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.

06 Jun

Some minutes in French

Tonight was another premiere for me. After having delivered my first keynote at iMoot 2013 on 26 May 2013, I gave my first presentation in French for MaharaMoot FR 2013 in Bordeaux, France. The organizing committee had invited me to present online at this annual MoodleMoot and MaharaMoot.

It was quite an experience for a number of reasons:

  1. I wanted to present in French because the audience would be primarily French.
  2. I had to present online using a system that would only work on a Windows computer.
  3. The video conference system did not have a text backchannel and once I entered the screensharing mode, I had no idea what the audience might be doing. No other software could be used.
  4. Altough we had tested the audio three times beforehand, once the mic was turned on for this huge lecture hall, all I heard was my echo which threw me completely, and I ended up having big pauses at the end of my sentences to have my echo catch up with me. It would have improved things had I turned off the sound, but then I would not have known that
  5. We ran into audio issues and the audio dropped out. Since there was no backchannel and I could not see the video feed during the screensharing, I could have continued without noticing that I had totally lost my audience. So I had the “Allô ? Anybody there?” question a few times (which I cut out of the recording).

So, all in all, it could have been a better experience. Nevertheless, I am happy that I did it because I learned a few things that I can keep in mind for future online presentations:

  1. When you hear your voice on the other end, turn the volume down and try not to care too much. Everything will be delayed for a second or two and thus also your pauses.
  2. If there is no backchannel built into the conferencing software that is being used, arrange another synchronous way to communicate with a person in the audience outside of the software in case something goes wrong and you need to troubleshoot things. For that you might need two screens so that you can stay in fullscreen mode for the presentation, but monitor the backchannel on the secondary monitor.
  3. Engaging the audience is tough if you are the only head that’s not present in the room. I had a few questions at the beginning to at least get a reaction with a show of hands which helped me to know a tiny bit more about the audience, but that only worked because there was a camera in the room that could be turned to cover at least 75% of the seating.
  4. Don’t plan for too much time for questions as the audience may not have any and filling silence from the off is even more difficult than when you are in the room.

I am very happy that I had great support during the preparation of my presentation: Pascale got rid of my glaring French mistakes, Olivier, a technician from the Université de Bordeaux, made sure that the sound, video and screensharing worked as best as possible, colleagues at Catalyst and friends on Facebook gave me encouraging pep talks and a note to calm my nerves for presenting in French, and a good friend of mine and her son took photos of sand under a microscope that I could use on my first slide*.

Merci beaucoup.

* For those who don’t know French: The title of my presentation is “More than just an ePortfolio system”. There is more to Mahara than just the portfolio side as there is more to sand when you view it under the microscope. The photo even displays sand from Wellington that I had sent my friend. She is homeschooling her children, and one thing they explored for their lessons a while ago was sand. She had asked her network to send them sand from different places so the kids could compare the sand under the microscope.

25 May

Open Badges in Mahara: The quick way

Open Badges are all the rave at this year’s iMoot because Moodle allows you to earn badges. This functionality is new in Moodle 2.5 that was just released last week.

Mahara will be a displayer of badges once others than Mozilla can also be badges backpacks. We hope that this code will be released soon so we can implement it into the next release.

For the time being however, there is a quick and dirty hack to show off your badges in Mahara by using an iFrame. Here’s what you have to do.

  1. Ask your site administrator to add “backpack.openbadges.org/share” to the list of allowed iFrames. This can be done from Mahara 1.6 on. If you are on Mahara 1.5, your site administrator needs to delve into the code to add the URL.
  2. Go to your Mozilla Backpack and create a collection for the badges that you would like to display.
  3. Make this collection public.
  4. Copy the URL of your public collection and create an iFrame code around it. An easy tool is the Online iFrame generator. Just paste your URL in there, choose the settings you’d like to have, and off you go. I chose scrolling and a width and height of 800px.
  5. Copy the resulting iFrame code.
    Mine looked like this:

    <iframe src=”http://backpack.openbadges.org/share/cb5f7bf2cfcfbf0bfcb7470f2798bb67/” style=”border:0px #FFFFFF none;” name=”myiFrame” scrolling=”yes” frameborder=”1″ marginheight=”0px” marginwidth=”0px” height=”800px” width=”800px”></iframe>

    You can use this iFrame code and just replace the URL which is displayed in bold.

  6. Create a page in your Mahara portfolio and set the layout to 1 column only.
  7. Either use the “Text box / note” block or the “External content” block to embed your iFrame. I am going to use the “External content” block because it’s easier. :-)
  8. Paste your iFrame code into the block, give it a heading and you are done.
  9. Save the block. Your badges now appear in your page.

For an example, check out my iMoot badges page.

12 May

MMMup – Going mobile

In this third post on the Moodle-Mahara Meetup in Adelaide on a sunny and warm 8 May 2013, I want to focus on my presentation about using mobile devices with Mahara.

I had chosen this topic because lately discussions have been around the use of smartphones and tablets with Mahara but also a general trend at schools (at least in New Zealand) can be seen to go down the road of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Schools let go of a lot of control when they allow their students to bring any device to school to connect to the Internet and use it for classroom work. There is no uniformity anymore in technology and in some ways it becomes more difficult to manage because there are now multiple operating systems in play, different sizes of the devices, some or touch devices while others aren’t, there is no uniformity in software that is installed and so on. However, it also gives the students the freedom to choose with which device they want to work with. They do not have to buy the latest, most expensive tablet or laptop computer out there but can go with a more affordable option and also their preferred software / work environment.

I prepared my presentation working with my two Android devices: a small mid-range smartphone and a 10″ tablet. Because I only had about 20 minutes time, I decided not to do a live demo, but use slides run on my computer instead to avoid any glitches. In the end, I did have a couple of minutes time for a quick demo and hooked up my tablet to my computer to be able to show its screen on the projector easily. All this went very smoothly until it came to logging into the demo site on the computer. Typing my password in front of an audience is not the best thing to do. So next time, I’ll make sure that I am logged in with the correct account before taking the stage. I have yet to try to connect my tablet directly to a projector.

<musing>Maybe one day I will just take my tablet to a conference instead of my computer and work just off it. I did use only my tablet for note taking during other sessions because my tablet comes with a pen which makes writing very easy. Then I don’t need to have my computer open and type. However, I still like typing and being able to use my shortcuts to copy and paste and search online quickly. I’m still quite clumsy on my tablet I think, partly also because I’m reduced to typing with fewer fingers. But adding an external keyboard would not make much sense because then I might as well just use my laptop.</musing>

There are three ways to enhance the use of Mahara on a mobile device:

  • Use a responsive design theme
  • Use MaharaDroid (sorry iOS users, you are out of luck)
  • Use PortfolioUp (for iOS users)

The apps can be installed from their respective stores. MaharaDroid is the more powerful and feature-rich one because it doesn’t just allow you to upload photos and videos, but pretty much anything that you can share on your Android device. Furthermore, you will also be able to sync notifications and content from your Mahara instance with your device and write a journal entry directly from within MaharaDroid in version 2.1 which is currently in beta.

For MaharaDroid, developed by Catalyst as open source software, you can add your feature wishes directly in the issue tracker.

Leo from Brightcookie, the people behind PortfolioUp, set up a form for users to submit their feature wishes for extending this application.

And what about the responsive design: Mahara’s default theme is responsive and can be copied and adapted to your institution’s needs. In my presentation I show off the theme our design team created for Catalyst. It sports a very custom dashboard image instead of the standard table that you see on the dashboard to make the theme our own. This part of Mahara is not responsive, but it adds a great deal to the customization for an institution because you can highlight Mahara functionality that is important to your institution and bring in your culture.

Below is the presentation I gave including the audio recording.

12 May

MMMup – Brainstorming plugin improvements

The Moodle-Mahara Meetup in Adelaide on 8 May 2013 was the perfect setting to talk with users of Mahara and Moodle about a plugin that is frequently used by those that have both platforms. Though we have the Mahara community forums, getting the opportunity to chat with users face-to-face is fantastic because everything is done in real time.

Back in 2012 Catalyst was asked to provide specifications for expanding the Mahara assignment submission plugin to account for the deprecation of MNet by Moodle sometime in the future and to allow for keeping submitted portfolios for accountability in case a student challenged a grade. All other functionality was supposed to stay. Since then a number of functionalities have changed in Moodle and Mahara. Thus hearing what users would like to see today is important for keeping the plugin relevant.

Altogether there were 18 users of Moodle and Mahara in my workshop on the Mahara assignment submission plugin. These came primarily from the tertiary education sector from Australia and New Zealand. But we also had a participant from Fiji and one from the secondary school level. Interestingly, only two of these 18 have used the plugin in question before. However, this did not pose a difficulty because then they were not limited by the current functionality, but could think very freely about what they would like to see in the plugin.

I split the large group into three smaller ones and allowed them time to talk to each other about what they would like to see and discuss their ideas in their groups after having had a quick introduction round. This part of the workshop was important to me so we had a basis for our discussions. We all didn’t know each other besides sometimes having engaged in the online forums. That’s why the introductions were the opportunity for us to put context around where we were coming from.

All three groups had lively discussions and came up with numerous ideas for the future Mahara assignment submission plugin. During the final big group discussion, every group put forward their top ideas which we captured on the whiteboard:

  • Group submissions of assignments as is now possible in the Moodle assignment. This would be ideal with the setting up of Moodle groups / groupings automatically in Mahara.
  • Display Moodle assignments in Mahara as well as the results.
  • Submit an entire collection and not just individual pages.
  • Have the choice to lock a page when it is being submitted; allow for re-submitting of Mahara pages / collections. I.e. allow for more formative and not only summative assessment. Submitting a Mahara page / collection could mean just to submit for the teacher to give feedback, but that doesn’t mean the page would need to be locked.
  • Keep a snapshot for accountability like with other assignments that need to be archived. Potentially have options of what to keep.
  • Allow for versioning of pages / collections in Mahara.
  • Submit a page / collection to Moodle directly from within Mahara so students don’t have to go to the assignment in Moodle first, but can click a button in Mahara.

We also had a few ideas that were not directly related to the assignment submission plugin:

  • Have chat functionality in Mahara. This is already a wishlist item on Launchpad.
  • Trigger for giving feedback.
  • Have more options where Moodle content ends up in Mahara when it is being exported.

Now we’ll just need the funding to implement changes and new features. :-) Mahara is an open source project and while everyone can take its source code and run with it, there are costs involved for developing the software further be it by institutions themselves or through providing funding to have Mahara developers perform the task.

If you have further ideas or want to expand on some of the ones listed above, please join the discussion.