18 Jul

The Vienna connection: Linking Mahara and edubreak

On 11 and 12 July 2016 I had the chance to finally meet a few Mahara community members with whom I had been in touch for numerous years at a meeting of the European PREPARE project. It’s been really nice to not only communicate via email, IRC or webinars, but in person.

Gregor Anželj, the community’s most prolific plugin developer, came from Slovenia, Klaus Himpsl-Gutermann from PH Wien, who had written his PhD thesis on the integration of Moodle, Mahara and MediaWiki,  hosted the meeting, and Andrea Ghoneim from Danube University Krems, who has been participating in a number of EU funded ePortfolio projects, joined us on the 11th. But that was not all. The following also attended (some of) the sessions (thanks Reinhard for providing all the links on your blog post): Erich Schönbächler (Teacher at Primarschule Feusisberg, Switzerland), Günter Nimmerfall (Responsible of the Service for Media and Technology, PH Tirol), Herbert Muska (ZID, PH Wien), Johannes Metscher (Ghostthinker, Augsburg, Germany), Klaus Hammermüller (Verein Offenes Lernen [Registered society “Open Learning”, Wien), Peter Groißböck (PH Niederösterreich), Reinhard Bauer (ZLI, PH Wien), and Wolfgang Greller (Vice Rector for Research and Quality Assurance, PH Wien).

Settling in for the first day at PH Wien

Settling in for the first day at PH Wien. Pictured are (left to right): Herbert, Reinhard, Klaus, Johannes, and Peter.

Day 1

We started on the 11th with a series of short presentations to bring everyone up to speed on the use of Mahara in the ATS2020 project, at PH Wien and PH Niederösterreich. I gave a short overview of the bigger projects that we are planning for Mahara in the coming 2 years, and we saw a brief introduction of edubreak.

ATS2020

Andrea discussed some aspects of the ATS2020 project (some information in German and English) and mentioned that teachers, who were introduced to working with portfolios, appreciated having sample lesson plans available to give them an idea of how to proceed and what to cover. Students needed guidance in giving feedback and also for evaluating themselves. When the students assessed themselves they were often stricter than their teachers.

While the project focuses on the assessment of transversal skills, it does look into the lifelong aspects of portfolios. Thus, they see that there is a problem when systems are connected to the portfolio as students may keep the access to their portfolio, but won’t always retain access to the other systems that were connected during their schooling. There is yet to be found a good solution to overcome this issue.

Andrea presents aspects of the ATS2020 project

Andrea presents aspects of the ATS2020 project

Integrating systems is very useful to allow for improved work flows and avoid duplicating of data, especially when it is to be updated. However, there is no solution to download / keep all off-site data when a student wishes to do so. A “disconnect and keep all data” button is missing.

PH Niederösterreich

Peter reported on the use of Mahara at his teacher training college. It is called “Sammelmappe” for which the English translation of “binder” doesn’t quite cover it. It’s essentially a place where you put everything that you wish to keep. Having connected it with LDAP, students have hardly any support queries. Keeping the number of passwords low is a definite plus. In the practical teacher education (“Schulpraxis”) it’s become the default to have an electronic portfolio, and students complete a reflection and development portfolio. The trend is also to only use Mahara. There, students find all necessary forms and information in regard to their study program.

The same is true for the Master’s that Peter is involved in. Having everything on a single platform instead of distributed over Moodle and Mahara, is beneficial for the students who are not always very tech savvy. Over the years, they adapted their portfolio practices. In the beginning, there were a lot of reflections. This became a huge task for faculty to provide feedback as they often have many students. Thus, they dialed back on the number of reflections and now have them only for milestones.

Peter walked us through one of his portfolio pages that he had set up for the semester tasks. He mentioned that he uses blocks that automatically retract for tasks that have already passed, and uses regular blocks for the currently active task. That’s a neat way of highlighting the active task without much effort.

Peter doesn’t use templates for the portfolios, but leaves it up to the students how they want to present their learning evidence. They see the setting up of the portfolio as creative process and don’t want to narrow that down for the students. While his students submit written reflections, he likes giving feedback via video as he can point out the items that he’s referring to in the video more easily and can also show quickly how to do something in Mahara if needed.

What was especially interesting to learn is that private feedback is often sent via email rather than put on the page as private feedback. It seemed that the sending of mail was easier for that. Public feedback was left on the Mahara pages though.

PH Wien: Students

Reinhard gave an overview of the use of Mahara at PH Wien. As so many of us know, he did re-iterate the fact that the task design is crucial when working with portfolios and especially electronic portfolios. Many portfolios that he sees are just text or PDF documents uploaded to Mahara. That is just one step away from a paper portfolio. How can this be changed? Could one possibility be edubreak, which we’ll see later on?

Reinhard discusses portfolio use at PH Wien

Reinhard discusses portfolio use at PH Wien

Faculty do struggle with the vast amount of reflections especially when they have lots of students. Therefore, students, like at PH Niederösterreich, don’t reflect on everything, but are more discerning to decide which learning evidence should be reflected on, which shows growth the best rather than reflecting on everything. While they do want feedback from faculty, they can’t always get it due to the number of students in a class. They also work with peer feedback and students learn to find positive aspects so as not to point out only negative things.

Reinhard mentioned that sometimes portfolio reflections don’t convey the truth about what actually happened because students ask themselves what their instructor might want to hear or see. To overcome this behavior, changes in the culture around teaching and learning as well as giving feedback would be required.

A big challenge that PH Wien has is to find a good balance between “Sammelmappe”, i.e. storing of the evidence, and reflecting on evidence that illustrates learning well. A portfolio is not a backup / archive of all the things that students have done, but a selection of the best evidence that illustrates learning. These pieces should then be highlighted in reflections and discussed further. I think that other pieces of evidence could form additional context, but may not need their own reflection. That’s why I like the concept of the Mahara pages: You do not need to reflect / show only one piece of evidence, but you can place multiple pieces of evidence on a page and reflect on all of them at once and show the connections between them rather than looking at each evidence individually.

PH Wien: Schools

Being a teacher training college, PH Wien works closely with schools on a number of projects. One of which is KidZ (Klassenzimmer der Zukunft) Schaufenster [classrooms of the future showcase]. The project brings together best practice examples of how schools work with innovative learning and teaching methods as well as digital tools. In some cases, the schools and their portfolio implementations are also researched more closely. Some schools who haven’t had much experience showcasing their work in a portfolio received assistance by PH Wien in presenting their content.

Klaus tells us about the KidZ Schaufenster

Klaus tells us about the KidZ Schaufenster

It is great to learn that this showcase encouraged a number of schools to explore portfolio work themselves and to meet online to discuss their portfolios and how to improve them. Technology is still a hurdle for students and teachers at times. Some even argue for the old paper-based portfolio as they would have something tangible. However, the electronic portfolio gives them the freedom not having to carry crates of paper portfolios everywhere.

It will be interesting to find out more how technology can support students and teachers better, what improvements they’d like to see in particular and what impact these will have when implemented.

edubreak

Johannes gave a presentation on edubreak®campus, a social video learning platform developed in Germany. It is being used in the PREPARE project alongside Mahara. The platform, which is built on Drupal, allows teachers to prepare activities to which students upload videos. These videos can then be commented on in edubreak and the comments are overlayed on the video and easily accessible for viewing and further feedback by anybody who has access to the video.

Edubreak is already used successfully in trainings for table tennis coaches for example as the coaches-in-training can analyze the video, give feedback and learn how they can improve on their feedback.

We recorded my presentation on upcoming features in Mahara, our big project ideas, and then uploaded the recording to edubreak. Below, you can see what comments look like in the platform using the new HTML5 player.

Example of comments on an Edubreak video

Example of comments on an edubreak video

By using a video platform on which learners and teachers can engage in providing each other specific feedback, it is hoped that multimedia evidence becomes more accessible and that giving feedback on it becomes easier as viewers can jump to the individual feedback directly. When trialled at PH Wien, initially only a few students were willing to be video recorded and then have their videos made available for the tasks. However, once other students saw the power of reviewing their actions, they all took the opportunity to be filmed and then viewed their videos in edubreak.

Day 2

At the heart of the PREPARE project is the promotion of reflective practice in the training of teachers using ePortfolios. By combining edubreak with Mahara, the researchers are exploring how a video and reflective learning environment can foster competencies in the areas of reflection and teaching as well as transfer and exchange of knowledge and practical experiences by analyzing the learning outcomes closely through a learning analytics lens and making improvements in the learning environment accordingly.

On Day 2 of our get together, we explored how edubreak and Mahara could be used in conjunction by establishing personas as well as looking at technical implications of the integration such as authentication, transfer or linking of content and displaying videos and their comments in Mahara to make the experience as seamless as possible for the learners and also teachers.

The project team has more thinking to do and also trialling on how best to achieve the work flow and what is possible with web services between Mahara and edubreak. This may be one of the first projects to use the new connection manager that will be available in the next version of Mahara. Since it has already been merged into the master code, the team can start looking into it and give us feedback on its usability. The connection manager shall make hooking up external systems to Mahara easier so that they do not need to be configured in the code, but via a web interface.

I enjoyed both days very much as they gave me the opportunity to meet researchers in the area of ePortfolio practices, discuss their projects with them, learn about what goes well and what could be improved, as well as discuss the integration with edubreak, a social video platform, that can be beneficial for student learning and reflecting by them being able to easily annotate video content. As usual, time flew by very quickly, and after two days it was time to say goodbye to a great team whose progress I will follow. Seeing more integration projects develop will give us more insight into how well various systems can be connected to Mahara and what issues people encounter when they want to export or keep their portfolios offline and how we can circumvent them.

You can find the summaries of the two days from the perspective of Reinhard and Johannes in German.

11 Jul

0 degrees in hot summer

Who’d have thought you can find a 0 degrees Celcius spot in the heat of summer in Austria? Well actually, we didn’t have to look too far from Salzburg and found it in the Eisriesenwelt (ice giants world) in Werfen. We were looking for something to do with two children (aged 10 and 13) on Sunday, and a day in a hot city did not sound promising. Instead, we drove the 35 minutes to Werfen, up the mountains for 5 km and stood at the entrance to the Eisriesenwelt.

A short walk uphill, a 3-minute cable car ride and another short stroll uphill, and we were at the entrance of the cave, which is the biggest ice cave in the world. By that time alone we had climbed about 640 m. Most of that was via the extremely fast cable car though.

View from the entrance of the Eisriesenwelt

View from the entrance of the Eisriesenwelt

We put on jackets (and sturdy boots for everybody but me as I had left my hiking boots in New Zealand since I wasn’t expecting an excursion to the mountains) and were ready to go underground. Once it was our turn for the tour, every 4th or 5th person received an old-fashioned carbide lamp to light the way. Since we are in Europe, nobody worried about people mishandling them. There were no accidents and nobody burned off the pants of another person.

Entering the cave was a mission on its own as there was a wind blowing of at least 50 km/h once our tour guide opened the door. You really had to step through the door quickly and carefully, but as soon as you were inside, the wind was gone.

The cave itself is about 42 km long, but only the first kilometer is the actual ice cave. After that it is too warm for ice to stay. In winter, the door to the cave is left open so that icy wind can enter, and in the spring the snow melt trickles water through cracks forming the ice sculptures little by little in the way that stalacmites and stalactites are formed.

We went up 700 steps to reach the highest point in the cave (a walk of about 40 stories) that we could visit and down again 700 steps to return to our starting point. The biggest “piece” of ice in the cave is the ice wall and it’s about 25 m thick.

The ice inside the cave has a commanding presence, and it is fascinating to see that much ice inside the mountain and also wander through a huge cave like that. Since we only had the carbide lamps, the lighting was sparse but still plenty and added to the atmosphere. It was amazing to see the effort that had gone into exploring this cave and also creating the walkways and stairs (there was generally one for ascending and one for descending). Everyone was pretty quiet in the cave taking the surroundings in and being in awe of what we saw there.

The ice in the cave is mostly growing each year and the natural sculptures within it change all the time. What had been an elephant for the last many years is now slowly transforming into a dromedary. We could also see the growth of the ice over time clearly by looking at the layers in the ice. Our guide said though that in contrast to the rings in a tree, the layers in the ice can be added to or receed depending on the weather.

Since you can’t take photos inside the cave, you’ll have to go there for yourself to check it out.

10 Jul

Mahara Hui Francophone: A brief summary

There are an increasing number of Mahara events throughout the world each year. Usually, I attend the majority of them electronically from the comfort of my couch in Wellington. Sometimes, I do get the chance though to travel to these events, which is always a special treat for me as I am not only able to present on Mahara, but also listen to other’s present and talk about Mahara as well as get to know the users of Mahara a bit more.

This year, I escaped the Wellington winter, which just started to settle in, to attend the MoodleMoot Mahara Hui Francophone. It’s a stable on the annual Moodle and Mahara conference calendar. It took place in Sierre, Switzerland, from 6 to 8 July 2016. HES-SO Valais-Wallis organized the event and did a great job at it. An army of student helpers was always around for questions, to take photos, to help us presenters in our sessions, to record every presentation, and to make sure that everything ran as smooth as.

Over 350 people from all parts of the French-speaking world attended this event: Participants came from Europe, North America, Africa, and Asia. A special highlight for many was the attendance of Martin Dougiamas for the entire conference.

Being a MoodleMoot Mahara Hui, a good number of presentations focused on Mahara. Nicolas Thorel also led workshops introducing Mahara to those who hadn’t worked with it before. I realized how little I know about what is going in the French-speaking Mahara community. We do get occasional submissions from French institutions to the newsletter, but that does not even begin to cover the extend to which it is being used. Many people do great work in the quiet of their institutions and use the opportunity of a conference to present their work. I will be in touch with them to showcase their work in the wider community.

Fortunately, I could attend the majority of the Mahara sessions, but will review some of them again where I didn’t catch everything due to my rusty French. It is fantastic that all presentations were recorded and will be made available soon. Since I hadn’t spoken French in many years, following some presentations was challenging. I missed a bunch of the jokes, but for the most part, I was happy how well I could follow along.

Events like this are special because I can meet the people who contribute to Mahara in person besides catching up with those I have already had the pleasure to get to know. So I met the original French translator of Mahara, Nicolas Martignoni, and also Philippe Pettiqueux, who’s helped with the French translation as well and is now looking into bringing Mahara into agricultural schools in France with his colleagues.

Nicolas, Dajan, Fabien, Nathalie, Philippe, Kristina au MoodleMoot Mahara Hui FR 2016

Nicolas, Dajan, Fabien, Nathalie, Philippe et Kristina au MoodleMoot Mahara Hui FR 2016

I’ll follow up with additional posts. For the time being, I’ll leave it at that as I’m still digesting all the impressions and would like to say a big MERCI BEAUCOUP A TOU-TE-S for a wonderful time in Sierre.

25 Apr

Portfolios and assessment? A workshop

Last week I attended the DEANZ Conference 2016 at the University of Waikato. It was the first time that I participated in the this conference that centers around open, distance, flexible and mobile learning.

At the conference, I facilitated a workshop on Tuesday, 19 April 2016. I titled it “Portfolios and assessment? Ideas for making them work together.” It was an invitation for novice and experienced portfolio users to put their heads together and discuss how portfolios could be used for assessment purposes. While we don’t want to bring in assessment into everything, particularly portfolios that can be so much more than just an assessment task, we can’t escape the reality. Students want to know what they are creating portfolios for and sometimes creating a portfolio for assessment is necessary.

While we may not like it, how we do that is the interesting part because portfolio assessment does not have to be like any other assessment. We can try to do it in a way that suits portfolio work instead of simply replicating activities done through a learning management system.

We started out the workshop getting to know each other (19 people), and particularly our opinion on assessment in a quick fire introduction round. We had the entire spectrum of opinions on assessment represented, and it ranged from ‘the opium of this world’ to being a very important part in the learning process when done correctly. This was a good start because that way we would have good discussions in the small groups to tackle the questions that I wanted participants to discuss:

  1. What do you want portfolio assessment to look like?
  2. How does it differ from other assessment?

The small groups of 3-5 participants engaged in lively discussions and produced the results that you can find in the slides.

Common to the groups was that the assessment of ePortfolios needs to be purposeful and include a reflective element. The latter would allow to dig deeper than in other activities that are assessed because the students’ thinking are queried more. One group mentioned in particular that a portfolio could not just be a library of evidence, but hat the reflection on the gathered evidence was very important and was the aspect that made the portfolio.

The formative aspect of portfolio assessment was also highlighted in a few groups as well as the connection to work-integrated learning. That brought up the question how experts from industry could evaluate a portfolio when they often aren’t experts in assessment. One participant said that university could help facilitate this process and assist. Involving industry in assessing internship portfolios would bring in a different perspective on the work of the students.

It was also mentioned that portfolio assessment was not to be the solution for everything. It should be used when it was appropriate and the activity allowed for it. This brought us back to the purposefulness of the portfolio and the assessment of it.

One group acknowledged that portfolio assessment was often more work, but said it can often more interesting to assess than other activities. Furthermore, it allowed for self- and peer feedback.

ePortfolios can drive better learning because they allow for more interaction with the learning artifacts, allow learners to reflect on their learning and the learning of their peers and can be used for strong formative assessment purposes.

In this discussion we hardly touched on the technical side of things because we needed to look at the concept first. Technology was mentioned briefly a few times when different user groups of the assessment data were mentioned as they would need different lenses into the portfolio and potentially different aggregation of the portfolios they are to look at. Furthermore, multimedia would also play an increasing role in the future going away from text heavy portfolios to more visual portfolios that included more video and images where appropriate and possible.

Portfolios would need to serve many “multi”:

  • multi media
  • multi purpose
  • multi content
  • multi method

This would not always be possible in one single portfolio, but the portfolio content – evidence and reflections – would need to be able to be re-arranged for the specific purpose for which the portfolio is created because there is always an audience for the portfolio.

Our short workshop drew out ideas and thoughts from the participants on the topic of portfolios and assessment, and the results show that there is a lot of different opinions on how portfolios could be used for assessment purposes and what a portfolio should not become. Portfolio should still be student-centered and not just an assessment tool. It is important to keep the purpose of the portfolio in mind and use it wisely instead of just out of necessity or because everybody else uses portfolios.

25 Apr

WCELfest16

Hamilton in New Zealand doesn’t have the best reputation and is certainly not one of the prettiest towns in the country. However, I do like going there because it’s usually for conferences that are organized by either the University of Waikato or Wintec. Both tertiary institutions, or rather their staff, know how to organize great events. It’s always nice meeting up with people I know and learn from them and their colleagues.

One of those events earlier in the year was WCELfest16, the eLearning conference of the University of Waikato organized by the WCEL (Waikato Centre for eLearning) team. And yes, you pronounce it like “whistle”. Because pretty much every lecture room is equipped with lecturer recording hardware and software, the WCEL team recorded all sessions, and I recommend checking out the WECELfest resource page (as well as the ones of previous years) for some great presentations.

Terry Anderson keynote

Terry Anderson of Athabasca University was the keynote speaker. He shared insight on engagement and quality in blended and flipped classrooms. A lot of things that Terry presented were not entirely new to me, but it was great to have him mention them to confirm my knowledge as well as provide some nuggets of insight from a different perspective. He provided a good summary of blended learning and why it is important.

Back in 2008 he already said that learning is a dance: The technology sets the beat and the time whereas the pedagogy defines the moves. This is a nice metaphor to describe the connection between technology and pedagogy and shows that both of them are important. Leaving one out would not allow the other to exist.

Terry is an avid supporter of online educational resources (OER) and encourages others to contribute to OER and share their work. In his keynote he stated an obvious truth, but one that needs re-iterating because not many people take it to heart. He said that teachers should get over their shyness and put their material out there because nothing is ever perfect.

I agree with him on that. If we waited until we delivered perfection, nothing would ever be made available online. I’d rather share something and receive feedback on it because then I can review it, revisit it and work on it rather than doubt myself all the time. I try to share as much as possible of my work publicly online. Working on an open source project makes that somewhat easier because a lot of our work needs to be publicly available anyway in order to communicate with our community and do our work.

However, I decided early on that I would also share all my presentations (not work internal ones though when they need to be kept confidential) online and not just the slides, but also the actual recordings to allow those that couldn’t attend an event to benefit from the recording. Since Slideshare nixed its audio recordings in 2014, I still need to re-upload a heap of older presentations and haven’t had the time to stich the audio and the slides together as I have to for a bunch of presentations as I didn’t have screen recording available at the time. But I will get to that eventually.

Nowadays, all my recordings are on YouTube, and my slides are on Slides and also uploaded to SlideShare where people can download them easily.

But back to WCELfest.

ePortfolios in education

I was part of a session that looked at the use of ePortfolios in various contexts. The organizers had asked me to share examples of ePortfolio use around the world before we looked at three examples from the University of Waikato in more detail.

I’m privileged to be working with a lot of great ePortfolio enthusiasts around the world who use Mahara. So I could show a series of examples drawing from the great pool of diverse usage.

There is also a recording of the session.

After this overview, Stephen Bright from the University of Waikato shared his CMALT ePortfolio and explained why he had it set up. It’s an example of a professional development portfolio used to gain accreditation.

He was followed by Richard Edwards who shared his experience using ePortfolios for group work with his student teachers. Mahara didn’t get in the way of the task and allowed the students to be flexible in how they wanted to organize, lay out and present their group portfolios. Often, one person in the group took charge of arranging all content instead of all students working on the portfolio. The students didn’t yet fully exploit all the editing possibilities and thus the portfolios were still very text heavy. Over all, using the ePortfolio allowed students to present their evidence more effectively.

Last but not least, Sue McCurdy presented on work placement portfolios. She described the ePortfolio as evidence collection and “CV on steroids”. The ePortfolio turns a job applicant into a real person, shows real skills and also personality. Sue’s students work quite heavily with images and these depict student behavior well because often the students are subjects in them. Thus, a future employer can see the applicant in action.

Richard Edwards gave another presentation that centred around the different purposes of an ePortfolio. An ePortfolio changes depending on the purpose for which it is created. Therefore, questions of purpose, learning, ownership, agency and structure of the ePortfolio amongst others are important and determine how the ePortfolio is developed and what sort of evidence is put into them. He sums his findings up very well in saying that the task design and the purpose are more important than the choice of the tool.

There were a few other sessions on other topics that I attended. It was clear throughout the day that knowing the “How” of teaching and creating engaging learning activities for and with students is important. Technology is and will continue to play an integral role especially because it allows us to teach and learn in different ways or more flexibly. However, the affordances need to be understood and time given to teachers, instructors and lecturers to experiment, explore and make the technologies part of their teaching repertoire instead of just assuming that everybody knows how best to use them.