Thoughts on the MaharaUK conference
Returning from the rather excellent MaharaUK 2012 conference in Lancaster, I'd like to share some thoughts and findings.
Half a year ago we at Liip had the feeling Mahara wasn't really going anywhere. We suspected there were not enough contributing developers and generally not enough interest in Mahara outside of New Zealand. The user experience and it's tie-in with institutions (as opposed to easily available services like tumblr, wordpress, facebook etc) is not where it should be for students to genuinly embrace Mahara as their own. Also the underlying idea of Mahara as a platform for life long learning never really seemed to get a chance, due to the lack of independent Mahara instances actually providing a life long hosting option. The only option going in this direction now is the occasional allumni instance provided by some institutions.
There was one very positive signal recently to counter this impression of stagnating Mahara commitment: the quiet arrival of comprehensive documentation for users and administrators via manual.mahara.org. It puzzles me somewhat that there wasn't more noise around this wonderful tool.
Then there was the release of Mahara 1.5 with important improvements that pointed in a positive diretion, coupled with the announcement of a faster, more regular release cycle and work on the next version advancing nicely. These improvements, the plans for the 1.6 release and some very interesting plugin developments were summed up passionately by Dominique-Alan Jan's keynote presentation. One of them should make those people happy wanting to have more control over learning goals and outcomes: An adapted version of the Moodle checklist plugin to work with Mahara. The other was Extresource, making use of oEmbed which should make its way into Mahara core soon, to ease the use of embedding external content.
There were more positive examples of Mahara usage by Jon Bowen from St. Peter's College in New Zealand, listening to Jon really made me feel Mahara was THE way forward for how pupils collect, display, discuss and submit their work from an early age.
A bit of a downer came from the brief discussion that ensued from Jon's presentation about government backing of the NZ Mahara project, where Richard Wyles said after the recent departure by a key figure in the department of education the government backing was everything but certain. Both Richard and Jon assume the NZ Mahara project is now "too big to fail". A lot of us had assumed the NZ nation wide Mahara project had been initiated and backed by the government from the start and could be used as a role model for other countries. Sadly this was never so. The project was driven by individuals from the start. I'm pretty convinced Mahara needs to be available life long from a trusted provider and I don't see who else but governments could do this. In Switzerland I believe we still have a chance to get there, but discussions have been dragging on and I feel time is limited.
During the technical workshop we had some discussions about making adding and editing content more central, maybe by changing the look and feel of the TinyMCE editor or using a different editor to get a more modern look and feel. I think much work needs to be done on user experience and I saw some interesting work in that direction by Mike Kelly from the University of the Arts London and I hope he gets this into Mahara core soon! Mike also presented a new use or feature rather with the listings directory he built for the art students. Their site is public and well worth a visit on workflow.arts.ac.uk.
Gregory Anzelj presented his work on the repository plugin for Mahara which is almost complete. It allows the use of external repositories like Dropbox, Box.net, Flickr, Google drive, Windows Sky Drive, Picasa.
Simon Story presented the use of SimpleSAMLphp to integrate Mahara with other systems. I have yet to understand in what way this adds to, extends or replaces Shibboleth.
We often hear that Mahara's too complicated for users. Again at this conference. I agree to an extent, there's too many clicks involved for many things, you can get lost, adding content is not central enough. Inline editing would be great to have. Just click on a text you want to change and immediately start typing, including autosave. There was a good input from Steve Wright (trials and tribulations of using Mahara as PhD learning journal) suggesting a simple step by step wizard for first time users when logging in to Mahara to set up the profile, create the first entry, share.
I've heard the request for better mobile integration a couple of times from our clients, now there's good news courtesy of Jon Sharp and Roger Emery presenting MaharaDroid app version 2 . Now you can do all the essential stuff like adding a journal, messaging etc from your Android device. There's nothing for Apple's iOS yet. The responsive theme I've been dreaming about might help there, but what users seem to want is a native app with on-screen "badge" notification etc. A good solution for the meantime would probably be blogging by email. This would be really helpful particularly for students reporting from work experience or research in the field.
It was a pleasant surprise to see a presentation of Mahara for midwives on the programme, as one of the universities we work with have shown interest in exactly this. I missed the presentation though because I was on the other stream with a refreshing presentation by Toshifumi Sawazaki on Mahara usage in a more rural part of Japan, where several universities and private colleges (!) have collaborated to create an e-learning platform using Mahara and Moodle inside a custom portal (F-LECCS). Apparently there is no Mahara partner in Japan, so there was a steep learning curve involved in setting up and maintaining this setup on university infrastructure.
One of the more stirring presentations was a remote one by Kristina Hoeppner on how new features make it into Mahara. She was presenting from Wellington NZ and a strong earthquake occurred in the middle of her presentation, throwing things about in the room she was in. Kristina was very brave in continuing her explanations on how to submit and track feature requests, development cycles, priorities and progress in Mahara development.
Richard Wyles presented the Open Badges project they're working on in conjunction with the Mozilla Foundation. I have yet to grasp the use for this, but judging by Richard's enthusiasm it probably makes sense :)
It was a good conference, I'm glad I attended and I hope I can bring the drive I now feel behind Mahara home to Switzerland and our new e-learning team at Liip so we too may innovate and commit to Mahara again. At the moment we're swamped with Moodle V2 migrations, so it won't be easy to keep up the momentum.
Thanks and respect to all the good people involved in organising MaharaUK 2012 and to those who presented, - great work.
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