For the Winter Semester 2009/10 (which already started in mid-September – go figure) it was decided that all students enrolled in the Bachelor in Educational Sciences (BScE – Bachelor en Sciences de l’Education) at the University of Luxembourg use the open source e-portfolio system Mahara for their electronic developmental portfolio. This system had already been in use with about 120 students the previous year in a pilot and now it was to be used for all our 480 something students.

Thus, we organized workshops for the students and their respective tutors. One reason why we had chosen Mahara was its ease of use. Students can create their e-portfolio very quickly without needing to know HTML or web design. They simply upload or create their artefacts online, drag & drop them into their portfolio sections, arrange them, and they are done. The part that should take them the longest is the actual reflection but not the technical side. Although this procedure is not that difficult in general, we offered the students an introductory workshop in which they could touch upon all these things and acquaint themselves with the system because not everyone of them is a tech buff and feels comfortable with any new technology that is thrown at them.

Being the one who had the most knowledge in using Mahara as I had tested it, I kind of became the default workshop facilitator. I also wanted to have these workshops because I knew that not everybody would be thrilled by having to use a new system. Thus, I came up with a plan for a 3-hour introductory workshop for our students in which I repeat the principles of our portfolio approach and then guided them through the collection and creation of artefacts, the process of creating their own portfolios, and how they can share their portfolios with others, receive feedback etc. I knew from the start that this workshop would be very technology-oriented to acquaint the students with the system and not to talk about their already existing portfolios and how they can be brought into Mahara. I missed this part because the workshop stayed rather abstract and disconnected to the portfolio topic in some ways.

But I needed a way of how to familiarize about 480 students with our new portfolio system in a workshop setting taking into account that

  • all students had to participate,
  • the workshop should preferably take place before their first internship period in the 3rd week of October when they would start to work more in their portfolio,
  • the tech savviness of the students ranged from 2 to 10,
  • every student should be able to try things out -> no auditorium-like demonstration,
  • they only get this one session.

The first thing I did was start early. And by early I mean really early – way back in June. We knew that our 4th-year students would have a tough year ahead of them with a longer internship, additional time in their internship classes beyond the internship, and their final project. Thus, we did not want to bring all new stuff in the first few weeks of the semester, but allow them to make themselves familiar with the new tool over the summer break. Those who wanted to take the time to make the move to Mahara over the summer could do so and would not have to cram that into the regular semester schedule.

I had scheduled four workshops in June. Due to the schedule of the students and my own, these workshops ended up on two days within a short time span. The other 13 workshops took place between 18 September 2009 and 16 October 2009, generally three to four per week. Thus, I had a tour through our entire bachelor program from the 1st-year to the 4th-year students seeing 428 students altogether. The ones I did not have in the workshops were students who are spending their semester abroad currently and who had already departed for their new university.

In addition to these student workshops I also gave four workshops for faculty with a different angle to the topic.

Facilitating such a large number of basically identical workshops within a short time was an interesting experience for me. At first I thought I could not tell the same thing to the second or third group that I had already told the first one until I remembered that they knew nothing about the topic and had not been in the workshop of the first group. No workshop turned out like another for several reasons:

  • the students were different
  • I added details right away that I had said in passing earlier
  • I left out details when I realized they were of a minor nature
  • I became more relaxed with time and could open my senses more to what was going on around me
  • I learned to look more closely for hints when students got bored or were struggling

I tried to approach each workshop with a sense of newness because I did not want to come across as having learned my spiel by heart and just reciting everything without being really engaged. I wanted to be excited about the topic 17 times to hopefully also spark some excitement about the capabilities the tool offers in the students. I also wanted to be excited each time to make the workshop interesting to me and to not get bored myself. In the course of the workshop I also learned a few new things about Mahara because students approached the software differently and thus found other ways of coming up with the answer to a question.

Of course, I did my share of comparisons, but they also helped me. After the first three workshops in September, I realized that I kept stretching the introductory part more and more by adding not unimportant details that I had only thrown in earlier in passing thus making this a really long part where the students were basically passive. Later I tried to avoid rambling and ultimately had more time for the practice parts. In some workshops I could get on much faster than in others, some student groups had lots of questions whereas in others I had to provide the questions and answer them.

During the workshop, I did not use any handouts because I wanted them to explore the system’s features without being glued to a piece of paper and to realize that many things followed the same procedure (like give it a title, provide a description / text, tag it, save it, click a radio button to put it into a portfolio section). However, I did make a quick start guide for Mahara which can be extended over time to include solutions to questions the students had / will have. This guide is housed on our ICT support web site that is openly accessible.

There was one moment in every single workshop which was the same, when I told the students they would need a new password for Mahara. There was always a very audible “Oh no. Why another password?” However, this moment when the mood of the students plummeted to zero lasted only a short time because I could lift their mood by explaining that they did not need to remember that password. Mahara allows for networking with Moodle. Thus, when students log in to Moodle, they are immediately logged in to Mahara. To set up this connection to their Moodle accounts, they do need to provide a new password for Mahara. But as they can always log in via Moodle, they don’t need to remember it. Complicated and simple at the same time.

This workshop was an additional seminar for students in their 2nd, 3rd and 4th year. We integrated it into a regular seminar for the 1st-year students as they start out new with the portfolio. They have a seminar dedicated to everything portfolio during the 1st and 2nd semester. In the 2nd semester, there will be a hybrid seminar combining content discussions with discussions of how Mahara can be used for achieving what they want to do in their portfolio.

I am looking forward to hearing the reactions of the students towards the end of the semester when they will have had time to use Mahara and integrate it into their study work flow.

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