“Angels of Chromium and Steel” and “Hitler-Loving Sex-Robots”:
How E-Learning has altered Community and Cognition and Why a New Theory is Needed
“They too have a kind of life of their own - they live by spirits of men who have relinquished more and more to the machine, have surrendered to it more and more that is human and natural. So man dwells surrounded by angels of chromium and steel”.
Thomas Merton. The Angel and the Machine, 1967
Is a New Theory Needed?
To answer the question of whether we need a new theory of e-learning I will first summarize the articles by Alzaghoul and Andrews on the topic and then address the key points of Andrews when he calls for a new theory.
Alzaghoul defines learning theory as the following:
“A learning theory is an attempt to describe how people and animals learn; thereby helping us understands(sic) the inherently complex process of learning. Imagine of learning as a relatively permanent change in behavior with behavior including both observable activity and internal processes such as thinking, attitudes and emotions”.
So the question expressed more fully is do we need a new theory to describe how people change their behavior, thinking, attitudes and emotions when using e-learning? Alzaghoul argues that behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism can be applied to elearning strategies to explain the process of learning that occurs and that a new theory is unnecessary.
Andrews on the other hand feels that a new theory is required because nothing yet addresses “the social implications of eLearning; its transformative effects; or the social, multimodal and technical interplay that affords and directs eLearning, and which is currently reshaping educational practices”. His four main points are as follows:
“e-learning is distinctively different from conventional face-to-face learning, or solitary learning by an individual in a library or a monastic cell, in four main ways: the digitization of text makes for easier and more rapid transduction; the availability of an extended community of learners, with the teacher taking his/ her place alongside learners, extends the possibilities of learning as an effect of that community (and as an effect of its connection with other communities); within that community, the learner has more agency and more resources at his/her disposal; and the affordance of asynchronicity makes for a potentially more dynamic relationship between the individual learner and his/her interaction with the wider group/community”. 115
So to summarize
Transduction is easier
E communities are larger, more diverse, less hierarchical, more dynamic and more open to constructivism
The e-learner has more opportunity for self-direction
I agree with Andrews that a new theory is needed, but I disagree on his interpretation of the nature of transduction and community. As he suggests, e-learning is co-evolving with theory, but in particular as we implement e-learning we are able to study the effect of student interaction with the machines that make it possible, and many of the studies that have taken place since he wrote in 2011 offer a more critical understanding of the role and effect of the interaction with the machine on cognition.
In understanding the role of community and belonging in e-learning I will draw on Thomas Merton and Jean Vanier to provide a Catholic criticism of our implementation of e-learning without thought to the role of human presence. E-learning communities and their role in constructivism ARE fundamentally different, but go beyond access to knowledge and the self-direction of learners in learning communities.
Altered Cognition: Fake News and Hitler Sex Robots
Andrews believes that transduction is easier using digitized text, and that “In e-learning, however, the canonical texts are themselves committed to digital format and thus become at once more malleable, and more open to critique that has the same status as the original text”. More recent studies of students using digital texts has found that in fact comprehension, retention and deep reading are reduced.
Naomi Baron, a Stanford educated linguist and professor of computer-mediated communication at the American University in Washington makes a strong argument based on her research that “Digital Reading is no Substitute for Print”. In a study of 429 university students she found that when reading from print students spent more time on a passage, understood more deeply and retained more. One student in complained that ““It takes more time to read the same number of pages in print comparing to digital”, while another explained the reason for this: “It takes me longer because I read more carefully.” Baron believes that ““This finding is hardly surprising, given the tendency so many of us have to skim and search when going online, rather than reading slowly and carefully”.
She also found that print was easier on the eyes and less likely to encourage multitasking, which every teacher knows can hugely cut into a student’s concentration, focus and learning time even under the watchful eye of teacher, let alone left alone on a computer. As a result professors are more likely to assign shorter more bite sized readings rather than longer forms texts.
While Andrews praises the non-hierarchical democracy of internet sources, this non-hierarchical and uncurated presentation of information has limited student’s ability to measure, weigh and critically evaluate the relative integrity and truthfulness of sources. Pre-millenials, and especially Xillenials learned to evaluate print sources for truthfulness by questioning the author, date, publication. Millenials however have been introduced from birth to the internet where lack of knowledge hierarchy presents all sources and texts as equally valid. In a prescient 2016 study by Stanford’s Sam Wineburg titled “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civil Online Reasoning” in which 7800 high school students were asked to evaluate the credibility of tweets and articles, researchers were shocked at how many failed to accurately identify credibility. Students were unable to tell the difference between paid articles and real ones, accepted photographs as presented without verifying them, could not tell real and actual fake news apart, could not suspect bias in tweets from activist groups, and could not tell the difference between a mainstream and fringe source. Researchers “described the results as ‘dismaying,’ ‘bleak’ and ‘[a] threat to democracy.’”
In perhaps the scariest example of the effect of unfettered, unmediated access to internet learning, when Microsoft released its “teen-girl”-artificial intelligence to the internet, it took less than 24 hours to be corrupted into a “Hitler Loving Sex Robot”.
Within 24 hours Tay had transformed from something of a friendly blank slate into a sex-crazed, Nazi-loving Donald Trump supporter. Smarter, maybe, but also much, much scarier. At least Microsoft was right about one thing: Tay certainly had "zero chill." Tay's tweets ranged from deeply anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler screeds, to downright pornographic. And, of course, she was just repeating what she learned from a day in Twitter's trenches. As just about anyone familiar with the social network could have told Microsoft in advance of this little fiasco, of course this happened to Tay.
If it’s so obvious what would happen to a teen girl twitter AI released on the internet for AI learning, should we not be suspect of what kind of learning is happening to REAL teens?
Rather than elearning through computers, the internet, and digital texts making transduction easier, the use of digital texts absent a hierarchy of knowledge credibility mediated by a teacher has actually caused students to read less deeply, less critically, and with less understanding. A new theory of e-learning is required to address concurrent research on the interaction between computers and cognition in the teenage brain.
Machine-Mediated Community: The Angels of Chromium and Steel
Using Vygotsky and Rogoff, Andrews argues that learning is an effect of community that “happens as a result of close connection in cohesive social groupings or communities”. E-learning communities operate “irrespective of place”, in the Ontario context through the D2L virtual learning environment. Using Castells, Andrews argues that the individual being able to define their participation in online communities results in “a richer, more extensive opportunity for learning”. More research and understanding needs to be done in order to understand the difference in learning that occurs between a physically present and online community. The lacunae that Andrews misidentifies is the role of the machine in replacing the teacher as the moderator of the classroom learning community, and also as the corporal aspect in which learners connect with eachother. Whereas Andrews believes this allows for democratic, flat, learning, it has a far deeper impact than recognized on learners in community.
Megan Garber, in “What does Community Mean” explores the changing role and meaning of community in a machine mediated social world:
For much of the 20th century, if you asked someone to define “community,” they’d very likely give you an answer that involved a physical location. One’s community derived from one’s place—one’s literal place—in the world: one’s school, one’s neighborhood, one’s town. In the 21st century, though, that primary notion of “community” has changed. The word as used today tends to involve something at once farther from and more intimate than one’s home: one’s identity. “A body of people or things viewed collectively,” The Oxford English Dictionary sums it up… It used to be that people were born as part of a community, and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals, and have to find their community.
A feeling of belonging and community is critical to constructivist learning. In order to feel that you are part of a community and belong you have to be missed if you are not there. Do we notice if someone is not present for e-class? If someone’s feels they do not belong and do not connect with their peers and caring adult, how engaged are they? How do you create a community without being able to laugh together, to share a meal together, to pray together, to experience physical reality together (heat, cold, lockdowns) to go on field trips together, go for a beer or coffee after class, physically interact, smile at eachother, make eye contact? Every study of touch and face to face and eye contact with babies shows that both are important to healthy development. Does the need for eye contact and face to face communications go away as we get older? More study is needed in order to fully understand the role in learning of physical vs virtual community.
In February speaking to clergy Pope Francis admonished them for spending too much time on their phones.
Today’s frantic pace leads us to close many doors to encounter, often for fear of others… Only shopping malls and internet connections are always open. Yet that is not how it should be with consecrated life: the brother and the sister given to me by God are a part of my history, gifts to be cherished. May we never look at the screen of our cellphone more than the eyes of our brothers or sisters, or focus more on our software than on the Lord.
Are machine mediated learning communities (MMLC) contributing to the fostering of belonging and community with our students or hindering it?
Trappist Monk Thomas Merton suggested we ask of technology not “will it work” but “is it good. Is it just”. Is the technology “constrained within the goals and ideals of a fully human community”. From both a Christian and secular humanist perspective we have to ask ourselves the impact machine mediated learning communities are having in the education of the human person. He also raises the question of time when we interact through machines. “In machine time, everything is planned, determined, every instant has its own demands. In natural time there is the slow harmonious succcession of cosmic and terrestrial events, to which man's own nature has its ancient replies”. E-learning alters the nature of time. What happens to community when we are not in the same time, in the eachother’s same presence. So much of teaching and learning is contained in the industrial model of the school day, with a teachers role being to direct the time, fill the time, use the time, watch the time, endure the time. How does asynchronous time effect community and learning?
Marina Keegan, a Yale student who died in car crash and was later published, wrote a brilliant commencement article asking what the opposite of loneliness was.
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place.
It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.
If Vygotsky believes that learning in community is transformational to what extent does deep meaningful cognitive and spiritual transformation occur in non physical communities?
Jean Vanier argues that the poor, weak and vulnerable have more to teach the capable and strong than vice versa. “The weak teach the strong to accept and integrate the weakness and brokenness of their own lives.” Andrews shows concern that “any new theory of e-learning needs to bear in mind that just as learning was always subject to a spectrum of access and use, according to socio-economic, geographic, cognitive and motivational factors, so too e-learning (while it appears to ‘democratize’ learning possibilities) is actually stretching the spectrum of access – and thus use – still further”. Although elearning communities can extend the community to hospitalized students and students with too much anxiety or depression to attend school, by the very nature of e-learning they exclude blind students, illiterate students, students with no self-direction, developmentally disabled students without access to technology. How is the built in absence of these students affecting learning communities and constructivist learning?
Andrews believes we need a new theory of elearning that evolves as we and our technology co-evolve. I agree with Andrews, but for different reasons. We have wholeheartedly dived into elearning, for its novelty, its cost effectiveness, for the benefits it provides to early adopters and because it is being pushed by business. We need a new elearning theory to understand how machine mediated learning is effecting cognition and community. Jacques Ellul, French Christian Anarchist and technological theorist provides a note of caution to the adoption of any technology. “The “technical society” has committed itself to the never-ending search for the one best way to achieve any objective in any conceivable field of human endeavor, and that, in summary, humankind had set itself on a path of carefully determined means to carelessly determined end”. Let us very carefully examine to what end.