Does teaching a course with a team of three instructors across two continents seem like an impossible task? Now imagine that same course examining how the boundaries between humans and machines are increasingly blurred? In this episode, Damian Schofield joins us to discuss an interdisciplinary intercontinental collaboration in which students from opposite sides of the globe examine what it means to be human.
- Bostrom, Nick (2003). Transhumanist Values Ethical Issues for the 21st Century, ed. Frederick Adams. Philosophical Documentation Center Press.
- Schofield, D., & Dethridge, L. (2016). Making robot movies: An innovative international academic collaboration to teach transhumanism. International Journal for Innovation Education and Research, 4(9), 35-49.
- Transhumanism: Global Collaboration – A 7/18/2013 video showing meetings between the Oswego and RMIT students and faculty.
- Transhumanism – Wikipedia article on transhumanism
- What is Transhumanism? – http://whatistranshumanism.org/
- SUNY COIL program – the website of the SUNY Cooperative Online International Learning program.
- Videos produced in the first iteration of this course:
- Damian Schofield’s recommended reading:
- Gibson, William (1988). Mona Lisa Overdrive. Victor Gollanz, Ltd.
- Gibson, William (1984). Neuromancer. Ace Books
- Stephenson, Neal (1992). Snow Crash. Bantam Books
John: Does teaching a course with a team of three instructors across two continents seem like an impossible task? Now imagine that same course examining how the boundaries between humans and machines are increasingly blurred? In this episode, we’ll look at one interdisciplinary intercontinental collaboration.
Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is Damian Schofield, who is a Professor in the Computer Science department at SUNY Oswego, and he is also the Director of the Master’s Program in Human Computer Interaction here. Welcome, Damian.
Damian: Thank you.
John: Ginger peach white tea.
Damian: I’m drinking Yorkshire Tea (because I’m English) with milk.
Rebecca: Of course. [LAUGHTER] There’s no other way, right? I’m drinking a turmeric ginger green tea.
Damian: See, I would argue that those aren’t teas. They’re warm fruit beverages.
Rebecca: Yeah… Well, you know, that’s sometimes what you need.
John: A few times now, you’ve offered a course in transhumanism, which involved collaboration across departments and across continents. Could you tell us a little bit about that course?
Damian: Well, first what most people ask me is what is transhumanism?
John: …and I suppose that’s a good place to start.
Damian: So, transhumanism is the study of how, in the future, humans will merge with technology. It’s already happening to some degree. We often use the word cyborgs. I would argue that most of us are already cyborgs. Wearing glasses, you’re augmenting one of your senses, and it changes fundamentally who you are as a human being having that augmentation. Having a device in your hand that connects you to all the knowledge in the world, changes who you are. But in this class, we look into the future. With the ever accelerating rate of technology development, how we are going to merge with that technology and each other, and actually change from being human to what we call post-human. Humans are going to evolve into another species through technology eventually, and very few people are talking about this. So, that’s what the course involves.
I’ve been obsessed with this technology for a long time. I even have a computer chip implanted in my hand, so I wanted to do this course and when I tried to set it up I came up with this idea to do something a little bit special by interacting with multiple departments, with other universities, with international collaborators, and to run a course that was probably something different to anything we’ve seen on this campus before. Patrick Murphy, from the English department here at SUNY Oswego, did some lecturing on the course and he mainly dealt with philosophical aspects of transhumanism. We also linked with Lisa Dethridge from RMIT University in Australia, and she mainly dealt a lot with the media aspects of the technology.
John: What was the mix of students in terms of their backgrounds?
Damian: The first year we ran it, there was a mix of students from the English department and from the Computer Science department, and they were predominantly graduate students. Over the years we’ve evolved the program, and last time I ran it, they were predominantly from Computer Science, but we allowed undergraduates to take it as well, as an advanced topics course.
John: …and what were some of the things you did in the course? I seem to remember something about robots?
Damian: …a lot about robots. It was a fun course to teach because we make the students read science fiction. We watch a lot of science fiction movies. We use episodes from Black Mirror, before it was on Netflix and famous. We do a lot of teaching computer science theory about artificial intelligence and robots, but we also teach a lot about philosophy… media…. So, it’s a truly multidisciplinary course, with different aspects taught by different professors.
John: …and it pulled all the students out of their comfort zones at some of the times.
Damian: Absolutely… way beyond. It receives some of the highest feedback we’ve ever got for any class in the department. The students… the way the response of the class… One of them came up to see me the day after a class, and said: “I left the building and walked straight past my car, and carried on walking. I walked halfway across campus before I realized, because I was too in depth, thinking about what we’ve done in the class.” …and there was another student who was very quiet in the class and I remembered talking to her towards the end of the semester, asking if she was enjoying the course, and she said my mind is blown seven times every class. I just don’t feel I can say anything. I’m thinking too much. So, it really got them. They always told me that after each class they thought: “Well, he can’t beat that one…” [LAUGHTER] …and doing something else in every class… we’d take them somewhere further into this topic.
John: So, it was probably a bit of a stretch for people who were majoring in Computer Science or Human Computer Interaction to study philosophy, and then that reversed a little bit later, from what I remember.
Damian: I love taking students out of their comfort zones. In my introduction to HCI class, when I’m teaching colour, I teach it using art theory… which all the Computer Science students having to study paintings…. It’s a challenge for them. It’s something they’re not used to. It takes them out of that comfort zone, but I like that kind of bringing in these other disciplines. So what surprised me with the philosophy was how much the Computer Science students embraced it, and when Patrick would come in and and talk philosophy, the students would surround him at the end of class full of questions…. and we’d give them extra readings and they would read it all, and then come back with questions every time. A lot of the course ran through a kind of flipped classroom mechanic, where we were handing out readings and then discussing them in class. It runs in a graduate seminar format and it always amazed me that everyone in the class read every reading, and even the undergraduates. I’m used to it with grad students, but undergrads sometimes don’t always do the readings, but in this class they did.
Rebecca: In addition to discussions in class, what else did students do? …with the information? What were their outputs?
Damian: The traditional research paper was part of it, but one of the interesting things we started doing in this class, especially working with Lisa, is working on film scripts. So the students take some of the issues that they’ve been dealing with in the class, and have to write intelligent thoughtful narratives that deal with those issues that can be filmed… and we set different topics every year… and that’s where they work with the Australian students… on generating these scripts. …and then, in a number of years, we’ve actually made the films. Mostly the films involve our robots, and we use the robots as actors. One of the interesting kind of research outputs from this that we’ve published on quite a bit, it’s that if I talk about the play Romeo and Juliet, most people immediately imagine young, white, teenagers… male and female. If we remove the race.. remove the gender… remove the age… remove all of those cultural factors and you’re left with two non gender nonspecific robots, what happens to the play? Does it change? …and we challenge those questions a lot in this course.
John: So, the students had to learn (at least some of them had to learn) how to program the robots, and how to write scripts, and how to produce videos.
Damian: Exactly. Some of the students had to learn how to program the robots. Fortunately, there’s an easy-to-use drag-and-drop interface that they can learn rather than a programming language… and we don’t ask them to do too much of that, because this is not a programming course this is a theory… philosophical course… thinking about the nature of humanity and how it’s going to change. But, being able to do something practical as well is always an interesting thing for the students to experience.
Rebecca: You spark some people’s fancy about what transhumanism is, like what would you encourage them to read?
Damian: I’m a little biased because I have my favourites. So, the work of William Gibson, which is old now… but things like Mona Lisa Overdrive, Neuromancer, and were the ones that started everything… and Neal Stephenson Snow Crash. They’re the classic novels in this area. The film The Matrix was completely based on the works of William Gibson. So, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, those would be the ones to look up.
John: We’ll include links to these in the show notes, as well as some of those papers that you mentioned. Now, one aspect of this was that international collaboration. How did you manage a collaboration across the globe?
Damian: Well, I used to live in Australia and I used to work with Lisa Dethridge, our collaborator, so we have a good personal relationship. We know each other and trust each other, which always helps when you’re doing these sort of international collaborations. The kind of problems we encounter though, are… the main one being Australia is 16 hours time difference ahead… anywhere between 14 and 16 hours depending on daylight saving. So, it’s very hard to schedule synchronous time for Lisa to talk to my students or for the students to talk to each other. The students here at SUNY Oswego have been great, though. What we normally do is we schedule additional evening classes around 6:00 [or] 7:00 at night, which is early morning in Australia, and the majority of the students turn up to those classes to talk to the Australians. A few obviously can’t due to family commitments, but there’s no real way around this… that’s the only way to do it. Also getting the students to work together is very difficult, because I can’t just add the Australian students on BlackBoard or into some collaborative environment, so I personally use Canvas which means I can control who is within the learning management system. So, we can put the Australian students and the American students together. During each semester we do four or five video conference calls between the students, where the students talk to each other. It’s always worthwhile having two or three options in case some technology doesn’t work. So, we use Skype sometimes… we use the Canvas collaboration tool… and sometimes we use GoToMeeting. It’s always good when the students have that kind of ice breaking session where they meet each other and talk about their respective cultures, and we try and get them to do some… even on the video conferencing… some discussion of their culture as well as the academic activities… and to get to know each other a little bit, which becomes important later on when we run the study abroads.
John: So do the students collaborate in small groups, or individually in addition to the group collaboration or?
Damian: Absolutely, that’s how you the group assignments work. They’re assigned into teams with some Australian students and some US students, and they’re given assignments… and different years we’ve done different assignments. One year was working on film scripts. Actually the last time I run it… was writing robot scripts together to do little robot performances, and collaboratively, which the Australians being media students, really enjoyed that they were working on these robots. …and then, of course, once the robots perform the actions that they created, we had a video conference where they could watch the robots performing the scripts they’d written together.
John: …and, I think you recorded some of those too, didn’t you?
Damian: Yeah, we have a number of little robot films and videos, we also have little documentaries we’ve made about the collaboration, and so there’s a whole set of those we can…
John: So, if it’s okay, we’ll include the links to those in the show notes as well.
Rebecca: Is Lisa’s class the same subject matter? What is her class actually studying?
Damian: Her class is a design class, but it’s focused towards technology and culture, technology and society, and particularly looking at designing for the future. It fits in very well. However, it’s very difficult in these situations to co-teach with an international collaborator for a full semester, because the curriculums have to line up enough for you to do that. With something like this just over two or three weeks, four or five videoconferences, it can be just a small chunk of your semester, where you can still get through all your other curricula during the semester.
John: …and you mentioned some travel…have you generally run travel at the end as an option for students?
Damian: Three times we’ve run this course, and every time at the of that, we run a study abroad to Australia. We usually have a group, between seven and ten students, who go on that. All three trips have been very successful. The students have really enjoyed themselves.
John: I’ve seen some other photos.
Damian: You’ve seen the photos… Yeah, I’ve put all the photos on Facebook. The students generally go for two weeks although some students choose to stay longer and explore other parts of Australia. The way I run it, I’m under no illusions, I mean we call it a study abroad but the students are going because they want to see kangaroos and koalas. So, we do around three four days work with the Australian students, and what’s really important is that the American students get to spend time with the Australian students. The work they do in three or four days is fairly trivial. It’s more important that they have the experience of spending time with the Australian students… and we then give them three or four days of what we call cultural activities, which are the kangaroos and the koalas. We take them on the world’s greatest drive, the Great Ocean Road, and we go and see some Aboriginal sculpture, and things like that. …and they also get around a week of their own time to explore and go around. And what has been really good is the American students make friends with the Australian students and in that week spend time getting to know the Australians and exploring the city and the culture with people who live there… which has been really good. This last time, a group of students went surfing, which the Australians thought was crazy because it was nearly the winter there, but of course these kids are from New York… [LAUGHTER]… they can handle the weather.
John: Didn’t some of the students do some later collaborations with Lisa Dethridge?
Damian: Yeah, we’ve worked on a number of projects with Lisa. Probably one of the most interesting ones was her dark luminance project. She created a set of digital two-dimensional and three-dimensional art works in an art gallery in Melbourne, Australia… in the city itself, in a physical gallery. …and people were going in and these artworks were interactive. You could touch them and they’d change. She then flew to New York City and an art gallery in Manhattan put the same artworks… where you could interact and switch them. …and then, she had an online virtual gallery where you could go in and interact with the artworks and touch them. And the interesting thing was if you were in Australia and touched a painting it changed in New York City and on the virtual world as well. And what my students did was they basically watched what people did in these galleries… and which artworks they interacted with… and why they interacted with some, and not others… and what did they do with the artworks… and how did they experience them in a different way virtually to the physical artworks. And we published a couple of books chapters and two journal articles on that, I think. It was a very successful project for the students who worked on that.
John: …an interesting form of human-computer interaction.
Damian: ….very interesting form…. It was a fascinating project. The actual idea for this project actually came from Lisa and I sitting in a bar in Australia, discussing the dimensionality of vision which then led us into this idea of the dimensionality of interaction with artworks and that’s what most of the papers talked about.
John: So, this course was offered as one of the COIL courses in the SUNY system (and COIL stands for Collaborative Online International Learning).
Damian: Yeah, the SUNY system, through SUNY Global, has this initiative for promoting collaboration with international colleagues in teaching. And we’ve started a number of COIL courses here at SUNY Oswego. I believe this was one of the first ones we did. And the COIL Center has this whole set of resources to help you set these up, and also to meet international partners, and help you get through the mechanics of physically doing something like this. However, I’ll reiterate again that if you are going to do something like a COIL course, you’d need to get to know the person you’re working with. It’s kind of crucial that you have a good relationship with the person overseas for this to work. The other thing I’d recommend by international collaboration, which made things a lot simpler, was separating assessments, so that I don’t assess the Australian students… Lisa doesn’t assess all students. From a administrative point of view, it just keeps everything a lot simpler.
John: When I taught a COIL course a couple of years ago, I did the same sort of thing. It’s much easier if you grade your own students, because each program. each institution, each department has their own grading standards. And it’s much simpler for you to apply those individually . I’d also like to re-emphasize the importance of having that good relationship. When I was working with my partner we were working on this course, we meet online for at least an hour every week to talk about how things were going, what we needed to change, and how to adapt things based on what was happening in the course. It’s really important to have that discussion because I know we’ve had some other COIL courses where those communications broke down and it didn’t go quite as well.
Rebecca: So we usually wrap up with questions about what you might be doing next. So do you have any new plans related to this class or other international collaborations?
Damian: What we’re trying to do at the moment… we run the trip to Australia every second year. It’s not something you can run every year because the same students are still in the system. So, in the year in-between we run different collaborations… couple of years ago, students went to Spain. This year we’re taking students to work with Jolanda Tromp, who used to work here in Computer Science, and we’re taking them to work in her virtual reality lab in Vietnam. So, we’ll be going over there in May with a group of students and we’ll be working on medical VR systems over in Vietnam this summer.
Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.
Damian: Yeah, it should be fun.
John: Jolanda is still working with a lot of people, she’s part of a SUNY task group on mixed reality and she’s been very active in that.. despite the time difference.
Damian: Yes, Jolanda’s still very involved in our department. She’s still supervising research students, and even delivering some summer courses for us.
Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for sharing your experience and hopefully inspiring other faculty to think about international collaborations.
Damian: You’re welcome.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.