All posts by Kevin Mueller

Career day with refugees

Today I represented Liip at the “Career Day” of powercoders.org, a Swiss association to teach refugees to code and to ultimately place them in Swiss IT companies.
Around twenty companies got five minutes to pitch for interns. Afterwards each company got a table, to provide a space for a short interview session for a potential three months internship with the powercoders.org students. The discussions at the table were stimulating and I was particularly pleased about the fact, that the first three people at our table were women. When I had decided to participate at this event to represent Liip on short notice, a colleague of mine said the refugees would all be men anyway. I was well pleased to see her proven wrong.

At Liip we get a fair amount of internship requests, often by people at the beginning of their work career. It was refreshing to discuss with experienced people at this events, people that are entrepreneurs, worked in education, worked at several companies, that have the ambition to make a mark with meaningful employment…, this was a common denominator among everyone that came to talk to me. I was equally impressed by the organisation and the commitment of the organisers, in particular Christian Hirsig. The passion he put into hosting this event and the project is infectious.

We are looking forward to working with one or more of the people we met at this extraordinary event.

www.powercoders.org

Impressions from the Moodle Conference

The annual Moodle conference for the UK and Ireland took place at the Dublin City University,  March 11th to 14th, 2015. Due to the flu that got me down as I got back, this post comes with a slight delay.

The main topics of this years UK & Ireland Moodle conference in Dublin were Learning Analytics and the Moodle Association. Further notable topics were (the more technical) inclusion of Bootstrap 3 in Moodle, the working groups for the simplification of forms and for designing a student dashboard.

As Moodle HQ are in the process of taking ownership of a couple of key Moodle conferences (Dublin was not one of them, but there was strong collaboration), the new format of “working groups” was tested on a larger scale. The idea of a working group is for Moodle users to work on a a specific topic in order to come up with specifications for Moodle HQ to implement as improvements to the Moodle core. The topics here were “form simplification” and “student dashboard”. These working groups have a certain weight, as a delegate from HQ will take part, with the task to make sure the outcomes can (and will) actually be implemented. An interesting observation here was, that at the hackday at the end of the conference, as the working group findings were presented and discussed, the tasks were heavily challenged by developers who naturally prioritise and approach things differently. I could sense a bit of frustration there when a response from HQ representatives would be “this is what the working group was for and basically you’re too late now with your input”. I think it is early days for the working group approach and it will take some time to get used to it.

The most heated discussions were on the initiation of the Moodle Association, as presented by Martin Dougiamas. Martin has been looking for new ways to fund Moodle development for some time now and this is what he decided to do. The Moodle Association is a non profit organisation (and therefore excempt from taxation). It will be completely separate from Moodle HQ after the initial work necessary to launch it. The idea is, for members of the association to come up with specifications and funding for Moodle core development and then to contract HQ to do the work. Martin would like to see instituions to be members in order to comission large junks of development work. There will be a correlation between how much money an entity puts into the association and how many votes it will have. All projects will be up for the association members to vote on. The projects with the highest votes will have the association’s funds allocated to it and will be developed by Moodle HQ. There will be some sort of cap on how many votes individual association members can have.

The idea of this associations opens a lot of questions of course, especially on what it means for Moodle partners who are currently the sole source of funding for Moodle (10% of revenue from Moodle related work by partners goes to Moodle HQ).

The keynote on learning analytics by Bart Rientes from the Open University gave a very interesting insight into what Open University do with their attempt at predictive analytics. The idea there is to show learners which areas of the curriculum they should focus on for the best outcome, based on data analysis. This topic raised two main questions: How do students get to see and use this data and what are the questions we want the (analytics-) system to answer. In a hands-on example with Gavin Henrick I experienced how difficult it is to come up with this question. Without this question being sensibly formulated though, learning-analytics somewhat remains a buzz-word.

The best example of a customised Moodle was presented by Thomas Bell with the United for Wildlife MOOC platform they launched as beta on that day (…). The platform comes with a rather beautiful user interface. Check it out! learn.unitedforwildlife.org

David Mudrak gave a good overview of how the plugins universe works, with a plea for more support on reviewing third party plugins. This reminded me of our initiative to collaborate and publish security reviews of plugins we do for our clients. Somehow it seems hard to motivate developers or companies to collaborate on this.

Davo Smith eloquently convinced us how easy it is to use Behat testing and Dan Poltawski demonstrated how Moodle HQ do continuous integration.

The hackday brought some excellent discussion and follow-up work on the integration of Bootstrap 3 and the state of renderers and templates in Moodle. This was once again the most inspiring part of the Moot, there’s some very talented people that are passionately involved in making Moodle the best VLE out there. This is no easy task, considering the massive amount of code and all those legacy bits still lingering. One of the reasons Moodle needs more funding is to make it the best possible option on the VLE market. The competition is there and work needs to be done. The difficulty here is the generic nature of Moodle: changes need to work for all the users, not just one specific site.

Thanks to Gavin Henrick and the team for making this great MoodleMoot possible. And thanks to Liip for giving this little bit extra to allow me to travel to Ireland by train, bus and boat.

leaving Ireland on the ferry

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1st Moodle MOOC starts 1. September

The first ever official Moodle MOOC Massive Open Online Course “Teaching with Moodle” is about to start. It is free and made by the people at Moodle Headquarters. The course facilitator is the fabulous Mary Cooch. Don’t miss this if you’re interested in teaching with Moodle!

At the time of writing there were already 4447 people enrolled. Impressive and exciting stuff.

moodle mooc screenshot

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Open Badges – Certificates for Today

It feels a little weird now, that when I heard about Open Badges a year ago at the MaharaUK conference* I didn’t really get what it was about. It is actually an intriguingly simple concept: A certificate issued online for achievements of any kind, professional or vocational, small or big. This certificate comes in the shape of a graphical image you can display on your blog, facebook, linkedin, e-portfolio, lms profile page etc. This “graphical image” is the badge. Clicking on the badge shows you information about the achievement behind it, who issued it when, possible expiry and a link back to the badge issuers website. On the badge issuers page you will find more information and verification about the reasons and the validity of the issued badge.

This system allows for a much more complete picture of your learning than the diplomas and certificates we are used to ever could. You can group your badges, to provide insight into your soft skills achievemts, like communication or leadership skills, specific technical achievements in a programming language for example, vocational achievements such as sports awards etc. Now if you put yourself in the shoes of someone working in recruiting, you can imagine the usefulness of getting access to a potential employees badges, grouped to fit the application submitted. You can actually verify the information contained in the badges and you get access to a much more specific and – at the same time – broader picture of an applicant’s skills.

The place to keep your badges is in the Badges Backpack provided by the Mozilla Foundation, the creators of Open Badges. The Backpack is the place where you can put your badges into groups and manage privacy settings of your badges.

open badges explained illustration

Illustration taken from “Open Badges One Page Summary” courtesy of the Mozilla Foundation https://wiki.mozilla.org/File:OpenBadges_–_One-page_summary.pdf

It helps to understand the three main roles in the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI); the earner, issuer and displayer. The earner is you and me, the issuer can be an institution, organisation, company etc. using tools like Moodle or Totara learning management systems or credly.com to issue the badges. Credly provides a service for institutions or individuals not using Moodle or Totara to provide badge issuing, display and the actual creation of badges.

The integration in Moodle and Totara makes it very easy to set up badges (provided you already have a graphical image for your badge). You drag the image into the designated area on site or course level, you enter a title, description, duration… All this will make up the meta data of the badge and you’re pretty much done. You can then decide on the criteria of how the badge can be earned.

There’s a pretty cool tool to create badges online too: openbadges.me

What helped me better understand the benefit of Open Badges is to see the system in action from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, take a look.

Badges come in the png format, with the meta data embedded in the form of json blobs. This means badges and the information associated within them can easily be downloaded and uploaded. It is however a format meant to live on the internet, i.e. in a digital environment and there’s currently no easy way to display and maybe print the information contained in the badge once it is downloaded as far as I know. The most valuable information in a badge is linked from it rather than embedded, pointing back to the badge issuers site, adding authority to your badge.

Although not central, there is an element of gamification in Open Badges. They can encourage a competitive element, the element of pride in what you achieved when you’re displaying your badges as you would your trophies or cloth badges earned in a swimming course, the scouts or at a Northern Soul night.

Open Badges is a great initiative from the Mozilla Foundation and I’d like to thank them for it.

I am also much obliged to Richard Wyles and the team at TotaraLMS and Mahara.org for bringing Open Badges to my attention and for the excellent integration work they put into Moodle, Totara and Mahara.

  • This year’s MaharaUK conference is on in Birmingham on July 4th 5th

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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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What kind of IT training do kids need today?

I had an interesting discussion the other night with a friend of mine who runs a school in Zurich.  The subject was media competency in students.

It started off by me asking if they were still running Windows on the school computers used for IT training. My friend was reluctant to answer the question and said they didn’t do much computer training in the classical sense anymore. Apparently using electronic devices seems to come naturally with kids these days, especially with the young ones. Even with children (like his own 7 year old) who don’t have a lot of apparent access to computers, you no longer have to explain how to move pictures around by touch or mouse or trackpad, how to find software to do stuff, where to type, click, drag and drop.

I never thought of it this way before, but agreed there seems to be a lot of truth in what he said. This would be very nice indeed, as it allows to focus on actual content much more, rather than spending hours explaining the basics. I argued it was still important to learn the basics of how “the machines” that do all that stuff for us are made. And more importantly to learn about who controls what at what cost, learn about alternatives, different ways of doing things. My friend replied this was at the heart of what they try to teach the children anyway, knowing there is always an alternative way to achieve something – and this should not be limited or focused on IT. I like that approach a lot. He also said it is more important to teach the parents to find their way around this ‘digital age’ as to not have this big knowledge gap between parents and children; as parents should still be able to offer guidance on what is the Internet in particular. This seems right but doesn’t sound like something a school could achieve. Although it’s true that the kids I know in Switzerland and the UK have impressive basic skills at handling digital devices and software I wonder if with the ones growing up around iPhones and iPads the skill won’t be limited to swiping / touch screens. I think (and hope) not, but we’ll have to see about that.

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Mahara ePortfolio what for?

For various reasons, people don’t really know what an ePortfolio is and/or what the Mahara ePortfolio system could be used for. I will try and explain:

Mahara is…

… a web based tool to track, nurture and document your learning path.
… a container to store your artefacts (textfiles, audio files, movies, pictures) in one place.
… designed in a user centered way, giving you (and only you) full control over your content, with easy tools to share only what you want to share.
… ecouraging self reflection, self learning and learning in peer groups.
… designed to practice and encourage peer review with a system-wide feedback functionality.
… designed as a kind of reversed “walled garden”, giving you easy control over the “gardens” you work in.
… made for social networking without distraction in a controlled environment.

Mahara use cases

The most obvious use case is in education. Mahara is made to accompany you throughout an educational career, from primary school, higher education to further education and vocational training. Mahara is made for life long learning.

Since you have your CV, diplomas, awards, journals, feedback and discussions all inside Mahara, a job application is easily assembled, choosing from the elements in your Mahara that fit the job you’re applying for. This leads to the use case of Mahara as a software for job agencies , – to manage and “sell” their clients.

Easy to create forums, groups, institutions, feedback forms (wherever you want them) and the option to have several blog instances per user, let you create a social networking site out of the box.

Drag & drop embedding and arranging of movies, photos and audio files make it fun to create, work with and share your content. In the primary school use case, Mahara can be used to train media skills, by having a class work with Mahara on small research projects like gathering, reporting and sharing nature observations or a day at the zoo, museum etc.

Speaking of nature, Mahara can be a platform for breeders and growers (…), to document, discuss and show off their “items”, be that cattle or flowers.

Mahara is an ideal place to document and report on work placements (which is often a requirement in higher education), voluntary work and political or environmental activism. Any example where you want to have discussion as well as documenting activities illustrates this use case really. You can write a journal, embed video, photo galleries, run discussion forums, share with and invite people to join – all inside Mahara.

I’d be happy to read about further examples of how to use Mahara, please leave a comment.

Find more information on the Mahara website mahara.org. A good place to start is manual.mahara.org

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Vote for PROGR – Bern’s free art space

pro progr banner

What used to be a school right in the heart of Switzerland’s capital, is now a bustling space for the arts. A couple of years ago, the city of Bern granted this building be used temporarily as studios, performance venue, exhibition space and offices for art professionals and institutions. This space called PROGR has become renowned and appreciated throughout Switzerland for it’s lively scene and events programme.

The temporary lease ends next month and the art space is to make room for a private investor’s health center. The current inhabitants have organized themselves and managed to come up with enough funding to match the price the private investor would have to pay. The city council reacted favourably to the idea of making the current art space a permanent thing and now it is up to the citizens of Bern to vote.

Liip is already supporting PROGR financially and we are naturally in strong favour of keeping this great institution alive.
We call on anyone able to vote in Bern to put in a YES for the artists initiative “Pro Progr” and a NO to the health center “Doppelpunkt” on May 17th.

Visit the initiative’s website

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