Friday, February 15, 2013

On "The Human Touch" by Lowell Monke

Very interesting, readable document. Monke could almost be classed as a Digital Luddite but he makes some very good points about the Human Touch or the lack of it. Some of his points can be easily argued but others I find far more difficult to do so.
A computer can inundate a child with mountains of information. However, all of this learning takes place the same way: through abstract symbols, decontextualized and cast on a two-dimensional screen. Contrast that with the way children come to know a tree–by peeling its bark, climbing its branches, sitting under its shade, jumping into its piled-up leaves. Just as important, these firsthand experiences are enveloped by feelings and associations–muscles being used, sun warming the skin, blossoms scenting the air.”
This is absolutely correct but I would argue that the same applies to the traditional classroom. Give me the two dimensional screen and the abstract symbols, then let me climb a tree, feel its bark, sit under its shade and I will learn well. He tells a story about the computer game, Oregon Trail. I don’t know it at all but I can imagine it from Monke’s description. Then Monke goes on to say:
"But this completely misses the deeper significance of this great American migration, which lies not in the computational capabilities of the pioneers but in their determination, courage, ingenuity, and faith as they overcame extreme conditions and their almost constant miscalculations. Because the computer cannot traffic in these deeply human qualities, the resilient souls of the pioneers are absent from the simulation".
I remember well my history teacher writing on my school report ‘He fritters away his time”. I did. The teacher was a total bore. He presented us with no evidence of determination, courage, ingenuity and faith of the people who made history. I was bored out of my mind. What would have brought some life to his teachings? Perhaps some technology would have helped. Today I thoroughly enjoy the excitement and the drama that I can watch and almost feel from the History Channel on DSTV. I think that the advantage of the teacher in the classroom is that students have the opportunity to question, to discuss, to explore more. But technology – e.g. the computer - no longer limits that possibility. It can be done though I do confess that on this MOOC it doesn’t happen much. So yes, the Human Touch is still important and for me, a digital immigrant, I find it difficult to impart it in some of my work. I am an External Verifier for an International certification body. I have 18 centres to look after in Africa and I do nearly all of my contact remotely through the medium of the laptop and the connectivity of the Internet. It is not easy to demonstrate the ‘Human Touch’ with the centre contacts, many of whom I have never met face to face. But I try to put ‘feelings’ into my communication with them. I wonder too, how leaders of the great and not so great nations of this world would be able to lead without their human touch and their communication skills. But even then, the Barrack Obama’s of this world rely very much on technology to spread their word. His final comment is where I think Monke misses the point:
Filling schools with computers will not help find the answers to why the freest nation in the world has the highest percentage of citizens behind bars or why the wealthiest nation in history condemns a sixth of its children to poverty. So it seems that we are faced with a remarkable irony: that in an age of increasing artificiality, children first need to sink their hands deeply into what is real; that in an age of light-speed communication, it is crucial that children take the time to develop their own inner voice; that in an age of incredibly powerful machines we must first teach our children how to use the incredible powers that lie deep within themselves.
I can’t be sure of the statistics but I would suggest that the prisons have always been far too full of citizens. I do know that Zimbabwe has run out of prison space and I suspect the same can be said of South Africa. This has been done largely without technology. Add to that in Africa (without technology) a far greater proportion of children are steeped in poverty than the 1/6th of the children in the USA. And I do believe that technology can help the children of Africa to learn.


  1. dave you ought to give google hangouts a try: its like a video phone call. brings the human touch to the computer!

  2. Have you seen the work being done in Ethiopia and Africa by giving children laptops and ipdas ?

    There are critics of this but on the whole I think it is a good thing - better than the nothing they had before.

    1. Thanks Claire - I will look tonight. There is similar controversy here in Zimbabwe. All very well to give kids a laptop but not much use when there is no electricity to charge the battery and many end up disused and broken. Our school system in the rural areas has all but collapsed and probably not much better than Ethiopia these days.

    2. In Ethiopia they gave solar panels to the villagers and taught the adults how to use them for recharging the ipads.