Friday, March 15, 2019

Humanized Learning: Utopia versus Dystopia

As part of the recent ShapingEDU gathering I was invited to develop a brief utopian/dystopian vision for education in the year 2039. I chose to imagine what Humanized Learning could become, if we stay true to human values (utopia) or use it as a commercial buzzword (dystopia). I'm happy to share these scenarios here & interested in your response.

A video screen during a video conference showing a number of students on webcams reacting to news from their instructor
Students reacting to news from their instructor (courtesy @hlcdance)
Utopian: Institutional and political leaders understand and support the essential role of meaningful human interaction in the learning process. Artificial intelligence and other algorithmic strategies are used thoughtfully and carefully scrutinized for bias, with constant oversight and shaping by human hands. Students never feel that they are learning from machines because there are thoughtful, sympathetic, well-trained experts (teachers!) with whom they maintain constant communication and connection. In addition, student to student interaction and connection is incorporated into the learning journey. An ethic of humanized learning ensures that every student has the opportunity to achieve their potential, especially those who start with the greatest disadvantages. As institutions, teachers, and students get progressively more adept with learning in the online space, a greater proportion of learning is online, at a distance, technology mediated, but always with the right balance of computer and human interaction and caring teachers present throughout the journey. Over time, the student becomes a learner and the learner becomes a teacher, with each human maintaining agency in their educational journey of a lifetime.

Young woman in institutional clothing with eyes closed, in a chair with futuristic machinery on both sides of her head
"Machine learning" (from the Netflix mini-series Maniac)
Dystopian: Humanized learning continues to be a buzz-word, but is anything but human. The default learning interaction for students is based on a shallow conception of artificial intelligence, typically touted as "personalized" but reinforcing social, cultural, and economic boundaries. The shrinking class of those who can afford it opt-out of the teaching machine for themselves and their children, choosing to use instead highly-trained, human teachers and mentors. Everyone else is shunted to a dull machine-delivered curriculum focused mostly on the short-term needs of employers and the profit motives of the providers. Human interaction, when available, is typically provided by poorly-paid "customer service representatives" who are trained primarily in how to get students to sign up and continue to pay for instruction, regardless of quality. Students who fail to thrive in this system are blamed for their failure, attributed to a lack of intelligence, grit, or character.

Thanks to Samantha Becker (@sambeckertweets) and Lev Gonick (@levgonick) and everyone who helped organize and participated for a very interesting conversation at ShapingEDU. Also big thanks to Michelle Pacansky-Brock (@brocansky) and Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) whose writing and presentations have deeply influenced my thinking on this issue. And special thanks to the shameless & fearless Heather Castillo (@hlcdance) and her students for giving us a glimpse of what humanized learning utopia can look like.