21 Oct

Have your Mahara with music

Today was a big day as we released a new version of Mahara. It’s version 1.10 that contains a whole bunch of new exciting features and also bug fixes. Usability improvements are made alongside new functionality to help people create their ePortfolios and work collaboratively on projects that could be described as group portfolios.

Initially unrelatedly, I saw Josh Woodward‘s tweet about his Kickstarter project to fund the publishing of his new CD. I came across Josh’s music years ago when I was in Luxembourg looking for music to use for photo slideshows being mindful to only use music that I could use legally. What better place to look for music than on Jamendo where Creative Commons-licensed music abounded. It took me quite some time to dig through songs upon songs upon songs, but when I heard some of Josh’s I got stuck and have been looking forward to new songs from him since.

So when I saw his Kickstarter project I checked it out and was intrigued by the option to have a tune composed on any topic that I liked. Mhh… Why not have a song for the Mahara project? Wouldn’t that be cool? That’s what sprang to mind very quickly because I like topical songs like “Get my data out” and Josh’s own “Airplane mode“. But how to accomplish that without making it cheesy and like an advertisement jingle?

Josh was great with that because all I needed to do was give him an outline of the project, what we wanted to accomplish with Mahara and that I wanted the song to be more about the concept of portfolios and learning rather than mentioning Mahara all the time. I also noted down a couple of songs that I liked in particular in terms of mood and direction of tempo. And that was it. A few weeks later, I had a tune in my inbox. :-)

Mahara tune

Mahara tune

What better time to take it live for the Mahara 1.10 release?

If you like it, sing along and enjoy some cool music. If it’s not your musical style, remix it and make it your own Mahara song. We publish it under Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0. Let me know if you want the instrumental version for your own Mahara song remix.

Icon by Thomas Grollier from the Noun Project CC BY 3.0.

17 Aug

Amazing CodeCamp

Last Friday, 8 August 2014, I had the fortune to be able to attend the demo night of CodeCamp in East Palo Alto (EPA).

CodeCamp welcomes its visitors

CodeCamp welcomes you

The power of coding

CodeCamp is an initiative by enthusiastic coders, primarily university students, to help high school students in East Palo Alto to see what they can achieve with coding during the summer and opening their eyes to possibilities for their futures.

At the end of the 4-week summer programme, a demo night was organized where this year’s students (the website doesn’t have video or their photos up yet) pitched their ideas and showed off what they had created.

But before the students had their say, there was a short keynote address by 2 co-founders of a start-up (of which I forgot the name :-( ). They said that besides the obvious coding skills, coding can teach the following:

  1. Power of focus
  2. Think for yourself
  3. How to build great relationships because coding is a team sport

All these three qualities were demonstrated by the students during their project pitches. We listened to pitches from 6 student groups that all had different project ideas for which they had created a website.

The projects

AfroGan is a group of 3 young women who created a site to showcase their cultural heritage and provide information about African American and Tongan culture, food, traditions etc. They created the site because they didn’t know much about their own cultures and wanted to explore them further. They invite others to participate and provide information, photos etc. to enrich the site.

The Pointeers are a group of 4 young women who wanted to give non-profits in EPA a voice and encourage young people to go to events. They would not only provide a platform where non-profits can announce their events, but also where they create activities / missions / challenges for young people to complete when they go to these events thus making it more fun for students to participate.

Vicious and delicious are a group of 3 young men who created a site where you can scan your shopping receipts so that you can look them up easily when you misplaced them or thrown them away. The site would also allow you to geotag them to be reminded more easily where you bought stuff.

Positive Vibes was created for teenagers to come to for help when they experienced abuse, bullying etc. The 3 teenagers who created the site have seen their fair share of abuse and sadness in their community, and they want to make a difference. Their site does not only offer written advice, but would also have counsellors available that could talk to the kids who seek support and help them as best as possible.

Nemesis Gaimz is a collaboration of 3 young men who created a game that you can easily play on any computer and for which you wouldn’t need fancy equipment. They created all the graphics themselves. The best thing about their game was the language used for when you you got hit by an obstacle and you lost that level. They didn’t like the “You are dead” language as it’s negative. So they came up with “You are deaded”.

And last not least, SuaveFX, a collaboration of 3 young men who set up a site to showcase local talent.  They want to get the word out about their local stars and give them a platform to present themselves.

All 6 projects were well thought out and showed a lot of maturity amongst the students for finding their topics. They were predominantly community-focused, and you could tell that they thought about their projects a lot to come up with something that was worthwhile pursuing. Part of their project presentations was also to pitch their projects to the audience as they would need funding to continue their efforts and put their sites and services up online. We did not get to vote for our favorite project (maybe something to do at next year’s CodeCamp), but could ask the students questions about their project progress, what they learned and where they wanted to go from here.

Outcomes of CodeCamp

The aims of CodeCamp were not only to teach them coding skills, but also soft skills and empower them in finding who they are. Yes, the students learned HTML, CSS and Javascript, and they worked with Foundation and Bootstrap once they had gained knowledge of how to set up a website from scratch. But they learned so much more.

I had the opportunity to speak with Shadi Barhoumi, one of the main organizers of CodeCamp, and it became clear to me that community empowerment and community building was important to him for the CodeCamp and teaching the kids. They did not only code, but they also played games and music together, went on excursions and came together as a group.

A number of the kids said during their final remarks that they have a new family in all the participants of CodeCamp. They grew very close to each other and appreciate each other much for who they are. The road was not always easy, but with the help of their mentors, they pulled through, finished the program, and now have something to show off. Some also said they got skills that will take them far, and they now have the confidence to apply for an internship or even look into studying programming at college / university. They now have a better outlook on things and see themselves a part of the tech industry that surrounds them, and will take further steps in them.

One student said: We are seeing how we want to be: loving, amazing and skillful.

I was interested in attending the demo night because we run an annual Open Source Academy in Wellington for high school students. Thus, I wanted to see what other programs do, and what we can learn from them. I learned a lot from CodeCamp just by having been at the demo night.

Shadi and the other mentors accomplished a lot with the students giving them a new outlook on their future by opening up a career path for a number of them who had not considered computer science as a career. They also helped the kids by coming together in a very tight knit community and making them see that it’s not just about the work you do, but also with whom you do it and that you need others on your team. Demo night was attended by parents and friends of the students as well as other community members who are involved in community activities in EPA, and then a few others like me who have more or less loose connections with the program.

I enjoyed watching the kids interact and move effortlessly between their work – presenting their pitches – and play and talking with members of the community about CodeCamp. Not just making it about the coding, but also having a good deal of time available for the students to just play is great. Having been located at a school where they can go outside and play ball or run around has its advantages. We’d be very limited in our multi-story building in the city center for such activities.

One thing Shadi mentioned that helped the students get into the mood for the summer of coding and for sticking with it, was the hackathon that was organized at the beginning of the program. The hackathon was so very intense and energizing that it was the perfect start to capture the students’ attention and make them want to continue. And by judging the enthusiasm that the students exhibited at the end of the program, it worked out very well.

The things that I took away from the demo night were that immense sense of community amongst the people there from EPA, the enthusiasm that the students showed throughout the event and also their insight into what their community needs, and the great opportunity for the students to demo their project results not only to their fellow campers, but to the wider community.

So, if you are looking for a talented student with knowledge in HTML, CSS and JS, watch out for the CodeCamp students.

Motto at CodeCamp: Show, don't tell

Motto at CodeCamp: Show, don’t tell


11 Aug

U.S. impressions apart from Mahara

The last 3.5 weeks were filled with meeting Mahara users on the East Coast of the U.S. in New York City, New York State and Boston. I had already started writing about my experience in the MUG post, but will write about that a bit more later.

This time, I want to share some of the curious, intriguing, puzzling and funny that I encountered on my trip. So, here is my list:

  • I had a doorman at the apartment building I was staying at in Manhattan like out of a movie.
  • You can order in anything in Manhattan, and it gets delivered.
  • Walking past the Empire State Building on my way to work is much more impressive than shopping on Fifth Avenue.
  • Driving in New York City – with a GPS and disembodied voice giving directions – was not so bad.
  • There are now also ugly green colored cabs and not only yellow cabs in NYC. The green cabs are for the “boros” and go where yellow cabs wouldn’t or aren’t allowed to go in the New York boroughs.
  • If you want to see the latest fashion in walking shoes, watch office workers’ feet in the morning on their way into work in Manhattan. Comfort rules over matching footwear to office attire.
  • Streets in rural New York State can be as deserted as streets in rural New Zealand. Though there may be a few more houses dotted here and there.
  • On the highway in New York State near the Finger Lakes, there were always signs for food, gas and attractions such as museums, amusement parks etc. On one of the “Attractions” signs, a mall was listed.
  • Somebody must be very happy to get divorced. They even got their license plate issued accordingly: D VORCE. Or maybe they are a divorce lawyer.
  • New York can see a lot of heavy snow. So no wonder that there was a street sign with a snow mobile on it to draw attention to the fact that they can cross at any time.
  • T-mobile had abysmal coverage in a lot of areas that I spent time in.
  • Aldi in rural New York State doesn’t have the German products, but the layout of the store as well as the signage and the idea of the specials in the middle of the store were the same as in Germany. I think even the linoleum was the same. Creepy like in Canberra. IKEA is now also in more and more countries. But at least there everything is the same and not just the store name and the concept taken to another country and introduced items that could be bought elsewhere.
  • Walking across to Canada via Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls is faster than driving a car across the border. Leave it on either side and enjoy the scenery.
  • Niagara Falls is indeed prettier from the Canadian side. And you don’t need to take the “Lady of the Mist”, but get sprayed on by water for free along the way.
  • There is a $0.50 toll when you re-enter America coming from the Canadian side at Niagara Falls.
  • I did not get fingerprinted at the border in Niagara Falls on the U.S. side, but do not know whether it had been due to me having been out of the country only for a couple of hours or if that is the default for pedestrians.
  • The Maparium in Boston is one of the most awesome places I’ve seen. You go inside a globe, its countries can light up, and it is an incredible echo chamber. Everything you whisper is magnified.
  • “Artisanal”seems to be the foody draw word at the moment.
  • Whole Foods, while expensive in general, is still a great option for the traveller wanting to grab something good to eat, but not having a place to cook or store food at. Yummy food abounds.
  • Gotta love the bulk section. The ones at Fairway in NYC and Wegmans outside of Boston were the best. Wegman’s had 4 different types of energy chunks whereas Whole Foods in Palo Alto only had one. Having just found their website, I realize that there are so many more flavors.
  • Fairway and Wegmans could easily fit 3 New World‘s or Countdown‘s.
  • In Albany, NY, I had a start-up taxi driver (he had married into a family of taxi drivers and had worked for other companies before, but decided to make it on his own), and he did everything on his phone. He did not have a regular credit card machine, but a little attachment for his Samsung Galaxy Note. And he did not have to worry about printing a receipt, but could email or txt it to you.
  • Starbucks is on almost every corner in New York City, and seen very frequently in any other town.
  • Dunkin’ Donuts is the stable of many Bostonians.
  • The air conditioning on the East Coast in stores, convention centers etc. is always set to freezing temperatures requiring you to thaw in the sun for some time afterwards.
  • Americans love to wait in orderly lines at airports, in amusement parks and elsewhere where a line is required. Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts had big lines in Boston in the mornings for people to get their coffee and breakfast fix.
  • Palo Alto has a couple of funky gift stores that sell bacon gums, bacon mints, bacon everything, and a whole lot of other nifty, funny, cool things.
  • I’m grateful for the invention of GPS and combining it with map directions on a phone.
  • The Bay Area has the best farmer’s markets hands down. There was a stand at the Sunnyvale market that had 13 different types of tomatoes, and another one had at least 6 different types of peaches. There is now also a pluot, a cross between a plum and an apricot.
  • Bay Area freeways have a few less potholes making you jump.
  • Fog over San Francisco moves in very quickly like a wall whereas the rest of the Bay Area is still nice warm and sunny.
  • Hobbits can fly.


07 Aug

Mahara User Group gathering at Pratt Institute

Yesterday, 5 August 2014 New York time, the New York Mahara User Group (MUG) met at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. The day started out for me by saying goodbye to Pleasantville, which indeed is very pleasant, where I visited with Beth from Pace University. She is one of the organizers of MUG New York and a long-time Mahara user.

We arrived right on time without a minute to spare for the start of the meeting because what would New York be without some traffic hiccups? ;-) Fortunately, I had already toured the Faculty Commons of Pratt two weeks ago and knew where we needed to go and what the room looked like. the Faculty Commons is an area for faculty to gather for learning about new technology, trying things out with the assistance of the Learning Technologies team and getting inspired by other users.

It was fantastic to see a great group of 15 Mahara enthusiasts from a number of institutions gathered. We could also welcome a number of people remotely. Unfortunately, the microphone did not work out well, and we ran into technology problems making it difficult for some of our remote participants to continue being in the session. Hopefully, future meetings will run more smoothly in that regard. However, 4 or 5 soldiered on, and it was great to get Sam T’s input from Southampton Solent University on assessment, support, badges and Mahara goodness in general.

If the video recording of the meeting worked out, it will be shared for any follow-ups. Beth will also share the resources that Sam mentioned so everyone can take a closer look at them.

We received a brief update from Pratt on using ePortfolios, discussed assessment possibilities and how to support users in working with assessments, and looked at a couple of work flows besides getting people excited and talking about badges and how they can work with them in Mahara.

Attendees were very interested in Sam’s work flows that she showed, and it was suggested to create an area where work flows could be shared.

The face-to-face MUG meeting was great because it fostered a different kind of interaction between the participants. Since we were sitting in one room, discussions were easier than if everyone were online. Sadly, the online participants didn’t have a great experience, but we hope they’ll stick with the group and participate next time that there is a purely online meeting. This will most likely happen at the end of October / beginning of November.


This MUG meeting was very helpful because it confirmed some things I already knew and sparked interest in exploring certain ideas further.

MUGs and MUGgers

User group meetings are great to facilitate discussions amongst users, share ideas, help each other, and connect people. Sam Egan and Beth Gordon from Pace University, who are the main organizers of the New York MUG do a fantastic job with these meetings. They are joined in their triumvirate by Keith Landa from Purchase College who makes the webinar technology available allowing remote participation and also the recording of the meetings.

Face-to-face beats online hands down

Face-to-face meetings still beat online meetings by far. I was fortunate to meet a bunch of Mahara users over the past two weeks and learn how they use Mahara and areas that they would like to explore.

Resources pool expansion

We are going to have areas on the wiki where users can share work flows for commonly used processes as well as templates that they have created. I am also thinking how to link to this in the Mahara user manual in an attempt to include more resources on the portfolio creation process and not just keep it as reference manual. This can be part of the crowdsourcing for expanding the Mahara user manual that I spoke about at Mahara UK in July.

Exploring badging

Badges are a hot topic and not one that is quickly discussed but needs a lot of thought and discussion at individual institutions. It is great that Mahara already has two plugins to display badges and to issue badges. I’d love to see colleges and universities discussing badges download these plugins and install them on a testing server to experiment with them and feed back their ideas about the functionality and possibilities of expanding them to make them work for their circumstances.

Badges are still a new idea in education, and thus, experimentation is needed to gain more insight. Don’t get me wrong, a whole lot of research has already been conducted or is currently under way, and badges are not thought of as just individual badges but as part of a badging ecosystem. However, there is still more work needed to implement it at more institutions and find the hooks why individual institutions might want to join the badging community.

So what is next?

There are few things in the making:

  • Canadian Mahara User Group meeting
  • Sharing of templates as Leap2A files for easy importing into other Mahara instances
  • Sharing of work flows
  • Organizing of the next New York MUG meeting which will be held online

If you want to get active in any of these initiatives or see what others are sharing, stay tuned for updates and links to the various resources on mahara.org or via Twitter.