Last week saw the second ever Mahara User Group for Southern England, otherwise known as MUGSE. This time the venue was Sparsholt College, perhaps not as unusual as a swimming pool (the venue for last time) but still hardly run of the mill. This user group is turning out to be a great way to explore Southern England if not also gain inside gossip and advice with colleagues from across the South of England. For those who are not familiar with it Sparsholt College is a farm-based college in the middle of the Hampshire countryside, if you want more information then just go to their website.
The event was attended by some Mahara regular faces, myself included and also some newbies. This was a nice mix and I certainly learnt a lot from those who had been using the system for less time than myself, but I will come to that in a bit. After introductions, first to present was Ursula from Sparsholt College, who kindly provided the venue.
Particularly useful was how the college are using Mahara pages to list and advertise their IT training provisions for staff. By simply using a page, text boxes and hyper-linked booking images they have produced something that looks rather nice. It does require a fair amount of manual intervention, but for the smaller scale it is a nice solution and whelps promote the flexibility of Mahara. I was also interested to hear about their E-Learning Design Apprentices, who were in attendance. This is a scheme they run and was a pleasant surprise for me as I have never heard of someone wanting to apprentice in this line of work, in fact until I started in this line of work I’d never heard of it!
Rather than digress I will move onto the brilliant insights one of their E-Learning Design Apprentices, Sarah, had to share. As a new user of the system, Sarah was able to bring new insights and remind us of things we probably already knew but had forgotten. She started by rationalising the problems she had with Mahara by describing it as ‘web design’ a skill she hadn’t tried before. I have never thought of it in these terms before, but she is correct there is a fair amount of web design, in relation to where content goes and how objects interact or juxtapose one another on the page. Sarah explained that once she had realised this the system was much easier to use, and she understood why she was struggling with other aspects. The other thing Sarah said I thought was of particular interest was that when colleagues use the term ‘clunky’ to describe a system (which we have all heard for Mahara and our VLEs I’m sure) why they actually mean is that it doesn’t work how they would expect, or it works differently yo other tools they have used. This was an excellent way of expressing a thought I had been unable to put into words myself.
We then heard from a tutor at Sparsholt who is using the system with their students, she described how it helped her equine students benefited from using the system to show things that would otherwise have had to be written about. Things like tacking choices are much easier to demonstrate in a video than in an essay, and it allows them to use written content for the more academic segments.
Ursula then returned to summarise the slot and, although it was not part of her original presentation she ended up showing how Sparsholt use VShare with Mahara for video sharing. Ursula explained that she has the ethos students shouldn’t have to use a 3rd party tool, and therefore possibly sign away content rights etc, in order to engage fully with materials and the web. VShare was not a tool I had heard of, but it is a free video sharing tool, that can have some institutional branding. It seemed as though it had a lot of benefits, but would be fairly admin heavy, again perhaps not best for large institution.
Next to present was me, and you can find the Prezi that I used online. I’ll let you look through that and if you have any questions post them under this blog entry.
We then decided to break for lunch, and although there was no lunch paid for Meredith from Catalyst had brought a bounty of treats for people to share and there was also a canteen nearby for people to buy sandwiches and the like.
After lunch was the slot provided for Catalyst and Meredith talked about the changes made for the new release of Mahara 1.10, including 239 squashed bugs, tons of accessibility improvements and a customisable dashboard. She also highlighted the new Social Media tab under the profile section, which was one of the first things I discovered. This replaces the messaging tab, and allows for a wide range of social media tools to be linked to. These links can then easily be added to any Mahara page the user creates, and in most cases included an attractive icon. Meredith also pointed out 1.10 offers greater control over notification for Groups. You can test these new features for yourself on the Mahara Demo site. Moving on Meredith had a few other things to touch on, including the Mahara UK Conference which from this year will be referred to as the Mahara UK Hui, to pay homage to the systems New Zealand roots. The UK Hui will take place sometime around the first 2 weeks of July and is likely to be held in London, although negotiations are still on-going. Meredith also told us that she has been charged with updating the MaharaDriod app, which currently does not work with the most recent versions of Mahara. She said it is likely to require a complete re-design and this could mean using more up-to-date tools which would allow the app to work across mobile operating systems. In other news, which some of you may not have known, Catalyst have now taken over responsibility for the Mahara trademark and partner program. Although this will in no way affect anyone’s terms and conditions or the way they use Mahara it could mean some improvement for the partner program. She also touched on Totora Social which has branched out from the Mahara project. At the moment there are still a number of similarities and some code may be shared back, but eventually they will become entirely separate products. Totora Social has some nice features, including the sharing of ideas from the dashboard to specific areas, which reminded me a lot of Yammer. It will be interesting to see which features come across to Mahara as plugins or core code. Meredith reminded us all to use Launchpad to log any bugs or new features and to go in there and vote for anything already existing we’d like to see fixed or added. I think this will be an important part of the user group, as we can join together to target improvements we’d like to see. Finally, Meredith also raised the idea of an agnostic alumni site, which would allow students from any institution to host their Mahara portfolios, either as a place holder between institutions or after leaving. It might work as a subscription service, and could be a solution for the always on going issue of alumni access. I for one think it is worth exploring and hope it can be re-visited at a future user group. This makes it sound like Meredith was talking for a long time, this is not the case, rather she managed to mention lots of little things that are all deserving of mention, for completeness at least.
We then had a brief update from Sam of Southampton Solent University, who had been to the German Mahara Conference as a keynote speaker. She described what struck her most was the German government’s caution towards online tools, including Mahara. Whereas we are fighting to try and get our tutors to use these tools, in Germany they are only allowed to use them in special cases, and if the tutors want to use them they have to talk to the local government. Even still there are many of them trying to fight to get to use tools like Mahara, which is a stark contrast to the UK.
Roger Emery, who kindly helped organise and facilitate the user group was next up to present and he talked about how to customise the language and help files within Mahara. His method does not involve any core code hacks, and so makes upgrading easier. You would need to get in touch with him for exact details but it basically involves copying the original files (php for language and html for help) and then adding the copy to the local directory. This means that when Mahara is looking for the files, as they have the exact same name it will overwrite the original file with whatever is in the local directory. It also means you just have to re-add the local directory when you upgrade.
This ended the scheduled part of user group, and I am aware that this post has become quite long, but that is just how much good cotnent there was, and I’d hate to deny any of this information to thsoe who were not in attendance. I will try to be breifer in my description of the rest of the session.
After the agenda had run out there was still time left for some requested segments, which had come out of other elements of the day. First of all we had a sharing of useful plugins, including Open Badges, CPD and Linked plugins. We then discussed the Mahara group for this user group which is available from the official mahara.org website and is an open group (you just have to be logged in).
Finally we had some hands on help when Sarah asked about sharing a link to a single page within a collection, and I’m sure you will be able to find the test link in the Tweets from the day.
All of the tweets from the session (that used the hashtag #mugse) have been Storified: https://storify.com/Lilly_Stardust/mugse-2