Creating the new schooling paradigm: Educational technology policy priorities, Part 1 [due date: Jan. 20]

ISTE’s Top Ten in ‘10 list of educational technology priorities for this year is a worthwhile read (hat tip to THE Journal). Some of its items are more vague than others. For example:


2. Leverage education technology as a gateway for college and career readiness. Last year, President Obama established a national goal of producing the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by the year 2020. To achieve this goal in the next 10 years, we must embrace new instructional approaches that both increase the college-going rates and the high school graduation rates. By effectively engaging learning through technology, teachers can demonstrate the relevance of 21st century education, keeping more children in the pipeline as they pursue a rigorous, interesting and pertinent PK-12 public education.

6. Leverage technology to scale improvement. Through federal initiatives such as i3 grants, school districts across the nation are being asked to scale up current school improvement efforts to maximize reach and impact. School districts that have successfully led school turnaround and improvement efforts recognize that education technology is one of the best ways to accelerate reform, providing the immediate tools to ensure that all teachers and students have access to the latest innovative instructional pathways. If we are serious about school improvement, we must be serious about education technology.

10. Promote global digital citizenship. In recent years, we have seen the walls that divide nations and economies come down and, of necessity, we've become focused on an increasingly competitive and flat world. Education technology is the great equalizer in this environment, breaking down artificial barriers to effective teaching and learning, and providing new reasons and opportunities for collaboration. Our children are held to greater scrutiny when it comes to learning and achievement compared to their fellow students overseas. We in turn must ensure that all students have access to the best learning technologies.

Those all sound great to me, but I confess that I need to think further about what these would look like in terms of specific legislation or policy initiatives that would be implemented. In other words, for what would we ask legislators and policymakers in order to make these happen?

Ask your legislator

Here in Iowa we’ve been having our own conversations about legislative and policy initiatives for which educators, school board members, business leaders, and others should be advocating. We may not know what the future of schooling is going to look like, but I think we can already identify at least some of what the key building blocks and policy levers are going to be. Here’s a quick list, in no particular order, of some things that we’ve been discussing:

  1. Get every kid/home connected (universal broadband access, preferably wireless) [this also is an economic development priority, not just a schooling priority]
  2. A computing device (probably a laptop) for every teacher
  3. A computing device (probably a laptop) for every student (maybe start at the secondary level?)
  4. Statewide curricula that emphasize critical policy needs (e.g., STEM, global awareness) and higher-order thinking skills (e.g., critical thinking; problem solving; synthesis and analysis of complex data to make meaning; creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship; reading, writing, and multimedia creation in digital, online, hyperconnected information spaces) rather than factual recall and low-level procedural knowledge [the Iowa Core initiative is intended to do this for our state]
  5. Additional and/or different professional development initiatives that help educators (teachers AND administrators) implement the curricula described in Item 4
  6. More online coursework options for students (e.g., a statewide virtual high school; the ability of districts to provide courses for others’ students) [Iowa students’ options in this area are anemic right now]
  7. Different statewide assessments that better assess higher-order thinking skills rather than fact regurgitation
  8. The creation of and/or permission to use low-cost or no-cost electronic textbooks and other online learning materials instead of paper texts
  9. Greater flexibility for schools to repurpose existing funding streams (e.g., the ability to use textbook monies for computing equipment and learning software; removal of Iowa’s $500 minimum for equipment purchases)
  10. Repeal or revise Dillon's Rule here in Iowa, which is getting in the way of school district innovation (by essentially saying that if you don’t have express authority to do it, you can’t)
  11. Ramp up the understanding of educators and citizens about needs and issues pertaining to 21st century teaching and learning, workforce development, and a globalized economy (e.g., a statewide publicity / visibility initiative aimed at educators, school board members, citizens and community members, business leaders, the press, and so on)
  12. Utilize professional development, funding, accreditation, and/or promotion and tenure policies to make preservice educator preparation (teachers AND administrators) more relevant to new curricular and instructional paradigms
  13. Okay, your turn

    You’ve seen our list and ISTE’s. What would you add / change / delete? Contribute your ideas by January 20 and I’ll make a new list that we can collectively rank order in Part 2 of this series. Thanks for participating!

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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