Online multimedia textbooks: A strategic investment
Honorable Margaret Spellings
United States Department of
400 Maryland Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20202-7100
Dear Secretary Spellings,
The United States Department of Education currently administers a budget of
approximately $56 billion per year in discretionary monies. I am sending this
letter to encourage the Department to make a relatively small, but extremely
strategic, investment that would pay enormous dividends for our nation's
elementary and secondary students.
For $200 million per year, the Department could create phenomenal,
mind-blowing online multimedia textbooks that could be used by students all
across the country. Imagine 50 teams, each made up of individuals who took a
paid sabbatical for one year, working to create rigorous, standards-based,
online textbooks that included text, graphics, electronic presentations, audio,
video, simulations, learning games, interactive problem-solving and review
activities, etc. The teams could be comprised as follows:
- 16 expert teachers * $100,000 each = $1,600,000
Four teachers plus a professor plus two programmers equals a workgroup; four
workgroups per team. Each team receives ongoing feedback from a representative
from an appropriate national organization (e.g., National Council of Teachers of
Mathematics, National Council for Social Studies), has an assistive technology
expert to ensure content accessibility by students with disabilities, and has a
project manager to keep the workgroups moving along. The workgroups create
content; post that content online as they go along for review, comment, and
input from others; and, over the course of a year, create several units each
that add up to a complete, amazing, deep, rich online multimedia textbook.
Each year would see the completion of 50 textbooks. Over three or four years,
these Department-sponsored teams would create 150 to 200 textbooks for common,
key courses (e.g., Algebra I, Physics I, AP English, United States History, 5th
grade reading) that are present in nearly every school district nationwide.
Textbook content would be refreshed every three or four years to ensure content
relevance and usage of the latest digital technologies. If the textbooks were
wiki-based, much of the content could be revised and updated even before their
refresh cycle came due.
Once created, these textbooks then could be hosted by the Department, state
departments of education, and other entities or could be downloaded for hosting
on local school district servers. Federal provision of these textbooks would
free states and school districts to spend funds on laptops, classroom-level
high-speed wireless connectivity, and other technologies necessary to ensure the
global competitiveness of our students in the decades to come. All textbook
material would be free and openly accessible to our nation's K-12 students and
I hope that you can see the instructional power of teachers and students
tapping into expert-created content delivered via the latest interactive,
engaging digital technologies. Although a few organizations (e.g., Wikibooks or
Curriki) are attempting to create free online textbooks or learning materials,
their reliance on volunteers has resulted in relatively little progress. A
strategic investment by the Department could make an extremely powerful
contribution to the K-12 educational landscape and would be a powerful lever
toward ensuring that all students had access to top-quality, engaging learning
Please consider instituting a national online textbook initiative. I believe
that this is an idea whose time has come and would welcome the opportunity to
discuss this further with you.
Dr. Scott McLeod
Assistant Professor, Department of Educational
Policy and Administration
Director, UCEA Center for the Advanced Study
Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE)
Affiliate Faculty, Law
University of Minnesota
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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- 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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