25 Jan

High school students contribute to Mahara

This year, Catalyst organized the fifth annual Open Source Academy. It took place in our Wellington HQ from 5 to 16 January 2015. It was a full house again with 23 students. They came primarily from Wellington, but we also had a few from the Auckland and Canterbury regions. This year, girls outnumbered boys by three students. 🙂

The Academy

The first week, as usual, was a tutorial week in which the students learn programming basics, get acquainted with open source philosophy and tools, as well as learn what it takes to pull a software project together.

In the second week they get the chance to work on an open source project. There were five projects that the students could choose from:

  • Drupal – content management system
  • Koha – integrated library management system
  • Mahara – ePortfolio system
  • Piwik – web analytics platform
  • SilverStripe – content management system

All five software projects are popular open source applications that are used around the world. Catalyst staff who are core developers and experienced programmers in Drupal, Koha and Mahara, mentored students in these applications. It was great to have the Piwik core team on board again, and core SilverStripe developers for the first time.

The students fixed bugs, wrote new features, tested patches, and in the case of Piwik and SilverStripe also created a new theme each.

Students working in a group during the Academy

Students fleshing out user stories for their persona during the first week of the Academy. Source: Kristina Hoeppner, CC BY-SA

The Mahara team

This year, we had five students who wanted to work on Mahara. Hugh was the main mentor for the week helping the students with their programming questions and reviewing code. Jinelle introduced the students to automated functional testing using Behat.

Our five students created 29 patches over the course of just 3.5 days of which the majority has been merged into Mahara already. They fixed some bugs that have been around for a while and created a few new features that could be accomplished in that time. Not to forget the numerous tests they wrote for their fixes or features which enhance our growing test suite of automated tests. For example, they added:

  • Added help icons to numerous pages.
  • Replaced the old paginator with the newer one and added a drop-down menu for more flexibility on how many items to display on a page.
  • Added more passwords that users would not be able to choose because they are too simple.
  • Limited the number of characters that could be typed for a message type.
  • Changed language strings to improve them.
  • They removed superfluous items in the “Profile completion” administration interface and re-arranged another one.
  • Added a link to an artefact that was marked as objectionable so that the admin can go to it directly instead of just being taken to the page in which the artefact appears.
  • Added a bunch of automated tests.

The students had a good investigative sense when they read bug / feature descriptions and scoured the code to find the place where the change needed to be made. They were also pros at the end of the week working with git, checking out code, pushing code to the review system and finding files in the code base.

Although I was not able to spend lots of time with the students, it was always a treat to check in with them a few times during the day and see where they had gotten to and see if they needed any additional help.

At the end, the teams were asked to present what they had done over the course of the project week, and the Mahara students decided to write a Behat test to have their presentation run automatically within Mahara. What a great way to show their skills!

5 students working together on 1 computer

The Mahara students work together on their final presentation. Source: Kristina Hoeppner, CC BY-SA

View more photos from the Academy.

12 May

Open source project contributions

Unless I want to add a news item to the web site of the company I work for, Catalyst IT, I do not visit the site. That was already the same for the universities where I worked because such sites are usually geared towards the general public, but not the people working there. Thus, I sometimes stumble upon hidden gems or am reminded of cool pages.

Recently, I was reminded of the page where all our open source project contributions are listed. Currently, this list has 142 open source projects listed to which current Catalystas have contributed in the past or presently. This can be small 1-5 person projects or big ones like Koha or Moodle, projects that were created for a very specific purpose and are now defunct or projects that are continuously maintained.

That’s an impressive number of projects and may actually not be all because we pull the projects and contributors from Ohloh. If a project is not registered there, our site won’t know about it and also if developers have not added their Ohloh username to our internal wiki, our web site cannot pick it up.

With more people joining the company, this list will hopefully grow more.


21 Mar

Squashing bugs

Bug squashing: This is not the messy kind of hitting annoying mosquitoes or sand flies and seeing their victim’s blood drain from them. No, here I am talking about the bugs that hide in software, are brought to light by keen users and then fixed by awesome developers.

This week is global bug squashing week for Koha, the open source integrated library management system. This is a “concerted effort to get bugs and patches moving along in the right direction” all over the world. Everybody is invited to help test bugs, add comments and if all is well sign off on them.

Eliminate as many bugs as possible; Photo by Benny Lin, CC BY-NC
Photo by Benny Lin, CC BY-NC

One of my colleagues, Chris Cormack, who is the Technical Lead of our Koha Team at Catalyst IT, announced this initiative on Monday at work and invited everyone to support the project.

I am not a developer, but I have already fixed a few bugs in Mahara – pretty much only language string-related – and as I like the Koha team and the software, I thought that maybe I could help as well as signing off on bugs does not necessarily require programming knowledge.

The Koha community makes it easy for people like me who cannot so quickly set up an instance of Koha on their own computer, configure it, import data etc. in that there are sandboxes that can be used for testing. What you need to do is test the faulty behavior on the latest version of Koha, the “master”. Once you have confirmed that there is a fault, you apply the patch and run your test(s) again. Hopefully, all works well and you can sign off on the patch.

Now, normally, applying a patch is something that requires some command line knowledge. However, thanks to the sandboxes, all you need to do is to provide the bug number, your email address and whether you want to start with a fresh database or not. Then all the command line magic is done for you and within a minute or so you have a fully functional Koha instance with the patch applied. Voilà. 🙂

On Monday, Chris showed me how to work with the sandbox, we found a bug that looked easy enough for me to test and tested it. As I do know a little bit about the version control system git, he showed me how to sign off “properly” with a patch of my own. At the end of 1 hour we had the patch submitted. A considerable amount of that hour was spent finding a suitable bug. In the evening, I attempted to test two more bugs and could sign off on one of them. The other one needed a bit more work.

Three of the five bugs that I tested are already merged and thus could be completely squashed. That’s pretty cool. I did require some more help from Chris because as I am not so familiar with the vast amount of system preferences you can switch on / off in Koha, I needed some prodding to look in the right direction so that I could actually test the faulty behavior correctly. It was great to get the help from him at all hours also on the community IRC channel. And it was nice to chat to other Koha developers on IRC, get updates of the weather around the world and so on. The community is very friendly and supportive.

Now if you want to participate, there are still 61 bugs that need sign off (maybe fewer when you see the list) and every contribution counts as the users make the open source community and improve the software.

On a related note: Yesterday, the Mahara team released the Mahara 1.5 Release Candidate 1. We invite everyone to test the software and give us feedback if you find a bug that should be fixed before the stable release is produced.

19 Nov

NZOSA ceremony on November 9, 2010

The New Zealand Open Source Awards Ceremony took place in Wellington on November 9, 2010. It was an evening celebrating open source and the people involved in the community or if you look at each project individually, communities.

The evening was filled with laughter for the introductions to the various awards were often witty, great conversation, food and drink. People who had not known each other before learned about each other’s involvement in open source and expanded their horizon about where open source can be seen in action and who is involved in it.

I particularly liked that the awards were not only about open source software, but also about the people involved in its development, promotion, and use. That shows that open source is more than the software, but that it needs the community involvement and enthusiastic users to bring it along further, to make others aware of it and to help it grow.

As one of the three photographers for the night, I took a whole bunch of photos – 763 to be exact of which I 222 survived as rated 2+. As we had not asked people’s permission to take their photo, I only published the close-ups of the people on stage online which is 50 photos.

If you want to watch the recorded introductions to the categories and the acceptance speeches, head over to YouTube or watch the playlist below.

10 Oct

Recap of ULearn10

ULearn10 (6-8 October 2010) is “New Zealand’s premier education conference” according to CORE Education, the organizer. It is a huge teacher conference with approximately 1,800 participants from all over New Zealand. Some Aussies could also be spotted.

Everybody congregated in Christchurch and I guess hoped that there wouldn’t be any major aftershocks. We were lucky. Though there were plenty of minor quakes that couldn’t be felt, only 4 bigger ones (above 4.2) happened during the week. Early arrivals felt the 5.0 (10th biggest earthquake since September 4, 2010) Monday night. The other three were Tuesday night and 2 on Friday early morning. I was happy to be in a safe hotel that was fitted with earthquake plates.

But back to the conference. Together with Open Systems Specialists and TechnologyWise, Catalyst IT had the Open Source Schools stand in the exhibitor hall. We were one of the few exhibitors who did not sell smartboards / projectors that turned ordinary whiteboards into smartboards. At least that’s what it looked like in our area of the exhibitor hall.

Our aim was to let participants know about open source software and its use in school. I particularly talked about the e-portfolio software Mahara, but also Moodle and Koha when I had a chance to do so. Mark Osborne from Albany Senior High School spent some time at our stand to show conference participants how his school uses these three online systems for learning and teaching.

It was great to hear the accounts of conference participants who came to our stand and proudly told us they are already using Linux / Ubuntu at their school and also introduced or are introducing other open source software to their school community. Others did not know (much) about open source and wanted to learn more more.

We also had two breakout sessions in which Mahara featured: Mine was on October 6. Louise Bray-Burns (Hampton Hill School) and Helen Moran (Tawa Intermediate School) talked about their experiences with Mahara using the hosted service MyPortfolio on October 7. Being in their session, I got a glimpse of student portfolios as well as Helen’s teacher portfolio. Furthermore, the three of us assisted the participants when they took their first steps in MyPortfolio.

Our booth was well-visited throughout the conference. Being in direct line of view during morning tea, lunch, and afternoon tea didn’t hurt because people had time to look at our banners while in the queue. 🙂

Thanks to my fellow stand colleagues, I could go to Steve Wheeler‘s keynote “Transformation and inspiration through social media: Meeting the needs of the 21st Century Learner”. I had not seen or heard him speak live since December 2007 when we first met. His presentation was very lively and I particularly liked the storytelling style that he had adopted to bring across his message. A recording of the keynotes will be posted to the ULearn web site. We also had a brief chat on the last day of the conference. It was not easy to spot him among the hundreds of participants. Eventually a tweet helped us to get together.

ULearn10 was a success in my eyes because we could interest conference participants in open source software and talk about its possibilities. We did not do that only in general terms, but sometimes discussions went very specific and we gave short demonstrations on some of the software that is already used in schools.

The organization during the conference was exceptional. A big thank you to the organizers, the set up, catering and tech teams. And also to the student assistants who made sure that presenters had everything they needed in their rooms. Thus, a special shoutout to Rory from Christ’s College who was on duty during my breakout session in ICT1.