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Mahara: From Bucket List to Implementation

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Summary

After creating our bucket list of items that we wanted in our ePortfolio, our talented team of programmers customized Mahara and created critical links to Banner for us that made this platform work for us in some key ways.  Through Mahara, we were able to create a university-wide accepted platform that met the needs of a variety of stakeholders and was available to all students, even after graduation.

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Mahara satisfied many characteristics from our vast bucket-list, including a Web 2.0 feel and the ability for students to post artifacts from their academics, career preparation, and co-curricular activities.

Part I

Platform

Our platform is Mahara, version 1.7, an open-source tool out of New Zealand, which we have customized to meet our unique needs.  Some of the features that we are most proud of are the clean interface, the Pace template, and the web 2.0 look and feel.

One of our first eTerns was savvy in web design and was able to create a customized Pace theme for our Mahara instance.

One of our first eTerns was savvy in web design and was able to create a customized Pace theme for our Mahara instance.

While it’s not perfect in every way, Mahara has really made it possible for Pace to make the leap from scattered ePortfolio usage to a more university wide acceptance of ePortfolios.  Our c2L team credits Mahara with being one of the key pieces to our scaling up success story, yet there are still some issues that we grapple with.

Because Mahara is a robust ePortfolio tool, outside of our LMS, some users complain about having to learn and deal with a separate system. In an ideal world, the LMS and ePortfolio platforms would be closely linked and would allow for file sharing and evaluation to happen between both.  We have worked around this issue as best as can by providing a way to access Mahara through Blackboard and by providing training for faculty and students on the best uses of both tools.

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Our Pace programmers were able to install an ePortfolio tab within Blackboard, enabling easy-access.

The other main weakness is the lack of a back end or assessment area. We have built some robust reporting features in-house and hopefully can build some assessment tools as well in the near future.  For now, we continue to experiment and share what we learn with our Mahara User Group (MUG),  an international group of Mahara users that we formed 3 years ago to help share ideas and strategies for using Mahara effectively. The MUG community uses a Facebook group to communicate. It is a closed group, meaning that only members see content, but we welcome new members.

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There is a feedback tool in Mahara that allows for both private and public commenting and there is also a Group feature that allows for group ePortfolio communities to share discussion forums and files and collections.  All of these tools can be part of an inquiry-based social pedagogy approach.

feedback

The feedback feature is used for both instructors and fellow students to comment on another user’s ePortfolio work.

For now, our main limitation is that the assessment review that is being done is happening outside of Mahara. Faculty and staff reviewers use rosters/rubrics in Excel spreadsheets when reviewing student work in Mahara. This involves going back and forth between the Excel spreadsheet and Mahara, and searching to find the student whose work is to be reviewed. Ratings are recorded in a spreadsheet. It would be nice to have a way of conducting assessment review within Mahara directly.

Support and Collaboration

ITS support is central to our ePortfolio project because it is an open-source tool that we have customized and that we support locally.   While there is no cost for Mahara, the cost is in the people hours that are spent customizing, supporting and upgrading.   This has certain benefits and certain drawbacks, but for us it has worked.  The budget we have requested for ePortfolio has been for students (eTerns), faculty development (teaching circles), awards and marketing.

Mahara does not link to our LMS (Blackboard), which is certainly a drawback, but we’re making it work.  Our programmers have created a link to our student information system (Banner) and our email system so accounts are created automatically when users login and faculty are able to easily access their students’ ePortfolios in a “My students area”, once permissions have been set.  We don’t have an assessment system for Mahara to tie into currently.

We feel that Mahara has been a key piece to our scaling up story because of its contemporary look and feel.  It has a “wall” and “friends” and a list of users online, which are very similar to Facebook.  This created an excitement around ePortfolios that we didn’t find with previous platforms that we tried.

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Part II Pedagogy Drive Technology

Our selection and eventual customization of Mahara was driven by our pedagogical bucket list.  In that same spirit, we have tried to keep our ePortfolio work focused on the pedagogy, primarily through our sustained teaching circle approach to fauclty development and in our recent efforts to target departmental use of ePortfolios.  This is still an area we struggle with though because we do still have to focus on the technology, making sure it works and that our users (faculty and student) feel comfortable.

Evidence

Mahara’s strength is as a reflection and presentation ePortfolio.  We love it for those reasons at the same time have been challenged by its lack of reporting and outcomes capabilities.  As a result, we we have worked internally to build monthly reports documenting usage by students, fauculty and staff in terms of users, artifacts and hits.  Our KPIs, which are posted monthly on Pace’s ITS site, show our dramatic growth beginning with only 250 users in the Spring 2010 semester and as of Fall 2013, we have over 11,000 users.

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Platform Selection – as a Process

We selected our platform in 2009 and implemented it in January 2010. Before Mahara, we had experimented with a range of ePortfolio tools, including Epsilen, Google, and in-house solutions.  In 2009, we formed an ePortfolio advisory board and under the guidance of our CIO, created a “bucket list” of what we wanted our ePortfolio tool to do and look like.   We literally drew buckets and filled them with categories. The advisory board consisted of about 25 faculty and staff from across the institution.  While no students were involved in this initial selection and development process, students (eTerns) quickly joined our ePortfolio team and have made a significant impact on our growth overall. Our CIO introduced us to Mahara and with the assistance of a very talented programmer we were able to realize our ePortfolio dreams.  With Mahara, we had a tool that looked like a modern web 2.0 tool, had the 7 pages we wanted, included a course listing for students, allowed a variety of permission setting and provided a way for public/private comments and groups.   To sum up the selection process, the pedagogy came before the technology.  We determined our needs first and then selected Mahara based on that, and that was critical.

While we haven’t switched platforms in the past 3 years, we did a major upgrade in the Summer of 2012 and another upgrade in Summer 2013, and that has given us many good new features including the ability to create collections (multiple ePortfolios).  The upgrade did create a need for more training and documentation right at the beginning of the semester, but it was more work behind the scenes with the testing of the new version and finding the right time to make the switch. Fortunately, our IT department is very supportive of ePortfolios and we were able to get this to be a high priority item. Going forward, we plan on upgrading 2 versions every May to stay current.

We did connect with colleagues from Pratt Institute during Making Connections because they were also using Mahara and those early conversations were a great help in the early use days.  Those conversations really led to our interest in forming a user group with other schools because we saw how helpful it could be to share ideas and issues with colleagues from different places.

Student Engagement

ePortfolio is extremely important self-assessment tool for students. They need to experience and see that ePortfolio is their space to create a dynamic documentation of their academic career. If taken seriously the students quickly understand the benefits.  We see some students that just “get it” and their ePortfolios are magnificent. However, some students struggle with the technical aspect and get discouraged. The freshman experience survey told us that many students felt Mahara was not-intuitive. Other students don’t sense the purpose or ownership and we see their ePortfolios look like just another assignment they had to do.  We try to make students feel ownership in a number of ways.

  1. By displaying best student samples on our landing page  – recognizing their great work.
  2. By making eTerns the center of our training efforts for classroom and online tutorials.
  3. By holding student contests to motivate students.
  4. By asking for student feedback on the platform.

Based on some of the core survey results, we’re concerned that some students don’t find the platform user friendly enough.  But we know from other students that once they invest time and own the process they exceed even our own expectations of what can be done in Mahara.

eTerns have been a key part of our scaling up success.  Our first eTern (Sam Egan) led the way by using ePortfolio in outstanding ways as a student and now as a full time staff member in ITS, she supervises a team of 7 eTerns who assist with training, outreach, marketing, and support. We wouldn’t have an ePortfolio program without them!   They are funded in part by ITS and in part by this grant and some internal grants that we have received. In fact, we presented on the success of our eTerns at the Spring 2013 NERCOMP conference in Providence Rhode Island.


At this point, ePortfolios are affecting pedagogy for a small percentage of faculty.  Many faculty still think of ePortfolios as an add-on rather than a built-in part of their course.  Through our teaching circles, we are trying to expand faculty use of ePortfolios to be more integrated, more social and more reflective.  We are also trying to do this outreach at the department level in English and Biology.  We’re hoping that by incorporating departments there will be a deepened appreciation of ePortfolio and the use will catch on more among colleagues in the same discipline.

The electronic part of ePortfolio is essential for several reasons. One reason is that it makes it more public and therefore, more authentic in the students’ eyes. Many faculty and some students are still rooted in the paper portfolio pedagogy and so stressing the importance of electronic is key. ePortfolios make it easier to share and access for assessment, showcases and contests.  But the most important reason for advocating for the electronic use of portfolios is that it can be continually reviewed and revised.  A paper portfolio gives the impression of being complete once submitted, whereas an electronic portfolio is always ready to be enriched and changed.

Professional Development and Training

Some of our ePortfolio training is focused on the technology, but we do try to lead with a pedagogical framework.  While we feel that it is not difficult for faculty to become basic to moderate users of Mahara, some probably would debate this claim. Our English department, who is now requiring instructors to use ePortfolios, has experienced pushback from faculty who find Mahara to be difficult to navigate. We do our best in trainings to break down the basic information of accessing, uploading, and changing permissions.  There are more complex tasks that faculty can choose, however these 3 steps are all that is needed to create an ePortfolio.  We strongly encourage all faculty to become ePortfolio users first, before incorporating them into their courses, and some do. As a backup we offer strong eTern and helpdesk support to handle the bulk of the technology troubleshooting issues for the classes using ePortfolios.

Support takes different forms for students and faculty including workshops, teaching circles, one-on-one training, online tutorials and online documentation (static and recorded videos).  We try to customize all of our training options to meet the various needs of our users.

Despite our training efforts, in some cases Mahara’s limitaions causes stakeholders to look elsewhere for their needs. We were disappointed to learn that our School of Education has adopted LiveText for students to use to meet New York State teacher training portfolio requirements.

Outcomes Assessment

While our platform doesn’t directly support assessment work, we wouldn’t say it’s a hindrance to assessment work either. Mahara is an open source tool so with the right programming support, assessment functionality can be built in. We are taking slow steps in this direction through our assessment pilot work.  We hope to either be able to build in what we need for Mahara or else influence the user community to have more of an assessment end built into core Mahara in future upgrades.

Conclusion

It is difficult to predict the future of Mahara, though we are trying to stay current by keeping engaged with the Mahara open source community (Mahara.org) as well as our Mahara User Group (MUG). What’s exciting about this platform is that we potentially can be part of the future.  We are active with Mahara users regionally, as well as internationally, and through that group we can exchange ideas about Mahara and hopefully have an impact on the future of ePortfolios.

Attachments/Supporting Documents:

  1. See Pace University’s ePortfolio page and Pace University’s ePortfolio Tutorials page
  2. View our thumbnail slideshow here!
  3. See our Mahara community website here. And the Mahara User Group Facebook Page
  4. Here is sample poster for ePortfolio at Pace: eP-poster
  5. This is our logo: viewer This logo was created by one of our first eTerns!