The academic technology team at Warwick is just starting to explore what we might do with Mahara, and looking to experienced users like Teresa McKinnon and Jo Trowsdale for ideas. Academic technologist team member Jim Judges went along to the Mahara UK conference in July to look at how people are making use of the software. He provided me with this write-up then signed off for the long hot summer. He’s back at work this week so to welcome him back, I’m posting his report as a guest post here.
Mahara UK Conference – Birmingham 4th & 5th July 2013
(see conference website for background),
Report by Jim Judges
The venue for the conference was the Custard Factory and my only disappointment was the fact that we never got to sample any of the glorious yellow stuff. This old factory has been turned into a rather trendy hub for small businesses, many with an eye on fashion, music and media and its alternative vibe seemed like a good choice to match the open source Mahara eportfolio tool and its lively and active community of users.
Except for some existing pockets of experience and advanced practice (see below) Warwick is at a very early stage with its use of Mahara and I would class myself as a relative “newbie”. Therefore I had much to learn and much to benefit from listening to and learning from others experience.
Overall I was encouraged by the wide use of Mahara; from its use as a portfolio tool for providing evidence against specific criteria to its use as a tool to encourage deep reflection that demonstrates a learner’s journey. In a number of instances it is being used to develop group working, communication and other transferable skills with a focus on progression and employability. In addition I saw exciting examples of tutor and instructor use of Mahara as a presentation tool to create dynamic webpages and to share information online with staff and students.
However, I have one important concern, in common with many other technologies (ebay, iTunes, Facebook & Moodle!) for a keen, confident frequent user these tools become straightforward to use and can quickly help to achieve any objectives. For the less confident, new user, these tools are not as intuitive and easy to use as they could or should be. This is good news for those of us employed to explain “how to”, but it may be bad news as far as the speed and breadth of adoption is concerned. Knowing and remembering this will be important for now. For the time being training, support and documentation in all its forms will be key to providing help as and when it is needed.
Here is a quick summary of some of the highlights from the workshops I attended:
Simon Grant (CETIS) gave an enthusiastic Key Note address which included an overview of a project for standardising Competence & Skills expressions called “InLOC” (Integrating Learning Outcomes and Competences). This could help potential employers sort through hundreds of CVs and help potential employees target jobs that better match their skills but with limited buy-in from any key organisations so far, this project would seem to be someway off any likely impact. Personally I think that this level of detail can be dealt with online at the applications process, candidates could be requested to answer specific questions and provide evidence that they have the skills that match any job specification and I think that this could be done with or without InLOC.
Marina Orsini-Jones (Coventry University) gave a very lively and passionate workshop presentation on the MexCo project at Coventry University. This programme gets the students to make good use of Mahara, encouraging them to work collaboratively and creatively. The project involved communication between the UK and Mexico and helped learners from distant cities and different cultures to find out about each other’s lives. Many of the Mahara based outcomes were impressive and demonstrated mastery of the technology and development of important transferable skills, in addition to developing an improved understanding of the lives of other students on a different continent. Some issues highlighted included problems with Mahara not being intuitive, insufficient flexibility with design options, image sizes and the size of default text.
Nitin Parmar & Louise Oilver (University of Bath) gave a useful overview of how Mahara is used, in conjunction with Moodle and other tools to incorporate Digital Literacies into an employability skills development programme within the science faculty. In semester 1 students were required to produce a CV and then in semester 2 they produce a video presentation using Panopto.
They identified their next steps as being further integration of Mahara with existing systems and possible improvement of “mahoodle” functionality. They highlighted future student access and archiving as a concern for the near-future. They are also considering Open badges and using Mahara across all 3 years of undergraduates, not just first years.
Samantha Moss (Southampton Solent University) delivered a session about designing effective assignments that use Mahara. The eLearning team have a well-defined “Solent approach” to using technology to assist assessment to avoid the technology-tail wagging the pedagogical dog, with one of the first key steps being a joint identification of outcomes and then a decision about appropriate tools. Mahara is currently being used on over 20 courses with 600+ students from varied subject backgrounds. Examples included students using Mahara for detailed reflections and independent learning tasks, some 2nd year students were building a CV and extensive Portfolio, and interestingly the PGCE for teaching in HE included a Mahara based assignment about employability in teaching.
Their submission method requires students to export pages from Mahara and upload this Zipped file as the submission in a moodle assignment. They also ask the student to include the secret URL in the first page description, so the tutor has a quick and easy link to view the live site in Mahara. This seems like a useful if complex method, although it is effective and is guaranteed to “freeze” the Mahara pages.
A buzz of excitement went around the room when the team from Lancaster University Network Services (LUNS) announced that they were working on an update for the Moodle Mahara plugin that could be available in a matter of weeks.
Keynote “State of the Mahara Nation” Don Christie (Catalyst NZ) gave a useful presentation outlining the history of Mahara and the future for Mahara developments. There are some interesting new features to look forward to, including search, Open Badges integration, possible backpack functionality, flexible page layouts and general user interface improvements. Finally it was suggested that maybe, just maybe, grading could become a possibility in Mahara in the future – you heard it here first! I say – new features are great but the focus should be on improving usability.
Mahara: creative spaces – Teresa MacKinnon (University of Warwick)
There is no doubt that Teresa, her colleagues and the students that they work with have been using Mahara in exciting and innovative ways to develop student reflection and presentation skills. The focus has been on a narrative approach to encourage reflection and on explicit identification of key pivotal moments in the learner’s journey. The submission (accounting for 20% of the final mark) is submitted through the Moodle Mahara assignment tool and then assessed by the appropriate language team. The first year involved Japanese, Chinese and French language learners and tutors; this is expanding to include German and Spanish learners too.
In the second year exciting intercultural links were established using the BlackBoard Collaborate tool for communication. There were many benefits:
• Forces the student to think about their audience and the purpose of the document.
• Students have creative freedom to create their own story.
• Helps to develop CV writing skills.
Although as ever there were some challenges, these often led to positive experiences. It was found that students often supported each other, the experience helps to develop a good study habit, overall feedback was generally positive. The case study can be read online: http://www.scribd.com/doc/133421941/E-portfolio-Project-Case-Study
Presentation here: http://www.slideshare.net/teresamac/maharauk13-plus-sshots
I was left wondering if this approach could be applied beyond the realm of language learning, perhaps all learners could benefit from collaborating with other learners studying similar or complimentary subjects at other institutions around the globe. Having discussed this with Teresa she has kindly shared a uni-collaboration portal that is an output from the EU funded INTENT project: http://www.uni-collaboration.eu/ . This could be something to follow up with a pilot to develop similar transferable skills in other learners beyond language teaching. Maybe a Warwick – Monash student sharing pilot would be a good place to start?
Jo Trowsdale (University of Warwick) quickly introduced the audience to her exciting project that uses Mahara to support trainee teachers on a school’s based “Teach First” programme. A suggested template of pages in a collection is used to assist learners with organising and presenting their evidence. Mahara helped to assist a dialogic process, one reluctant IT user became converted and produced some high quality pages with detailed evidence, often arranged in an engaging way to highlight the process as well as the end result.
Anna Holloway (Newman University College) presented a useful warts and all presentation that complimented Jo’s session well. It was a session highlighting “Lessons Learnt from using Mahara for the PGCE Programme”. It demonstrated the clear need for technologist support, including staff and student induction, ongoing workshops and screencasts. One interesting development here was the use of student mentors, who were able to act as local Mahara experts supporting their peers. This session was an important reminder that even with excellent support learners may still struggle.
Kristina Hoeppner (Catalyst NZ) presented via Skype. Her colourful presentation almost made up for the poor audio quality: http://www.slideshare.net/4nitsirk/becoming-a-mahara-contributor-the-nontechnical-way The message was an important one and encouraged all users, not just the technically-minded ones to get involved in the development and improvement of the Mahara tool. There is something here, and being an active reporter of bugs, communicator on forums and active participant in the community will be important as a starting point.
Gordon McLeod (University of Glasgow) delivered a powerful “Group Resources” presentation and inspiring session, demonstrating more than anyone how far an institution can go with Mahara. For me this was the highlight of the two days. He demonstrated how Mahara had been used in a previous role with the Royal Conservatoire to share videos of piano performances that could then receive tutor and peer feedback, this was recorded in a JISC RSC Scotland case study: http://www.rsc-scotland.ac.uk/case_studies/CaseStudies.htm#rcsmahara
He shared a useful phrase that he uses when explaining Mahara to new users, he says “it’s the same as Facebook but private until you decide to share”. He went on to describe the use of Mahara in Veterinary science including an inspiring “Big Vet Wee Vet” programme of support for pre-matriculation and orientation. They used experienced second year students and others to provide support. They used Mahara collections and groups and then used a landing portfolio page as a starting point for information, they also used direct links from Moodle to pages in Mahara.
Further examples included using Mahara like a wiki, with students in groups with editing rights over a collection of pages. Using portfolio templates with red writing that could be deleted and replaced with student’s own statements, evidence and links. They were also using Mahara pages to support Mahara users with video guides, neatly arranged on a public page. He spoke of using Youtube and posting unlisted videos. Youtube does video serving rather well, until the university adopts a solution that works just as well can we do the same?
Meredith Henson presented a session on Open Badges – It’s hard to talk about Mahara or Moodle without talking about Badges and this conference was no exception. Meredith confirmed that she wasn’t an expert but nonetheless managed to deliver a fair overview of the current state of play and was able to confirm that in addition to the availability of display and issue of badges in Moodle (2.5+) that Totara have received funding to develop badges in Mahara (1.8/1.9?).
Badges seem to have created a lot of excitement, and they may well offer some useful incentives and recognition, especially for non-accredited programmes (e.g. CPD and Employability skills?). I earned a few badges as a cub, and growing up in the late 70s early 80s I was no stranger to wearing the odd badge, however as far as this initiative is concerned, the jury is still out. I will be doing some further investigation and fact-finding over the coming year, however to benefit from this fairly new concept we may need to wait until the technology is fully baked.
Annette Webb (York St John University) “The Blind Men & The Elephant” Just like the elephant in the parable the eportfolio will be viewed differently by different users, which will very much depend on their approach to this “beast”. Their institution introduced Mahara in 2010, buy-in was slow, now they have approximately 800 users with 70% of core subjects making some use of Mahara. Annette’s main focus was to discuss the perception of the tutor and how they adapt their teaching practice to keep up with digital technologies. She referred to the Julie Hughes idea of unsettling a tutor’s identity by using new tools, and that some tutors feel as if they know enough and have all the tools they need already. However, some tutors are keen and early adopters and are often keen to use new methods and to innovate. She reminded us of the idea of teachers and students working as co-researchers to keep up with change. Her research is in progress, but her findings will be well worth following up.
Mahara UK Conference 2013: Judges Final Scores
Content & Relevance: 9/10
Food & Refreshments: 6.5/10 (no custard! L)
Well worth attending providing lots of inspiration and ideas to follow up.