Teaching administrators about Wikipedia

[cross-linked at the TechLearning blog]

Last year a middle school librarian in New Jersey received a lot of media attention for her anti-Wikipedia campaign:


Linda O'Connor regards Wikipedia the same way former first lady Nancy Reagan campaigned against drugs. . . . She put up a sign saying "Just Say No to Wikipedia" over the computers in the school library. . . . Wikipedia is blocked on all computers in the Warren Hills Regional School District.

At the time I said that I was highly skeptical about this librarian's stance. On any given day, approximately 1 in 10 Internet users visits Wikipedia. This fact alone should indicate that there's something going on worth paying attention to, something that warrants a more nuanced approach than simply prohibiting access. If it was terrible, it wouldn't maintain its audience. Folks who take the time to understand Wikipedia learn very quickly that it's actually an amazing site. It's already 8 times larger than the Encyclopedia Brittanica, is growing incredibly quickly, and has been created entirely by volunteers. Peer-reviewed studies published in our top scientific journals have shown that it is as accurate as the Brittanica too, particularly those articles that reside in its mainstream core (rather than at the fringes).

If all of this is true, then why are so many educators, librarians, and media specialists upset about Wikipedia? I think the concerns stem from several different sources. One is their beliefs about accuracy. We tend to assume that print materials such as the Brittanica and school textbooks are error-free when in actuality they contain numerous mistakes. Even when identified, these mistakes usually linger until the next edition is printed and purchased (unlike Wikipedia which corrects known mistakes almost instantly). Second, the idea that volunteers can create something as valuable as that created by experts strikes us as ludicrous. But in this case it happens to be true. Sure, at any given second, some vandal or incompetent may have inserted something inaccurate into a particular article. But over time (and often unbelievably quickly), Wikipedia is remarkably self-healing, unlike the paper materials on our bookshelves. Wikipedia also is a counter to outdated information. How many of the reference books in libraries and school media centers contain incomplete or inaccurate information simply because they're old? Wikipedia doesn't have that problem.

Our students deserve better training about how to navigate our new, complex, online information landscape. They don't learn about information literacy, bias, media literacy, assessment of online validity, and other critical online skills by being denied access to that information. They don't learn how to cite and use online resources appropriately if they can't use those resources and learn from their mistakes because the materials are banned.

If you take half an hour to show administrators these things, their mindset changes. I like to have school leaders visit some Wikipedia pages with me. I start by showing them the asphalt article. After we look at the article itself, I show them the history tab (and take them all the way back to the first few revisions) and then the discussion tab. We talk about what we see and what their perceptions are regarding accuracy, quality, and neutrality. Then I put them into groups to check out more controversial articles like Sarah Palin, Islam, Vladimir Putin, or Pluto. They examine the articles for bias and inaccuracy and spend some time in the history and discussion areas.

The administrators inevitably walk away with a deeper understanding of Wikipedia and a greater appreciation for the safeguards that have evolved to protect against abuse and inaccuracy. Many of them also begin to see the site as an excellent lens for teaching students about how, as a society, we construct knowledge, negotiate meaning, and develop collective understanding. Some even begin to think about how their students might be able to serve as Wikipedia contributors. In the end, that richer understanding may be more valuable than the content of the articles themselves.

How are you using Wikipedia to teach information literacy and critical thinking?

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Sponsored by Northwell Health
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • 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. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. 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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Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
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Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
Surprising Science
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