06 Oct

“Hidden treasures in Mahara” workshop follow-up

On Wednesday, 2 October 2013, I facilitated the workshop “Hidden treasures in Mahara” at the ePortfolio Forum at the University of Canberra. The goal of the workshop was to take a look at functionality that is not so frequently used by Mahara users. I wanted to facilitate this workshop because we have so many features in Mahara that are not always turned on by default that instructors and organizations sometimes don’t really know about them or know what they could do with them.

I had prepared a whole list of things that I could talk about based on features that I knew people may not have been using much. This list was comprised of larger features, but some also were just quick tips and tricks. I had compiled this list from my experience in giving support in the Mahara forums as well as for clients and being asked in person.

15 people had signed up for the workshop and of course everyone was at a different stage of using Mahara. The workshop was targeted to intermediate / advanced users of Mahara so as not to go over basic principles of the application.

Although I had my list of tips and features I could go through from the top to the bottom until the 3 hours of the workshop had passed, I did not want to do that because the workshop was for the participants and their needs. Thus, I let the participants decide on the topics to focus on.

Making the choice

When you let people decide on things or want to gather opinions about the most important items to talk about, you give participants a number of sticky dots so they can vote on their favorite topics. Instead of dots I used Mentos dragees because then the participants could eat them once we had finished with a topic.

During the introduction round, each participant received 6 Mentos dragees. It would have been cruel to give them only 5 and not be able to eat any. Thus, they could munch on something during the introductions, but not relinquish any of their votes.

After we finished with the introductions, the participants gathered around the table on which I had put the possible topics to discuss during the workshop. They used their Mentos  to indicate which topics interested them most. One participant also wanted to talk about something that was not a proposed topic. So we included that on a separate paper.

Participants made their Mentos choice for the topics they are most interested in.

Participants made their Mentos choice for the topics they are most interested in.

Soon the favorite topics became apparent and it was interesting to see that some topics were of no interest to the participants at all. Thus, this exercise helped to shape the workshop and thus allow us to really focus on what the majority of the participants interested most and then make our way down the list of features and tips.

I knew I had more topics than time in the workshop because I can talk about Mahara very easily, and thus now knew what the participants wanted to talk about.

The preparation

Leaving the choice entirely to the participants meant of course that I still needed to be prepared to talk about all topics. 😉 My preparation included:

  • having a Mahara 1.8 installation that we could use during the workshop as not all participants were on the same instance. The features that we discussed where available in older versions as well though. I just wanted to give them the chance to play with the upcoming interface.
  • creating accounts for all users on the Mahara 1.8 site so they could all log in with their own username and password.
  • having a local Mahara 1.8 installation on which I could go through the steps of showing how to install a plugin or theme and how to make changes to language strings.
  • preparing a simple text document which had links to web pages that I could refer to as well as snippets of code that I might need for certain functionalities. I did not prepare that in a link list prior to the workshop because I did not know what we would be talking about.
  • setting up an Etherpad document in which I could post code snippets and URLs for the participants to use. Since Etherpad users can see instantly what someone is typing, it was a good way to give them URLs and text easily and immediately during the workshop.
  • writing all potential topics onto colored paper cards and then placing them on a table.
  • having additional paper cards handy for any topics that I had not anticipated.
  • buying Mentos dragees. 😉

Functionalities we discussed

In the following I will provide notes and links for the functionalities that we discussed as a follow-up for the workshop participants so that we have everything in one place. I could have put that information on the Etherpad that we used, but using my blog instead allows me to keep a more permanent record of the notes and makes it easier to refer back to.

After we finished talking about a functionality, the participants received their Mentos back.


The most popular topic was how to work with templates in Mahara. Scaffolding is very important for many instructors and thus giving them some tips on how to create templates and work with them is useful and can go a long way.

There are basically two ways of working with templates:

  1. You create institution or site pages / collections. These can be included in learners’ portfolios when they first log in to their account due to the copying settings that you can choose for the pages / collections. The disadvantage is that the template pages cannot contain a journal / journal entries or references to résumé content as these do not exist as blocks for institution and site pages.
  2. You create a template user account in which you create all templates. Learners will need to make a copy of the pages / collections that they are to work with themselves. These pages / collections cannot be placed into a user account automatically. However, you can start a journal in a template page or also provide a block for résumé information.

Templates then often have instructions on the pages for learners to know what they are supposed to do. I find it useful to set the instructions visually apart from other blocks so that they are easily identifiable. An easy method that I use, which does not require any code changes, is to use a <div> to indicate a background color. I refrain from using tables because tables should not be used as style elements unless called for.

You can create a text box and then enter the HTML editor interface via the HTML button in the visual editor and paste the following:

<div style="background-color: #eeeeee; padding: 10px;">

This will give you a grey box with three dots in it which you can replace with your own instructions text. When you switch back to the visual editor, you can see the grey box and can enter your text as you normally do. Of course, if you do not like this grey color, you can change it to something else. All you need is the hex color code for the color you wish to use.

Embed social media via an iframe

Since Mahara 1.5 you can allow iframe embed code without having to write a filter. And since Mahara 1.6, there is an admin interface to add iframes to a whitelist. Mahara already comes with a number of iframes that are allowed for users to embed in their portfolio pages. However, many more can be added.

You can find a list of iframe embed codes that other community members use on the wiki. I added the iframe sources we use on MyPortfolio.

Bulk export and import of Leap2A files

Both bulk export and bulk import of Leap2A files are experimental features in Mahara. Only site administrators can use these functionalities. More information can be found in the user manual.

From Mahara 1.8 on, learners will be able to import their own Leap2A files and merge them into their existing portfolio.

Multiple login options

If you have single sign-on (SAML or CAS for example) or LDAP and work with Moodle, users can either log in using the SSO or LDAP login or log in via Moodle and still have only one account if SSO / LDAP is set up as parent authority to the Moodle authentication.

If you use Persona and users already have an internal account, they can use both the regular login form or the Persona button if the email address in both accounts match.

Filter by login date

Since Mahara 1.7, administrators can search their users based on their login date. This is handy to find out if there are users who have never logged in or who have not logged in in a while.


Mahara has a number of plugins that can be installed in addition to the core code. This plugins add functionality to Mahara. Since plugins do not undergo a peer review like core code, we recommend that a security review is performed before installing plugins on a server.

Plugins that are very useful for professional development and for keeping track of personal learning plans are the Continuing Professional Development plugin and the calendar plugin for plans as they provide a calendar view for plans.

Participation reports in groups

If you require learners to leave comments on pages of fellow learners, you can use the participation reports functionality in groups to get an overview who has already commented on a page shared with the group.

Let users choose their theme for browsing the site

If you make an addition to your config file, users will be able to set the theme in which they can browse the site in their account settings. If your users are members of multiple institutions, they can always choose the theme in which to browse the site. The config value will allow them to see other general themes available on the site besides their institution themes.

In order to activate this feature, go to your config.php file and add the following value:

$cfg->sitethemeprefs = true;

Hide groups and / or group members

Sometimes it can be useful to hide groups on the “Find groups” page and even hide group members if members of the group or non-members should not know who is a member of a group.

Only staff or adminstrators can hide group (members). Please see the user manual for more information.

Add a theme

You can add additional themes to your Mahara site that you either created yourself or downloaded. You find themes that are freely available for download on the wiki. Once you downloaded a theme, extract the files into the theme folder keeping the folder for the theme itself. Then you can choose it in the site options as site administrator or in the institution settings as institution administrator. Depending on your settings for your site, users may be able to choose the theme for their pages or for browsing the site.

Dashboard links

Mahara comes with a “dashboard image” that provides some information about how to use Mahara. However, this dashboard image may not be suitable for everyone or for every institution. It is easy to make changes to this part of the page as the content is maintained in the homeinfo.tpl template file, contained in /htdocs/theme/raw/templates.

If you want to change the dashboard image for the entire site, you can change the file directly in the raw theme as all other themes inherit the template (except the primary school theme). If you wish to use a revised dashboard image only in your theme, you should place a copy of the homeinfo.tpl file into your theme’s template folder and make the changes there.

Transparency of masquerading

From Mahara 1.7 on you can make it more transparent for your users when an administrator logs into their account. This is very useful to indicate to users when an administrator logged in as a user. This setting needs to be turned on in the user settings of the site options. In addition, logging for at least the masquerading sessions needs to be turned on.

Staff access to reports and statistics

Many times, the need to log in to a user’s account can be prevented. Often, masquerading is used to check on a user’s access permissions on pages. Administrators have access to a report on the access permissions by default. However, staff can also get access to these reports as well as to the institution’s or site’s statistics. This change needs to be made in the user settings of the site options.

Wrap up

Although we did not talk about all topics, I think the workshop was a successful one because the participants asked an abundance of questions and we talked about the things they were most interested in.

I also liked the introduction distributing the 6 Mentos dragees to each participant and having make their choice placing them on the potential topics. The participants also liked this idea, and there was quite a queue for taking photos once everyone had made their choice.

Using Etherpad helped during the workshop because I could give participants the links or any text snippets very easily and they could copy them immediately. I also liked this progressive approach of creating a document instead of having everything already prepared. Since the participants continue to have access to the document after the workshop, some added additional words.

All in all I was happy about the workshop and enjoyed having a lively and inquisitive group of participants.

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