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Human or Machine?

When you look at the screen what do you see? Do you see the pixels that blur together to form the image of the information being projected at you or do you see the human that created them and is communicating with you?

When things go wrong, who or what do you blame? The human or the computer? Computers blindly carry out the instructions they are told regardless of if they are correct or not. Yes, they are physical devices subject to the rigours of nature and therefore wear and tare as time progresses like ourselves that leads to failures. But in reality and given the term ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’ then when we blame the computer, should we be really blaming the human behind it? Blame however is a harsh word. Software development is difficult and takes skill based upon experience. Take a look at this video:

It is an animated representation of the all the developmental changes that went into Moodle 3.4 by everyone who made them, either directly or indirectly. By ‘indirectly’ I mean there are computers making the changes on behalf of the humans, look for ‘AMOS bot’. The animation itself was created using ‘Gource’ and I’ve left off the filenames to keep things clearer.

So ‘blame’ has many levels and degrees of severity. And the more severe the risk the more testing that needs to be undertaken. Sometimes failure is a good thing, it leads to creative problem solving and developing a piece of functionality that would never have been thought of otherwise.

Before watching the animation, did you wonder how much went into a release or the number of humans that made changes? I do appear for a short while two thirds of the way through with a very small change: MDL-60250. So when you tap away at the keyboard or press on the touch pad and things do not go quite to plan, where does the fault rest upon? The educator who created the course or developer who developed the software or a ghost in the machine that altered the result due to mechanical failure?

Computers like all machines can be frustrating but especially so for computers given their complexity and unwillingness to justify their actions in the event of an error. Take for example the saying “Computer Says No”, we want something to happen for a rational reason that makes sense to us but we get rejected by the computer. Should this be the case? Would we want to get to the end of a course only to have a sound saying ‘Moodle Says No’ indicating that you have failed the course? Ultimately computers are ‘binary’, either you get a positive or negative result. There is no real dimension to answers as you get with humans.

As learning environments like Moodle evolve to provide more automation of marking and assessment are we moving to a position where the machine is teaching us how to be humans rather than humans teaching humans how to be humans? I’m not saying that automated assessment is a bad thing. Humans, me included, dislike repetition which leads to complacency and mistakes. In computers I like ‘binary’, its ‘safe’ and not as scary as the prospect of ‘Artificial Intelligence‘ altering the way we learn to suit its own purpose. I believe there should always be in one aspect or another a human involved in the process to ‘compute’ the granularity and make the decisions for other humans.

So given this, should education and learning move towards full automation or should learning environments remain as supporting tools to the learning process? What should the future hold for us or what may it actually become?

One last thought as you read this on a computer, did a human really write this or was it a machine? Can you tell the difference? And, more importantly, will you still be able to in the future?

Gareth Barnard
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Gareth Barnard

Gareth is a developer of numerous Moodle Themes including Essential (the most popular Moodle Theme ever), Foundation, and other plugins such as course formats, including Collapsed Topics.

One thought on “Human or Machine?

  • Another very thought-provoking piece ! I tend to think of learning as a part of nature, a natural part of the process of growth, something exhibited by most animals. So even if computers can enhance this, in incredible ways in the future, it’s ultimately about how society, and each individual, think and feels about learning, and what type of priority they may give this.


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