skills to make meaning of this information, both working alone and with others, and thus extend their knowledge

I haven’t yet worked out where the teacher and assessment fit into this. I’m hoping that I will understand this better by the end of the course.

Thanks for asking this question John. It was useful.
Jenny