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.

01 Jan

Engaging software requirements review

A few months ago Catalyst was asked by a potential client to go through the project requirements with them in a workshop. There were about 120 requirements with the majority being “must have”, a few “should have” and a couple “could have”. The requirements themselves were mostly of a high level nature and thus providing them with an estimate that was not a ballpark was challenging. The workshop was to help us understand details of the requirements.

In this blog post I describe the idea that we implemented for the workshop, describe the material needed to run it and present its benefits. We ran this type of workshop for the first time and thus only have anecdotal evidence of its success. Nevertheless, I hope that it can serve as inspiration to you for re-thinking a similar session you are asked to run and try some of the ideas.

Coming up with an idea for the workshop

Since I heard the word “workshop”, I immediately went into workshop thinking mode. I did not want to have a session in which everyone was hunched over their multi-page 8-point font size printouts of the requirements spreadsheet or try finding the line item in the electronic document and waste time searching for items rather than discussing them.

Recently, I had also read the book Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo and was all excited not do run a “regular” meeting but incorporate more visual and engaging elements.

Thus, I took a fresh look at the requirements. They were categorized according to functional and non-functional areas and labeled “must have”, “should have”, and “could have”. We had also provided information on which functionalities Mahara, the open source software we were proposing for the project,

  • had available out of the box;
  • required only minimal configuration effort;
  • needed some development effort whose scope was pretty well defined;
  • would potentially need quite a bit of development effort depending on what the client envisaged.

Since the vast majority of the items were non-negotiable requirements, I decided to ignore that categorization. It was also of less importance to keep the topical categorization because we needed to look at the entire solution. Therefore, I focused on the third type of information, namely what the software could already provide and where we needed more information in order to determine whether development work was necessary and if so, how much that would be.

Focusing on the software and the elements already available would also help us show the organization how much they would already get by using Mahara as basis. Most of the time, an organization’s requirements are not a 100% match with any software and thus a minimum of customization is required. Identifying the particular items that would need to be customized is important and also having a good understanding of the effort needed in relation to the available budget in order to suggest functionality to start with and then expand on over time.

My expectations for the workshop

In preparation for the workshop, a colleague of mine in Australia and I had a teleconference to discuss what the organization wanted us to do, what we wanted to get out of the session, what information we had available and how much time we would have realistically. This session was very helpful to me in formulating the first ideas for the session and then ponder them over a weekend without the interruption of emails and other work.

The workshop would need to allow for the following:

  • Engage all participants and not have them get stuck behind computer screens or lost in spreadsheets.
  • Allow participants to get up and talk to each other right at the start.
  • Encourage participants to draw ideas and work flows on a whiteboard spontaneously to support their ideas.
  • Have the requirements that we are discussing present at all times and thus easily accessible.
  • Make it very clear what we already know and where we need more information.
  • Use our time wisely: Spend time only on the items for which we don’t have enough information rather than going through every single item. We probably had a maximum of 5 hours and most likely no possibility of extending the session due to the schedules of all the participants (there were nine from the organization and three from us).

I came up with a card-sorting idea that would take all these expectations into consideration and hopefully deliver.

Note: It can very well be that somebody else already described a similar activity in a book or online resource on facilitating meetings and workshops. I haven’t looked specifically for any. If such an activity already exists, please let me know in the comments.

The workshop objective

The objective of the workshop seems simple enough: Remind participants of all requirements, quickly deal with the requirements that only need clarification and then go over to discussing the requirements that need more information in order to understand them better and thus be able to estimate their development effort.

The workshop preparation

The preparation for the workshop consisted of a lot of copying and pasting, sorting of cards and making hand-written notes so as not to forget elements during the workshop.

Things needed

  1. Project requirements
  2. Template file that contains the cards as well as the headings
  3. White 160g/m2 paper
  4. Four colors, one for each category
  5. Printer
  6. Cutting board
  7. Post-it notes in one color that does not correspond to a category color
  8. Highlighter in category colors (or approximations of them)
  9. Sharpie and pen
  10. Two differently colored voting dots (optional)

Set up the main categories

The four categories in which all requirements could be sorted are:

  • Know / configure: Out of the box functionality, configuration, non-application requirements;
  • Double-check: Some changes may be needed depending on the interpretation of the requirements;
  • Clarify: Know what needs to be changed; no major analysis;
  • Analyse more: Need for more information to understand the requirement.

Non-application requirements such as setting up of a hosting contract, offering user support fall under the “Know / configure” category as they are well-understood and part of the contract negotiation rather than software development.

These four categories are then laid out according to their increasing difficulty and receive a different color each. Initially, I thought of using differently colored paper, but I decided against it because none of the colors that were available went well together. Using white paper and printing color accents on them gives a much more professional look in my opinion. You can even use your brand colors if they lend themselves to it. I was lucky that our color palette allowed for such flexibility and thus I did not have to search for suitable color scheme.

Create the requirement cards

This is the part that takes the longest and is the most important. I transferred each requirement onto an A6-sized card and reviewed the category into which it fell. I also transferred any additional notes that we had already provided the client. Remember, I wanted to avoid that we needed to look up information in a spreadsheet and our proposal document. Therefore, all the information had to be readily available on each card.

You can download the LibreOffice Impress template. I set up each card on an A4 slide and then printed 4 slides on 1 piece of paper to get my desired card size. Only the category headings were printed as A4. All cards come out very nicely on 160g/m2 paper because they are easy to grasp and don’t feel flimsy.

A4 paper with 4 cards on them
A4 paper with 4 cards on them

Here you can see the individual elements that went on a card. Due to confidentiality, I cannot show any of the original cards.

A sample requirements card
A sample requirements card

  1. Provide the number of the requirement so it can be found easily in any document if needed, give it a short title and colorize the background according to the category into which this requirement falls.
  2. Write the word “could” or “should” in this circle if this requirement is optional or use any other word that your client uses to identify additional functionalities that would be nice to have. You may need to shorten a phrase to one word.
  3. Paste the full requirement in this box. If it is very long, adjust the font size. Everything needs to fit onto the front of the card.
  4. If you provided a response to the requirement to the client in the proposal document, paste it in here. This is done in a slightly smaller font to set it apart from the actual requirement’s text.
  5. If this item relates closely to another or is a duplicate, note this down here by mentioning the requirement’s number. This will help you group the requirements later more easily, though you don’t have to think about grouping yet. That is done later.

Transferring the information onto the cards also gave me the opportunity to think about questions that I might want to ask during the workshop for the cards in the “Clarify” and “Analyse more” categories.

Once I had transferred all requirements and additional information onto the cards and verified that they all had the correct category associated (represented by the colored bar), I printed and cut them giving me a nice little stack of cards to process further.

I jotted down my questions and comments on the back of cards for which I did not want to forget a question or additional comment during the workshop.

Group the cards

I now had all my cards and could start on grouping them into themes. These were partly themes taken from the requirements document or very loose themes only to help review the cards more quickly during the workshop. For example, I grouped all green cards relating to graphic design and all that dealt with support questions. I laid out all cards, took a Sharpie and my little post-it notes and went to task. I did not print out any little cards for this task because I wanted to be able to stick the notes to the cards easily and also make adjustments on the fly if needed.

Not all cards ended up in groups. I did not force the grouping but only used it where it was beneficial.

The following shows an approximation of what the cards looked like when we had them on the table at the beginning of the workshop.

The cards all categorized on the table
The cards all categorized on the table

You can see that there are a few green and yellow cards in the “Analyse more” red group of cards. I decided to put them there so that they’d be together with the other requirements that were very close so they could all be discussed together.

The workshop itself

On the day of the workshop, my two colleagues and I arrived early so we could set up the meeting room for the card activity. It does take a bit of time to lay them all out. We also brought flip chart paper, flip chart and whiteboard markers, blue tag and voting dots along. Due to the room’s layout and size, we ended up not using the flip chart paper and only had a narrow walk way between the table and the whiteboard.

The workshop started with the usual introductions of the participants and the aim of the session. After we had outlined the idea for the workshop to all participants, they were game for it and we started right away. As we were informed of the time constraints of some of the participants, we made a couple of adjustments to our plan and left out the voting of requirements which I’ll explain as an option later.

We asked all participants to stand up and take a look at the requirements and their categorization. This was to familiarize them with the requirements again and put cards into a different category if we happened to have them categorized incorrectly. This wasn’t the case though and we could move on to the next phase after about 10-15 minutes. This phase was not intended to re-read every single requirement, but to just get an overview again and take in the requirements that were grouped differently now.

We confirmed that we did not need to discuss the cards in green in the category “Know / configure”, and we could put them aside. Initially, we left them on the table, but during a short break, I put them all on a pile to have more space available on the table. This also had the nice side effect that the participants could see how many requirements were already fulfilled in the size of the stack.

Size comparison of the requirements
Size comparison of the requirements

We went quickly on to the cards in the category “Double-check” and could deal with them within a few minutes as we only needed to double-check with the workshop participants that we understood the requirements correctly. Where no additional work was needed, I took a highlighter pen and marked the card green. I also noted down the result of the discussion on the card itself. We did the same with the cards in the category “Clarify”.

This now left the rest of the workshop to focus on the cards in “Analyse more”. Initially, I had wanted the participants to rank the cards so that we could discuss them according to their priorities. Everyone would have received five voting dots that they could have distributed onto the cards. The cards with the most votes would have been discussed first. For the end of the workshop I had envisaged participants receiving a second set of voting dots in a different color and voting on the cards again now knowing more about the functionality and maybe revising their priority.

However, since I had grouped the cards already, we had reduced the number of topics. Furthermore, one of the participants had to leave early and thus we discussed the topics that were of most interest to him first.

We reviewed each group of cards and discussed their functionalities, what the participants expected of them, why they were important, what work flows they envisaged and where it fit into their program. This was not a detailed review of the functionalities, but did go deeper than the line items in the requirements document and gave us good insight into the reasons for wanting the functionality and what the workshop participants tried to solve. The discussion also gave the participants the opportunity to discuss their ideas further with their colleagues under some different guiding questions and looking at their initial ideas in a new light.

As I was facilitating the workshop, one of my colleagues offered to take notes. This is very important so as not to lose information and also to be able to consolidate the information from the cards with the notes later on.

We finished reviewing all requirements satisfactorily in just about three hours and everybody left on a high note knowing that their opinions had been heard, discussed and that we had focused on the important ideas that needed discussing instead of blindly going through the requirements catalog from beginning to end.

A couple of participants remarked explicitly that they enjoyed this workshop and that going through requirements had never been as much fun before. One of them also wanted to trial this idea in the future. Needless to say that I beamed for pride and was very happy that I had achieved what I had hoped to accomplish with this session.

Take note

There are a few things that you should be aware of to avoid last-minute panic. Some things may be more out of your control than others and you’ll have to make the best out of what you have available. Improvisation is after all an important part of the job.

  • Venue: If you have the chance, check with the meeting organizer that you have a room available with a big enough table, whiteboard, projection screen, Internet access and also enough room for the participants to navigate. Our room was fairly small with a table that was too large for the room thus making it difficult for people to move. There was a big TV available as projection screen, but it took a bit to figure out how to log in.
  • Review the cards: Have your cards ready at least one day in advance and go over them with a colleague who’s attending the meeting as well. You might spot a card that has the wrong category color or is missing information.
  • Last-minute changes: If you do need to make changes to your cards, know where you can print them if you can’t do so in your office. Our workshop didn’t take place near one of our offices and thus printing changed cards proved to be more difficult.
  • Bring all your supplies: This is a no-brainer for most people, but should still be taken into consideration especially if you do not facilitate workshops often. Bring all the supplies that you need so you know you have everything and don’t depend on the venue. Whiteboard markers tend not to work if there are any available and usually flip chart paper is also nowhere to be seen when needed. Also take along extra white cards in case a new requirement pops up and needs to be added. Also have the requirements and proposal documents available electronically.


The benefits of running the workshop as I did were clear to me during the session and also afterwards:

  • All participants were engaged the entire time.
  • Nobody got lost in requirements documents, but had all necessary information in front of them on the table.
  • Participants saw visually how many of their requirements were already fulfilled and how few only needed to be discussed.
  • We stayed on track during our discussions as we knew exactly what we had already accomplished and what we still had ahead of us.
  • We finished early because we didn’t spend precious time discussing items that didn’t need attention.

If you think this idea might work for a workshop that you are facilitating, please give it a try and let me know how things go and what changes you made. I’d be interested to learn if it works for others as well.

Update: A slightly less “stream of consciousness” version can be found on the Catalyst blog.

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.

05 Oct

ULearn – ready, set, go

This week, well today till Friday, is conference week. Hundreds of teachers are traveling to Christchurch to attend ULearn. Although there are still frequent aftershocks, 20 alone during the last 24 hours with one being measured at 5.0, most are minor, and I didn’t even feel the one just at 11:36 a.m. The Christchurch Quake Map is a fantastic though horrific visualization of all the quakes that have happened since September 4, 2010.

I flew in rather early today thinking that I needed to be at a workshop, but that engagement was canceled. Thus, I take the time to work and put the finishing touches on my Mahara workshop which will take place tomorrow (Wednesday) morning. Christ’s College, where my breakout session will take place, has great computer labs. It should be fun to explore Mahara with the 25 participants tomorrow.

A great aside: We have fantastic sunny spring weather and the forecast says it stays that way until Friday. 🙂

Later today we will set up our “Open Source Schools” stand in the exhibitor hall (stand #20) where I will be found for most of the time till Friday. Conference participants can win a Flip camera. More info will be available at the stand.

Let the conference begin!

30 May

I am a PRINCE2 Practitioner

Thursday, 27 May 2010, also brought another good news along besides my visa having been issued. I am officially a PRINCE2 Practitioner (the certificate still takes a bit to be issued).

During my search for a new job, I had come across the PRINCE2 certification, a project management method, a couple of times in UK postings. I had already done project management at the University of Munich for the EU-funded project “imMEDIAte TEACHing” (and I should find out basically ever since), but had learned everything “on the job” and not methodically. Thus, I thought it would be a good thing to prepare for my new job by refreshing my PM knowledge and do so by using a specific method.

PRINCE2 (Projects in Controlled Environments) is a PM method developed by the UK government, but is recognized around the world. As it is generic, it can be applied to any project in any field no matter how small or big the project is.

The certification for PRINCE2 is split up into two exams: Foundation and Practitioner.

The Foundation exam is for everybody involved in a project. Thus, it can be made sure that everybody understands the terminology, the basic themes and processes of PRINCE2 and knows the responsibilities of the individual roles. This exam tests definitions, the relations between processes etc. It is a multiple-choice exam with questions that are not related to each other.

The Practitioner exam is a further step for the project managers themselves. In this multiple-choice exam, the testee receives a project scenario and all questions relate to it. In this exam, PRINCE2 needs to be applied to the scenario.

The preparation for these exams can be done individually by reading the 327-page manual “Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2” and answering exam prep questions in books that can be bought. However, many training companies also offer preparation courses either face-to-face or online. As the exams are rather expensive (£585 for both), I decided to take a course.

After some shopping around, I opted for the ILX Group‘s PRINCE2 Gold Pack which includes (taken from the web site):

  • The interactive PRINCE2 CD-ROM course
  • Exercises at Foundation and Practitioner Level
  • Simulated Foundation Exam
  • Cost of PRINCE2 Foundation Exam
  • Cost of PRINCE2 Practitioner Exam
  • Managing Successful Projects in PRINCE2 (The Official PRINCE2 manual)
  • Laminated A3 PRINCE2 Process Model
  • Access to a PRINCE2 Trainer via email or phone
  • 2 Day UK Based Classroom Revision Workshop (cost of overnight stay is not included)

This blended learning course consisting of the self-study preparation and a classroom workshop as preparation for the Practitioner exam suited me well. The e-learning content on the CD (is the same as online) is very well organized and guides the learner step-by-step through the method. The exercises and the exam simulators that are included give an impression of what to expect in the exams though it seemed that the actual exam questions were more difficult despite the fact that original questions were included in the training pack.

The process model designed by the ILX Group is even better than the model found in the official manual. It makes things very clear and gives an excellent overview of all the processes in a PRINCE2 project.

The admin staff of the ILX Group were very supportive in the preparation of getting the materials to me and scheduling a workshop. Due to the ash cloud of the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull and thus delays in mail services, my training material took a while to make it over from the UK and I did not have much time for the preparation. Thankfully, I could study throughout the day and did not have to do that besides work. Thus, the time frame of 1.5 weeks turned out to be fine. I was happy to learn that I could also take a workshop in Amsterdam instead of travelling to London thus cutting down a bit on the travel expenses.

My workshop took place in Amsterdam from 10-12 May 2010. We were a small group of 6 people taking this prep course and that was a fantastic size. 4 out of 6 lived in the Netherlands, but only one was Dutch. We were an international group of one each: American, British, Chinese, Dutch, German from Luxembourg, and Turkish from Germany. Our trainer was British with a very extensive PM background and could talk like a waterfall. If he hadn’t done so, we would have needed an additional day. 😉

Our course schedule looked like that:

  • Monday: 1-hour Foundation exam and organizational issues
  • Tuesday and Wednesday morning and a bit of the afternoon: revision of the PRINCE2 themes and processes with time for questions, elaborations and going through another prep exam
  • Wednesday afternoon: 2.5-hour Practitioner exam

Lots of paper on the tables during the workshop

cc licensed flickr photo shared by 4nitsirk

PRINCE2 and universities

Although I had not worked in a company and had been involved in university projects only, I could relate to the topics that are covered by PRINCE2 very well. That is also supposed to be that way because PRINCE2 is not designed to be industry specific but universal. Of course, the company metaphor is in the foreground, but it can be applied to a university background or any other one as well.

Thus, I wish I had known about PRINCE2 earlier in my career because then I could have avoided some pitfalls in my project management and sometimes done things in a more structured way. Although I must also say that we already did many things “correctly” in “imMEDIAte TEACHing” because PRINCE2 was not developed out of the air, but from real-world examples. Hence, common sense, previous project experience, and obligations from the funding body lead you to a number of the same conclusions that can be found in the method.

However, I think that learning about a project management method should be high on the agenda of professional development for anybody at universities involved in projects. And here I do not just mean big national or EU projects, but also small ones. Everything that is not “business as usual” is a project. During my exam preparations I realized that I had participated in a number of projects over the last 2.5 years at the University of Luxembourg though they had not been labeled as such. Had a PM method been applied, some aspects of the work could have been improved.

At universities, researchers are increasingly involved in projects, but they do not always get appropriate support or know about project management. Learning about a PM method can boost their confidence and make the management part of the projects easier so that they can focus more on the content delivery as that is the main objective of their project work.

As an aside: We also learned that strawberries can make it onto bread in the Netherlands. We have not yet found out whether that is a specialty of Amsterdam or not, but Sia Vogel, one of my former #CCK08 contacts, knows about it.

Sia Vogel about strawberry bread on Twitter

cc licensed flickr photo shared by 4nitsirk