Augmentation, Technology and Learning


Douglas Engelbart begins the Introduction to Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework by offering some definitions. He writes:

By “augmenting human intellect” we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble. 

Thus, in writing about future technology, Engelbart uses the word “augment” as synonymous with “increase,” but also in combination with words like “more” and “better.”

In an article about augmented reality technologies, Carmigniani et al. (2011) “…define Augmented Reality (AR) as a real-time direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment that has been enhanced / augmented by adding virtual computer-generated information to it…AR technology augments the sense of reality by superimposing virtual objects and cues upon the real world in real time” (p. 342). Here is a short video that gives a sense of what augmented reality technologies might afford.

Carmigniani et al. (2011) also write that and that “Augmented Reality aims at simplifying the user’s life by bringing virtual information not only to his immediate surroundings, but also to any indirect view of the real-world environment.” In the National Geographic video, the example of the firefighters use of AR technology is powerful; it is fairly clear how they might better do their work with this technology. This gets back to the idea of augmentation as enhancement, or, in their words, simplification.

Of course. to increase or enhance something is not necessarily to make it better; same with simplification.

I take Engelbart to imply that increasing or adding to or enhancing human intellect is nearly necessarily an improvement. That is, given any definition or interpretation of the term “augment,” when attached to the human intellect, it’s a positive term.

Yet, I still hesitate at wholesale adoption of the term “augmentation” when applied to technologies and especially learning technology. I’ve long bemoaned certain developments in the educational technology community and often caution that “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.”  I’m not so concerned that we’re heading towards Postman’s Technopoly, but I think the great challenge to those of us who work at the intersection of technology and learning (the human intellect?) continues to be reasoned consideration of the affordances and constraints of technology; the problems we solve as well as the problems we create.

I think one of the real challenges opportunities I face as Interim Director of Online Academic Programs is making it plainly clear to faculty, staff and administrators how the Web (particularly the social web), affords new and better possibilities for learning. It is not my intent to “augment” the campus experience in the sense of simply adding courses/programs for the sake of increasing, say, revenue. I believe deeply that we can “augment” the university by increasing access to distinctive, high-engagement, deep learning experiences. I believe that we can “augment” the university by increasing opportunities for student success and college completion. I believe that we can “augment” the university by increasing opportunities for the sorts of intra- and inter-university collaborations that the Web affords. These are the sorts of ways that I can buy into technological augmentation qua increase/enhancement.

October 9th, 2013 by