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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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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Packaging solution for (php-)projects

At Liip we have been relying on Debian and RedHat packages to deploy our web applications for some time now. For this we created or in some cases adapted some project/framework-specific solutions:

The existing solutions work very well but they’re also very specific. Since we don’t really want to reinvent the wheel for every new project/framework we decided to start looking for a more generic solution. The prerequisite was that it had to support Debian and Red Hat packages.

With fpm, by Jordan Sissel, we found a solution that can create either Debian or Red Hat packages. Basically, fpm just takes all the files inside a directory and creates a package from that.

Since the layout of the application in a development environment is usually different from the production system (on a dev environment you might have the project files in your home directory whereas in the production environment they should end up in /var/www/projectname) there was still some work involved beside running fpm. But we wanted something that was automated as much as possible: developers should only need to setup packaging once and after that they would only have to execute a simple command to build packages.

For this reason we decided to build a set of wrapper scripts around fpm. With these scripts, you just need to create a configuration file that defines the layout on the target system and some package parameters. Once you created the configuration file, a simple command creates a Makefile for you. After that, building your package is as easy as typing “make” in your project directory. What is really nice with this packaging solution it’s that it’s a) easy to use and b) platform-independent (for Debian packages at least) since you can use fpm on any platform you want.

We made the scripts available on github so other people can benefit from them. To help people get into it and demonstrate some of the possibilities of this solution, we created a demo project that you can try to package and deploy. If you just want to build Debian packages you can just install fpm and you should be good to go (it even works on OS X, so you don’t need a Debian machine to create packages). For rpm packages you unfortunately still need rpmbuild.

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LEAP2A upgrade for Mahara

LEAP2A is a standard for interoperability of e-portfolio systems. It is an Atom based format that allows export and import of e-portfolios. Recently the 2010-07 version of the specification has been released.

In 2009 version 2009-03 of the LEAP2A specification was implemented in Mahara 1.2. This work was done by Penny Leach and Nigel McNie working for Catalyst IT and it was a joint project between Catalyst, the University of London Computer Center (ULCC), Glasgow University and JISC.

Because of her involvement in both the Mahara and the Moodle community, Penny was the ideal person to add LEAP2A support to Moodle which was done in 2009.

For the latest version of the specification JISC generously offered to fund the necessary work to upgrade Mahara. In an effort to distribute the knowledge about LEAP2A in Mahara, Liip decided to sponsor the introduction of a developer to the Mahara LEAP2A implementation. For this reason I got the chance to work with Penny on the upgrade of LEAP2A in Mahara. The goal was to be ready for the 1.3 release of Mahara.

During the time we were working on the LEAP2A upgrade we were in continuous contact with Simon Grant who works for JISC. He provided invaluable help for tons of detail questions and was a great help during testing. Thanks also go to the Mahara community and especially Andrew Nicols from Lancaster University Network Services who helped with testing as well.

We managed to commit all the necessary changes before the feature freeze and< on friday 10.09.2010 Mahara 1.3 was officially released including the updated LEAP2A version. Penny in the meantime also backported the changes to Mahara 1.2 in anticipation of the 1.2.7 release, so that all Mahara versions with LEAP2A support will be up-to-date with the latest specification. She also updated Moodle to support LEAP2A version 2010-07.

With this another step has been taken towards improving interoperability of e-portfolio systems.

I greatly enjoyed working on Mahara and it was interesting to learn a bit more about the inner workings of LEAP2A. Talking to Simon Grant, I was also pulled in by his enthusiasm and dedication to improve interoperability between e-portfolio systems.

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Liip Mahara Hackday success

Liip encourage their employees to suggest and participate in “Hackdays”, which are full days of hacking on some bite sized application or a proof of concept, or something we want to add to our favourite Open Source project, or just experimenting with a new technology.

One of my favourite Open Source pet projects is Mahara, which I was one of the founding developers of while I was still in New Zealand. Mahara is an e-Portfolio application, which gives learners the ability to collect, organise and share their learning portfolio. In many ways, it is a sister project to Moodle, which is one of our core Open Source projects we work with for our clients. Mahara is starting to gain more traction in Switzerland, which I am watching with interest, because it’s so successful already in other countries, and version 1.3 is going to be released in around a month or so, so I thought it would be good timing to have a Mahara Hackday at Liip, to get some of our developers here interested in it, as well as seeing if we could get something cool done to go into the 1.3 release.

So a few weeks ago, on a Friday, Adi, Pierre and myself sat upstairs at a desk away from the rest of the company, listened to music and hacked all day. Here’s a picture I took of them figuring out how something works:

4711419162_afbe23aabd

Happily, the feature we wrote has been merged into master already, and will be in the 1.3 release!

We had a couple of options for things to work on, but we ended up going with creating Views for Group homepages. In Mahara terminology, a “View” is a presentation of some content in some meaningful way, using different blocks that can be dragged onto the page. They’re really a bit like mini webpages. We started off just using Views for portfolio presentations, but have expanded out over the years to using Views for other things too – the first one was done a few years ago, on an Easter Hackfest with Nigel McNie and myself, creating Views for users to use as their profile page, so that they can customise what is displayed using the same drag and drop editor that they always used to create their portfolio Views. Mahara 1.3 also has a dashboard View for users.

Groups have had portfolio Views for quite some time, but the group homepage was a bit boring, with just the description of the group and which members were in it, along with the latest forum posts, and some other information. This page was not previously customisable at all, and that actually prevented me from doing what I really wanted to do for the hackday, which was to write a Poll plugin. Having a poll plugin would be really cool on group pages, as well as user profile pages actually, but since the group homepage wasn’t yet customisable, we thought that would be a better thing to work on for the hackday.

First we needed to figure out exactly what was on the group homepage, and find a way to reproduce all of that information in a View, using the Block plugins we had, and identify some more Block plugins that would need to be written. We then had to write a migration so that all existing Groups will have this View created for them during their 1.3 upgrade, and also make sure that new Groups got one auto created.

We kept track of a list of tasks on the Liip “Foss wiki” and managed to get through them all during the day, before going out for a victory beer. We published our code in our public Mahara repository on git.liip.ch, and I had a talk to some of the other core developers in NZ on our Mahara IRC channel (#mahara on freenode), and Richard Mansfield quickly did a review, made a few small changes and merged it into master.

I am personally really happy with what we achieved during the hackday, and how fast the other core developers reviewed it and merged it. Thanks, everyone! :)

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Moodlemoot Review

On the 25th and 25th March, Adrian Schlegel and Penny Leach attended the German Moodlemoot in Berlin.

Penny’s Experience

This was my 7th or 8th Moodlemoot, so for me the most important part was seeing other Moodlers again and catching up with what they’re doing. I didn’t go to many of the talks, since it stretches my German somewhat, but I very much enjoyed Ralf Hilgenstock’s keynote address, including some interesting photos of Moodlers and a preview of Moodle 2.0.

Officially, during the conference, I co-led a talk and workshop with about Mahara which went very well – at the end of our workshop we had attendees doing a demonstration of the presentations they created about what they had learned during the course of the Moodlemoot, which was great to see, from people who had never used Mahara before.

 I also did a handover of MNet to David Mudrak. I was working on MNet during my secondment to Moodle HQ in January and February, but I can’t really maintain it as actively as I need when back in my normal life, and David volunteered while we were at the Moodle developer conference last December in the Czech Republic.

Finally, of course we upheld the fine Moodlemoot tradition of Mojito drinking. This has been a tradition as long as I remember, and apparently I am partially to blame for inroducing Martin Dougiamas, Moodle’s founder, to Mojitos many years ago.

Thanks very much Liip for giving me the time to go to this conference, and of course the organisers for a stellar job.

Adi’s Experience

The MoodleMoot in Berlin was my first MoodleMoot so it was quite a different experience for me.
I really liked Ralf Hilgenstock’s (eledia.de) Keynote on Moodle 2.0. It provided a nice overview over the upcoming features of Moodle 2.0.
The interesting thing about MoodleMoots is that most of the participants are teachers/people from educational institutions.
Although you will meet the occasional core developer it’s mostly an end user conference. This means you meet a lot of people that are confronted with Moodle in their day-to-day life. What struck me most was the amount of enthusiasm these people are showing for Moodle. I had a lot of conversations with other attendees and I was suprised to see how much effort they put into advocating Moodle. Apparently in Germany it’s quite hard to introduce new tools into the class rooms due to a lot of bureaucracy. Still those people fight for Moodle until it gets accepted by superiors and pupils.

A lot of the talks at the MoodleMoot were from teachers sharing their experiences in adapting Moodle to their specific needs. Even though most of them do not really have any programming experience they manage to adapt Moodle to their needs.

It was also interesting to meet some of the core developers (David Mudrak and Petr Škoda) and being introduced to the MoodleMoot Mojito tradition.

From a developer point of view I can highly recommend taking part in a MoodleMoot because you get to see how people use Moodle in real life to get the most out of it.

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LEAP2A support coming soon to a Moodle near you!

Finally, I am very happy to annouce that I will soon be working on adding LEAP2A support to the Moodle Portfolio API that will be in Moodle 2.0.

There’s already a rough specification for this work, and it’s been on my TODO list for a very long time.

 LEAP2A is a very simple and open atom-based e-portfolio standard, to promote interoperability between e-portfolio systems. Interoperability is very important in an e-portfolio system, because it is vital to be able to transport portfolio data around with you, as you move between educational providers, into higher education, and on to professional development. Imagine having in one portfolio system, your entire portfolio of work, starting from your first day at primary school, right up to your continued professional development. Of course, one would use many different portfolio systems over that time, so some sort of open standard to transport data around is imperative.

I was involved with the LEAP standard group last year when I was living in London, adding LEAP2A support to Mahara. I attended the LEAP meetings in the UK, and worked on the export side of the project. Nigel took over when I left Catalyst and continued, adding the import side (which is of course, much harder).

But wait, you ask. Isn’t Moodle a learning management system, not an e-portfolio? Why do we care about interoperability with an e-portfolio standard? The answer is of course, that while you’re working, you are entering data into Moodle, and at the end of the course, the natural thing to want to do is to export some of that data into your portfolio. At the moment, we have the Portfolio API in Moodle for that, which I worked on for last year for 3 months, during my time at Moodle HQ. However, at the time I wrote it, it wasn’t at all clear what portfolio standard we should support, so content is transferred in “raster” format (rendered to HTML or a file like a pdf). Since then though, LEAP has emerged as a clear front runner, and now that Mahara 1.2 (almost released!) fully supports importing and exporting LEAP2A, the time is right for us to take the plunge and add LEAP2A support to Moodle’s Portfolio API. This improves the integration between Moodle and Mahara, as well as opening the door for Moodle to integrate better with other e-portfolio systems that implement the LEAP2A standard.

I am therefore very grateful to the State of New Hampshire for providing the funding to Liip for me to do this work. This comes from a grant from the New Hampshire Department of Education, and a collaborate group made up of the following school districts:

Special thanks also to Matt Oquist who has been tirelessly helping me find funding for this work!

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Liip now a Mahara Partner!

Mahara partner logo

Liip is happy to announce that we are now the official Swiss Mahara PartnerMahara is an Open Source
ePortfolio system.

In many respects Mahara is a “sister” application to Moodle, providing students with a learning environment that they themselves own, giving them them the ability to showcase their work and collaborate with their peers.  However, Mahara is also well suited as a social networking system, running out of the box without Moodle.

Mahara was originally funded by the New Zealand government’s Tertiary Education Commission, and has grown into a thriving open source product that is increasingly being adopted worldwide.  It makes a lot of sense for Liip to be a partner, both because we’re already the official Moodle partner in Switzerland, and Mahara fits very well into our existing list of projects we work with,  and because Penny Leach, one of the original core developers, is now working at Liip.

We are very much looking forward to providing services around Mahara!

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