Educational Technology & Society 1(1) 1998
ISSN 1436-4522

... more together:
Web-Based K-12 Learning Environment from MIKSIKE

Mihkel Pilv
MIKSIKE
Veski 1-2, EE2400, Tartu, Eesti
Tel: 372 7/ 422 550
Fax: 372 7/ 421 841
Email: info@miksike.ee

Introduction

Opinions differ about the impact of technology on education.

Some developers and educators view the use of computers in education as an actual revolution, one which dramatically changes the meaning of learning. Smarter machines will make teaching easier than ever, and organizations which publish and deliver study materials (e.g. publishing houses) will design programs that will allow students to communicate with computers independently. So the teacher would play the role of observer in the students' education, a person who is just sitting and watching how learners work with computers.

In contrast, some educators and administrators compare education to an aged, fine wine. They see that technology revolutionaries have distilled something new and different. But their concern is whether this moonshine is as good as or better than the traditional wine, which has been perfected throughout history.

Considering the question from an educational standpoint, I favor this last comparison. Education has always been -- and will continue to be -- a collaborative effort and dialogue between humans. Technology will never substitute for teachers and interaction with other learners.But one does not have to have face-to-face interaction. To have interaction; we can interact via technology.

Although we should not spoil the wine, we can develop new ways of presenting age-old educational concepts- help to maintain and develop a system where learners can build up their very own understanding about our world and give them access to learning resources and information


eTemplates

Handouts and workbooks in hardcopy format are wonderful to use. Yet for student-centered learning, we need something more flexible. Even Einstein couldn't write handouts that would correspond to all classroom needs. Each student and class has its own requirements.

Searching for a practical solution has led Miksike, the company that developed the MIKSIKE Learning Environment in Estonia, to the eTemplates concept. eTemplates are worksheets in HTML format. Please visit sample eTemplates in English Space, Farm.. These eTemplates can be downloaded over the net.

eTemplates contain text, illustrations, blank spaces to fill in and if they are printed  from web browser or html editor they look like a good old- fashioned worksheets. But if eTemplates are used in electronic environment, they offer the same benefits one gets when writing a letter with networking computer. Learners become coauthors of the workbook- set of eTemplates. Miksike Corp allows not only 'fill in the blanks' (answer the questions asked), but also allow to change and modify the content- ask new questions and write them down on eTemplates .. and then answer them. ... Learning is not consuming, its about producing, producing our very own understanding about this world. So the learning process is not filling a worksheets prepared by somebody else, rather it is creating or modifying a workingsheet.... or why not an eTemplate!

Sets of eTemplates are categorized into thematic units/ projects (we may look at them as electronic workbooks). Content is systemized according to the state educational standard. In each grade we have 8 projects thematic units to follow. See Grade 3 study cycles with brief description (NOTE: eTemplates which contain grammar and math exercises are available only in Estonian language MIKSIKE. Look at how Farm appears in Estonian ).

The content is systematized yet flexible. Electronic format makes systematization itself flexible. With the help from a teacher and eLounge facilitator (see below) learners can restructure the system and sequence of projects/ thematic units originally provided by Miksike.

Using eTemplates gives new meaning to the term 'collaborative learning'. Workgroups and teams can work together in real time not only in the same classroom, but with whatever school that is connected to the Internet. This kind of collaborative learning is made possible by combining eTemplates with eLounge.


eLounge

eTemplates may be used alone, but they are optimized for collaborative learning environments and for use in combination with the Online Support Center eLounge. eLounge is a web-based support center which helps learners collaborate and search for information by facilitating communication between learners.

Learners in schools or in homeschooling families, whether in the same city or on different continents are connected via the eLounge communication server at http://www.elounge.net, which is a chat server with guided web tour capabilities. They may work simultaneously on one thematic unit or project.

A human -- an eLounge facilitator -- assists them with the projects. The eLounge facilitator's role can be compared to that of a teacher's resource book, which helps both learners and teachers. Besides giving curriculum hints and ideas, the facilitator co-ordinates training and collaborative projects and integrates the eTemplates and eLounge together into a common learning environment. eLounge serves several schools and homeschooling families at the same time.

MIKSIKE also allows for self-service. The eLounge communication server is designed so that it can be administered remotely. Teachers may assume the role of eLounge facilitator, receiving passwords that allow them to access the administrator's web site, develop their own chatrooms, and so on.


MIKSIKE Learning Environment In Action

Above written eTemplates and eLounge concepts have already been in use in Estonia. In April'98 Miksike made a project 'Straight into Politics' (co-funded by The Tiger Leap Foundation in Estonia) where learners from three schools worked collaborately with the same set of eTemplates via MIKSIKE eLounge. The goal was to finish one 'half baked' story "Straight into Politics" which talks about organizing an election campaign.

Students from different schools formed two teams: Sate and Law. These teams worked separately (separate chatroom etc). Some actions, like speaking live with Estonian leading politician Mart Laar were taken together though.

After communication and discussion original eTemplates were modified by learners and results published remotely to MIKSIKE web server. At the end of the project there was besides original eTemplates (Original eTemplates) also two different finalized versions. (Version 1 and Version 2)

As you can perhaps see, in several cases there is no original text and images left. (NOTE: during this project we concentrated on the communication and developing the theme itself. Grammar issues where not under primary attention. Therefore there are several spelling errors but for the sake of authenticity we have left those pages exactly as they were. But next time this kind of projects can also involve languistic precision.)

eTemplates may also be used in classrooms where only the teacher has an access to the Internet or they may be used in the lower elementary education where the children's computing skills are not developed enough for working in an electronic format. Teachers can select and print out the needed eTemplates and also modify them beforehand with any HTML editor. MIKSIKE Searching Engine, (which contains 6000 + selected additional texts and exercises in Estonian) enables teachers to find the additional material. This collection can be also used by students and teachers as a 'raw material' for creating their own original eTemplates.

eTemplates are free. Nonprofit funding has aided us in creating several sets of eTemplates in Estonian language (Renovabis and Open Estonian Foundation are the main donors).

An interesting question arises: since Miksike is a private company, how do we plan to survive when eTemplates are free? How will we be able to continue to support, maintain and develop them further? Our model is the following: The learning materials themselves are free. But in this "Information Age," charactised by information overload, what will count most and cost is the ability to find/ develop materials quickly and to adapt them according to local learners' needs. This service, along with maintaining an environment which allows learners to work collaboratively is the function for which we charge. The revenue allows us to maintain eTemplates. (Note: Online learning must develop and mature before this kind of services can be charged for. But the world is rapidly moving toward such learning, and so is Miksike. Currently as we work toward this goal as a viable way to sustain our efforts, we earn our living by developing courses for teachers to learn how to use the MIKSIKE Learning Environment and how to get the most educational use from a powerful infrastucture like the Internet.)


MIKSIKE Learning Environment Internationally

While we continue to work in Estonian, MIKSIKE is also developing its learning environment in English. I'd like to use this opportunity to invite middle school and high school teachers who want to participate in international communications and who are working with synchronous projects to contact us. Participating non-native English speakers can develop concrete projects while improve their English skills in the process.

MIKSIKE has some resources earmarked for the maintenance of MIKSIKE eLounge communication server this year, which means that all of this is free for participants. MIKSIKE also has some sets of eTemplates in English. But here we are waiting for great recommendations and ideas. Please contact us


Conclusion ...more together

Technology does not make learning easier, but it can make the process more creative and collaborative, while also fostering more and better communications. Instead of automating the learning process where students are left alone with computers, technology helps us to develop and learn more together.

Keyword for success is networking. Success in information age does not depend so much on the knowledge of individuals, rather it depends on the collaborative efforts of the team and the ability to change and update the knowledge. Our students can learn the art of developing together if they get personalized service in the schools. And we, educators, can also learn together with them.

Combining chatrooms, hypertext language and other Internet technologies into one common learning environment, educators can accomplish the goal of preparing the coming generations to live and operate in the Information Age.

The slogan of the MIKSIKE Learning Environment is "...more together".


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