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The internet and learning: From cyberspace to cyborgs in hyper-reality

Andrew Ravenscroft
London Metropolitan University


Over twenty years ago we were promised a revolutionary cyber-reality, most famously characterized by William Gibson’s (1984) Neuromancer. Both Scientists and Science fiction writers predicted the spread of an all-encompassing cyberspace that would tear apart our conventional notions of reality, replacing them with a virtual reality that would drastically change the way we learn, think and behave. This has not happened in this way. This paper will argue that, as far as learning is concerned, we have not created a landscape for ‘e-learning’ or ‘learning in cyberspace’, but instead, it will be increasingly useful to consider ourselves as ‘cyborgs’ operating in hyper-reality. We will argue that we can consider the internet as a landscape that provides the toolkits and technologies that can catalyse, scaffold and amplify learning processes that are fundamentally human. So contemporary learning will inevitably involve the close interplay of minds, machines and practices. To explain and justify this position this paper will: explore the utility of the cyborg metaphor; outline the digital, or weird, machines that provide the landscape for contemporary learning interaction; consider two particularly successful examples of technology enhanced learning and analyse these in terms of their hyper-interaction features; and, consider the broader implications for a field of ‘hyper interaction design for learning’ with Web 3.0 technologies.

The Cyborg

The ‘cyborg’ concept as it will be referred to in this paper is a development of the standard definition of a ‘cyborg’, which is:

“a person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by machine technology (as yet undeveloped). [CYBER- + ORGANISM]”
Concise Oxford Dictionary, Ninth Edition.

This paper will develop this definition to consider the extension of psychological, social and physical abilities. So for the purposes of this paper a ‘cyborg’ is:

“a person whose psychological, social or physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by machine technology”

We will argue that this definition is a particularly powerful metaphor for understanding and designing contemporary learning. Although the typical definition of a cyborg tends to assume a direct and permanent physical connection between a person and machine, it’s the permanent and pervasive nature of the capability to ‘extend beyond human limitations’ that we will focus on. In some senses this position is a development of earlier ideas in Artificial Intelligence in Education that referred to technologies that are ‘intelligence amplifiers’ or ‘cognitive tools’. The main difference is that the cyborg includes a complete person with intelligent and cognitive components that cannot be considered in isolation of their meaningful everyday activity that involves emotions, social activities and cultural practices. However, in the landscape of the internet and learning, the notion of a machine also needs to be altered, as the ‘digital machine’ is quite different from the mechanical one that has been used to characterise the cyborg in the past, as it is in many way a ‘weird machine’.

The digital, or weird, machine

The metaphor of a ‘weird machine’ is a useful way to characterize contemporary digital technologies. They are machines because they are designed artefacts that aim to improve some aspect of human or inter-human functioning (accepting that this ‘functioning’ may be more conceptual than practical), based on how we anticipate an improved state of affairs. They are weird, because unlike conventional machines they can be: powerful and yet unreliable; indeterminate in their functionality and adapted to the preferences of their users; ambiguous in their origin and ownership (e.g. open source applications); and, integrate with other machines to address general or idiosyncratic problems and opportunities (rather than being ‘competing’ products designed for specific purposes). The internet provides and supports the toolkits for producing these machines and the landscape in which they operate, where it is the degree to which these tools are becoming personalised that gives rise to a cyborgian interpretation. So the section below outlines how the combination of the weird machine and the human, conceived as a cyborg, can participate in hyper-interactions that realise learning processes that go beyond the limitations of unmediated inter-human activity.

Hyper-interactions for learning

A significant strand of work into digital dialogue games (e.g. see Ravenscroft 2006 for a review and has shown how specially designed tools, such as InterLoc (Ravenscroft & McAlister, 2006) support the sort of collaborative thinking and collective inquiry, through blending dialectical and dialogic dialogue, in ways that are virtually impossible to achieve in more naturalistic ways (Ravenscroft, Wegerif and Hartley, 2006). A pilot study of the performance of these digital games across four HE institutions (Ravenscroft, McAlister & Baur, 2006) has demonstrated how they: empower learner’s to engage in ‘thinking conversations’; scaffold the development of their dialogical and reasoning skills; and, promote fair and democratic dialogue practices. In these studies the students frequently commented that these dialogue games were better than face-to-face dialogues for a number reasons, and some were particularly enthusiastic about being given a ‘voice’ in critical discussions in ways that overcome siginificant emotional and social barriers.

Another significant strand of work, that has been ongoing for ten years, based around a Public Order Simulation Training Programme called CACTUS (Hartley, Ravenscroft & Williams, 1992; Hartley and Varley, 2002;) created and legitimised a space for learning and debate between Senior Police Officers and their trainers that, again, would have been virtually impossible to establish without this digital tool. Ravenscroft, Wegerif & Hartley (2006) pointed out that the tactics vocabulary of CACTUS provided the focus around which dialogue could be, and was based and the Strategies performed led to evolving and coordinating themes around which understanding (and differing opinions) became linked and translated. This creation of a closer common understanding of key tactics and their likely outcomes combined with the need to agree optimal plans or contingency plans within the simulation environment demonstrated ‘listening to the voice of the other’ in order to reach a better understanding of the range of actions available or decide a suitable action. Also, the trainers deliberately adjusted the simulation to address identified weaknesses in the trainees tactical plans, to guide them to a better understanding of tactical possibilities and possible outcomes.

How Web 3.0 will realise the cyborg in hyper-reality

The examples above clearly demonstrate hyper-interactions, where the technological mediation enables the sort of relationships, dialogue and thinking to be developed and realised that could not have been, or would be very difficult to achieve, in a more naturalistic way. But is this cyborgian? The answer is, ‘not quite’, because our connection to these machines is not yet permanent, but the advent of Web 3.0 will change this. The commonly held belief is that Web 3.0 will be a permanently connected, ubiquitous and intelligent net. Through our mobile and ubiquitous devices we will be constantly engaged in, or have available, the possibility for numerous hyper-interactions such as those above, that will collectively create a hyper-reality that we will effortlessly live in. Indeed, this new cyborgian world will become the norm, so in fact our machine-mediated hyper-reality will actually become our new reality.


This approach and the examples discussed present an initial case for ‘hyper-interaction design’ for learning that we hold will become increasingly important as we progress towards Web 3.0 technologies, that are typically predicted to be powerful, permanent and ubiquitous connections to an intelligent web. These ‘permanently on’ and increasingly personalised properties of the web will increase the relevance of a cyborgian interpretation of learning interaction. But central to the argument presented in this paper is that in the context of these developments, instead of searching for revolutionary virtual learning, e-learning or whatever, we should be thinking of how to design for new and powerful interactions that make human learning work better.


Gibson, W. (1984). Neuromancer, Harpercollins.

Hartley, J.R., Ravenscroft, A., & Williams, R.J. (1992). CACTUS: Command and Control Training Using Knowledge-based Simulations. Interactive Learning International, 8 (2), 127-136, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. ISSN 0748-5743.

Hartley, J R, and Varley, G A , 2002.  The design and evaluation of a simulation for the
development of  complex decision making skills.  Industry and Higher Ed. J: 16 (4), 239-248.

Ravenscroft, A. (2006). Promoting Thinking and Conceptual Change with Digital Dialogue Games, Special Issue of Journal of Computer Assisted Learning): Contemporary Issues in Science Learning (In Press).

Ravenscroft, A., McAlister, S. & Baur, E. (2006). Development, piloting and evaluation of InterLoc: An Open Source tool supporting dialogue games in education, Final Project Report, Learning Technology Research Institute, London Metropolitan University, UK & JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), Bristol, UK.

Ravenscroft, A., Wegerif, R.B. & Hartley, J.R. (2006). Reclaiming thinking: dialectic, dialogic and learning in the digital age, Special Issue of British Journal of Educational Psychology: Psychological Insights into the Use of New Technologies in Education (In Press).

Ravenscroft, A. & McAlister, S. (2006). Digital Games and Learning in Cyberspace: A Dialogical Approach, E-Learning Journal, Special Issue of Ideas in Cyberspace 2005 Symposium, Vol. 3, No 1, pp 38-51. Available online

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updated 31 January 2007