On Monday, 25 July 2016, the latest MUGSE (Mahara User Group South England) meeting took place at the Defence Academy on its Shrivenham campus. I was fortunate to have been able to attend because I think it will be the most secure Mahara user group meeting ever. But of course, the attendees were also a big draw. 🙂
So what about the security?
To get it out of the way because I’m sure you are wondering what’s it like to have a meeting on a military campus, let’s talk about it first.
Sam Taylor and Aurélie Owens from the Flexible Learning Support Centre at Cranfield Defence and Security hosted the meeting and did a great job explaining all the necessary details. We had to sign in at reception and received a badge that allowed us to wander around the campus without an escort (not that we attempted because it’s such a huge campus and you could wander into a minefield or in the line of fire if you didn’t read all the signs). We were not allowed to take pictures outside of our meeting room, and also had to wear appropriate attire as we were having lunch at the Officer’s Mess Hall.
It was interesting to see people dressed in uniform everywhere, though there are also staff like Sam and Aurélie who do not wear uniform.
We were lucky not to have any sirens go off during our time on campus or hear any military drills and practices as it was very quiet on campus with students having finished their theses and awaiting the assessment outcomes.
So you said MUGSE?
25 keen Mahara users from across the south of England all the way from Cambridge in the east to Southampton on the coast and Nottingham in the north (not quite south England anymore, but she will be taking over from Sam while she is going on maternity leave later in the year) braved the summer weather and in one case even came back from vacation to attend this summer MUGSE meeting. It was a great diverse group of people primarily from the higher and further education sector. Some were newbies and others experienced users.
So what did you do?
We began the day with a short workshop to get everyone talking and brainstorming. We had 5 topics of which 4 were discussed in groups allowing everyone to put their heads together and see if they could come up with a solution or an idea for a change in Mahara. The topics discussed were:
- How can you integrate assessment?
- How can you improve usability?
- How can you integrate Microsoft Office 365?
- How can you bulk update your group membership (not discussed in wider group)?
- What are the benefits of using Mahara?
We then heard short case study reports from various institutions of higher education, I presented the state of SmartEvidence so far, we looked at some easy ways to improve usability in Mahara locally and then had a Q&A session with which we ended the day.
Assessment is becoming an increasingly important topic for Mahara users as they wish to tie in competency frameworks with the portfolios. We looked at the first prototype of SmartEvidence later in the day. The group shared their experiences so far and came up with questions to be discussed further.
The group raised a number of questions that were in good part related to the other groups. Some of the questions were also tackled in the form of case studies by the presenters that came after the workshop who provided good insight into how Mahara is used around southern England currently.
It was noted by the group that professional development plays an increasingly important role for the successful implementation of ePortfolios.
Office 365 integration
Two participants discussed the Office 365 integration and also general questions around the integration of other external resources. Integrating with external repositories is beneficial for those that only have limited storage capacity. However, what happens when the students don’t have access to these repositories anymore? Also campuses such as the Defence Academy are in a unique security position in that they are not allowed to use external storage and everything needs to be put on its on-site servers that are not the cheapest around.
Update: If you want to take an early look at the integration between Mahara and Office 365, please contact Gregor Anželj. He has worked on the integration and can make the plugin available for testing before its final release.
Bulk update group membership
While this topic was not discussed in a bigger group, Nick and I did brainstorm possibilities. I mentioned that Mahara 16.10 will have the possibility to update any group’s membership via CSV file and not just the membership of the groups that were created by CSV as is currently the case.
However, it would be nice to have some bulk options available where users can quickly update their own group membership status. Similarly, it would be good to have some bulk options also available for portfolio pages.
Benefits of using Mahara
The members of this group discussed benefits and noted importantly that competent support is required for uptake at an institution and successful implementation. The group pointed to the excellent support that Cranfield University receives from Sam and Aurélie for example, who provide valuable advice to lecturers from the start of a project to the finish when brought in to support the lecturer.
Sam and Aurélie presented an update to their presentation at MootIEUK in March. They had now run a second course in which their students worked on problems collaboratively and used a group portfolio to report their findings and reflections. They had learned a number of things from the first pilot and made changes accordingly to their course design as well as how they worked with Mahara, which were successful and proved beneficial to their participants.
A notable difference in Mahara was the use of collapsible blocks for the portfolio content. As the students needed to submit their portfolios to Turnitin, everything had to be on one page. Turnitin does not handle zip files well, but it can read the printed version of the portfolio reasonably OK.
Of course putting an entire portfolio consisting of multiple sections with quite a bit of text on one page results in endless scrolling. That’s where the collapsible blocks come in: It’s easy to jump between the sections, but when it does need to be printed, all sections can be opened once and a print copy can be made.
They did stress to the participants though that the assessors would look at the nicely formatted portfolio in Mahara as well and not only the plain one in Turnitin. Layout and overall organisation still counted, and staff found the portfolios very clear and well structured.
Southampton Solent University
Roger Emery from Southampton Solent University reported on the use of templates for health care students and how his team improved the support for them when they are not on the same campus. In the past, students didn’t always know whom to contact for support, but now they have a structure in place that is clear and the learning technology team is more efficiently used.
There are peers, who already had to do their portfolio, available to help students. The learning technology team does check in with them to ensure that they aren’t giving incorrect advice. The next level of support is the assessors, and Solent University found that it helps when they create their own portfolio to see how their tasks work and what is doable and how it is doable by the students. And lastly there is the tutor who can be consulted. Peers, assessors and tutors then have the direct line to the learning technologies team in case they exhausted their other resources.
The use of peers as initial support for students (and instructors) works well for a number of institutions. It is good to see students supporting students and gaining more knowledge at the same time.
While the team does use templates, they found that this can be dangerous at times as lecturers then don’t explore the system themselves and learn how to use it.
Roger pointed to the help pages of Solent University where there are also some portfolio examples available.
Sam showed us some of the support resources that she’s put together for her students in Moodle and how they link back to Mahara. While they use existing resources, they also create some resources themselves to focus on the specific tasks learners need to do and make it easy for them to find that information.
The day before, Sam was showing me her support resources and we looked into deep linking to Mahara pages from within Moodle so that she wouldn’t have to provide a secret URL to the support pages anymore, but could link to them and log the students into Mahara at the same time. That is helpful because then students don’t necessarily have to return to Moodle and click on the special login link, but are logged into their portfolios automatically.
University of Brighton
Nick Feather from the University of Brighton gave an update on the ePortfolio work that is happening at his university. Like Solent University, Brighton uses templates in health and humanities. They use tables extensively to provide an overview of what part of the portfolio has already been filled in and where there is still evidence missing.
Sparsholt College Hampshire
Ursula Bailey from Sparsholt College uses portfolios with zookeepers in training. They used to work with paper-based portfolios, but sending them across the UK to the various assessors proved very expensive. That’s why they looked into going digital. They started out using templates, but don’t anymore because they were too close to the paper-based versions and didn’t give the students enough freedom. For Sparsholt College it was crucial to get the external verifiers on board.
There are still a few things to improve and simplify. For example, right now students still need to collect the signatures of their mentors and tutors and put them into their portfolios to indicate that they’ve passed a unit. However, maybe in the future it would be enough for the tutors and mentors to provide feedback to indicate that they’ve reviewed the student’s work.
Sparsholt College also uses a manually created overview page showing where evidence has already been collected and whether it’s been verified or not.
Kings College, London
Charles Kasule from Kings College presented on the varied use of Mahara in 4 different contexts:
- King’s Learning Institute
- Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery
- Modern Language Centre
- King’s Experience
The reflective element is very important in the King’s portfolios. One example that we saw was a lecturer’s reflection on preparing for one of his modules. He showcased his progress and the various stages.
The College set up a portfolio working group in which learning technologists and academics get together to discuss the implementation of portfolios. The involvement and support from the academics from the start is very important for the success of the implementation.
Initially, I was going to showcase some examples of using templates, but since the majority of the previous presenters already showed how well templates can or cannot work, we decided to switch gears on the spot and briefly demo SmartEvidence instead. A number of presenters had tables in their portfolio templates that students needed to fill in manually. Now that’s where SmartEvidence can come in very nicely I would say.
The first patches made it into code review, and I’ve been testing them over the last couple of weeks to check out the initial technical implementation. There are a few more things to finish before we can commit everything to Mahara, but I’m already very excited about the current state of progress. I think I’ll create a short video soon to show where we are at right now.
It was good to do this first demo and present the current functionality to a group of users and see how many of them are very excited about what is coming up.
Improving the usability of Mahara is an ongoing topic and as the discussion by one of the groups showed at this MUGSE meeting, a very important one that needs to be tackled from a number of perspectives.
Roger shared how Solent University is making improvements on its environment locally without much coding by primarily changing language strings. He showed how they have changed the help files in Mahara to make them more suitable for their students providing information on what the functionality is, how it can be used and seeing an example.
Not everyone is aware that any language string in Mahara can be changed with the help of a local language file. Thus, adapting the language to the one that is used at an institution is fairly simple and does not require any coding background. The workshop material that Roger had put together for last year’s Mahara Hui helps get others started with that.
At the end of the day we had a Mahara clinic where any questions could be asked. The one big question I remember was around the mobile app and whether we’ve made any progress on that. So I could give an update on Mahara Mobile. Hopefully, we’ll have an alpha version available by the end of the Northern Hemispheric summer. A few bugs are eradicated and the theme is being worked on.
The app is still – like its current predecessors – going to be based on the premise that we aren’t replicating all of Mahara in an app, but see the app more as an extension to the website and make it possible for learners to record their learning evidence offline. The new app will allow learners to connect it to any Mahara site no matter the authentication method (tested will be built-in authentication methods). That’s a big improvement as currently, the apps can only be used with internal Mahara authentication. With more and more institutions setting up LDAP or single sign-on, that’s not a viable option.
I’m excited about the new app and will announce the test version as soon as we have it available.
So was that all?
The day at Cranfield University was jam-packed with conversations and presentations around the use of Mahara at a number of institutions and provided new as well as experienced users a good overview of what is going on in South England. There is a lot of good portfolio work being done that supports students and instructors in their learning and in a number of cases also supports collaboration and makes learning enjoyable. One lecturer who had observed group work noted that the students had never laughed so much during an activity before.
The local Mahara user group meetings give people who may not be so active in the online community the chance to get together relatively easily (some did travel more than 6 hours in total though to be able to attend) and exchange ideas as well as get to know each other a bit better. Being able to bond and network face to face is still very important. I am looking forward to seeing how the individual projects develop and change over time.
Check out Twitter for the tweets from the event as well as future updates.
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