What have I learned from Moodle and Mahara?

I am currently working on a project (http://www.transit-project.eu/) the objective of which is to help secondary education teachers in developing the competencies they need to support the acquisition of key competencies of their pupils as defined by the Key Competences for Lifelong Learning Framework published by the European Commission. The course we are developing will be adapted to the different national contexts of the project partners.

The Key Competences framework comprises 8 key competencies:

  • Communication in the mother tongue
  • Communication in foreign languages
  • Mathematical, science and technology competencies
  • Digital competency
  • Learning to learn
  • Social and civic competencies
  • Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Cultural awareness and expression

I will detail in another post my criticism of this framework (which is like the wedding of the carp and the rabbit) but for now I will simply indicate that there is a much better and more properly structured framework developed by the Scottish government. It is called Curriculum for Excellence.

The Four Capacities —  the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence

The most obvious difference between the European and Scottish frameworks is the implicit vision of the individual: one is fragmented, the other holistic. The European Framework lists a set of skills, a kind of micro-curriculum organised in a series of subjects/disciplines — most of them are already taught in the current curricula. It is also extremely tame: one of the goal is not to create entrepreneurs, but simply to have a “sense of initiative and entrepreneurship!” While the European framework seems to be oblivious to the identity construction process, the Scottish framework clearly states that its goal is to produce successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. The skills are a means to achieving that high level goal, which means that teachers and communities are encouraged to develop their own curriculum (examples). The European Framework lists a minimal set of skills for the learners, the Curriculum for Excellence sets a global context for the reinvention and the co-creation of many curricula with all the members of learning community.

Anyhow, as the project is funded by the European Commission and we have received funds to develop a series of training modules for teachers in relation to the European framework, making references to this framework is not exactly an option. At the same time, as the modules will have to be localised to the different European countries of the project partners, there is a wide degree of freedom on how this can be achieved —although living in France, I will still use the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence as the overarching framework for the learning environment. The way I have decided to proceed with my part of the work is to cross-reference the European Framework with the Scottish and French framework, so the European Commission (those who will review the project’s deliverables) should be happy. And me too!

While, thanks to Curriculum for Excellence, I now have a solution for continuing making reference to an ill-structured framework without feeling inadequate, a new issue came to the surface of the project: what learning environment should we use to deliver the training modules we are supposed to produce?

Defining a learning environment

After an initial test with WordPress (Buddypress) and Drupal (to exploit the benefits of using taxonomies to represent competency frameworks), the choice was made to use Moodle and Exabis, a competency-based ePortfolio integrated in Moodle. We thought that using Moodle would save us from bespoke developments required by Drupal or WordPress. Then, at a later stage, it was decided that Exabis would be replaced by Mahara. My colleague Niel (@NeilOSIT) would work on the development of the main version of the course, ePortfolio for Key Competencies, while I would work on an adaptation entitled Open Badges for Key Competencies in order to address different audiences and check how easy it is to re-purpose a learning module, in the perspective of future localisations (translation and adaptation to the target audience).

Practicising Moodle and Mahara raised a number of issues, some specific to Moodle, others to Mahara and eventually in making the two of them work together.

Although I had previous experiences with Moodle, this new one confirmed that Moodle is full of functions I do not need and lacks most of those I would need to create the kind of learning experience I am aiming for. What I do not need are all the functions related to testing: I have always considered multiple choice questions as possibly one of the most vicious weapon of mass destruction of pedagogy and it is very unlikely that I will change my position on this subject in the near future. I also believe that grades degrade learning, so I don’t care for all the Moodle paraphernalia related to keeping scores like grade reports. For the format of the course, I don’t want to choose between ‘topics’,  ‘weekly’, ‘social’ or ‘scorm’. None of them make any sense for what I want to do which is to make participants work on the production of artefacts with the support of a number of resources easily accessible. The production of artefacts is at the center of the learning process I envision. I want to have the artefact building space at the center of the page and the learning resources at the periphery, like the help files of a computer programme. I would also like to let participants decide whether or not to share their artefacts with others, granting or not editing rights, etc.

Basically, I tried to use Moodle to build a tool for the learners (I would have preferred to do it with them, but that’s another issue) designing some kind of personal learning space. I didn’t want to create a course but something closer to a performance support system, a tool, something that could be used immediately in the working contexts of the teachers, with their pupils, or something like a cMOOC (even if not ‘massive’!)  where the production and sharing of knowledge at the heart of the learning process, where the learning environment is constantly augmented, reorganised, restructured thanks to the participants acting as contributors. An authentic learning space rather than a teaching space!

Is Mahara a personal learning environment?

So, as Moodle didn’t make it easy to create a personal learning space, maybe Mahara would? Could I use Mahara to create the personal and collaborative learning space I wished for? After exchanges with my colleague Don Presant (@donpresant) in Winnipeg, the provider of Savvyfolio.net (“ePortfolios for learning, work and life”) an ePortfolio service based on Mahara, I was willing to give it a try: I would keep Moodle to store lessons, while using Mahara as the main space to create the artefacts that would be used as evidence to assess the competencies of the participants.

What I realised very rapidly was that Mahara still lacked any of the minimal features required for assessment in a competency-based learning environment: it is not possible to create a structured taxonomy to represent a competency framework, or rubrics (lists of criteria). There is no simple way to link competencies or criteria to evidence, therefore rendering the assessment and verification process complicated — being able to list all the pieces of evidence supporting a competency or a criteria, and conversely. This might have been possible with Exabis portfolio in Moodle, but Moodle was not fit for the kind of learning experience I planned, so exit Exabis…

If you want to use Mahara for assessment, the solution suggested by several Mahara practitioners is… using Moodle, calling one of the plugins connecting Mahara to Moodle (link):

  • a plugin to submit a view from Mahara to Moodle for assessment, and another one
  • to upload the results of an assessment performed on Moodle to Mahara.

I tried both options. First I went back to the idea of using Moodle to run the course, and push the artefacts produced during the course to Mahara. Adding a Mahara layer to Moodle didn’t transform the whole into a personal learning environment. It just added a layer of complexity and bugs —worked on one installation of Moodle-Mahara, not on another one, despite the fact they used the same releases. Then I tried the second option: pushing Mahara views to Moodle for assessment. Then I asked myself: why should I oblige a participant to push to Moodle an artefact created in Mahara, in order to be assessed by a tutor who is already present on Mahara?  What additional useful information is provided to the assessor when pushing an artefact to Moodle? How does it improve the quality and practicality of the assessment process? My conclusion was that pushing an artefact from Mahara to Moodle was like having a lesson in one room, then move to another room for the assessment. Not really very practical, nor sensible. Notwithstanding that it carried an understanding of the assessment process not exactly in line with my vision…

Why does Mahara lack any of the basic features required in a competency-based learning environment? One reason could be the lack of understanding of what is competency based learning and assessment — as I can experience through my work. Another reason, more fundamental, is probably to be found in the definitions used for ePortfolios (source):

ePortfolios provide learners with a structured way of recording their learning experiences and work history

An ePortfolio is a learner-driven collection of digital content demonstrating experiences, achievements and evidence of learning.

If ePortfolios platforms were just a place to record, not to perform learning then it would make sense to keep two independent systems: one for learning (and assessing) one for recording learning (and the outcomes of the assessment process). The problem is that such a definition leads to a logical contradiction that ultimately negates the very existence of ePortfolios: if ePortfolios were simply a place to record and not learn, then reflection, which is the learning process at the heart of ePortfolio practice, should not take place either within an ePortfolio system… Unless someone defines that only reflective learning should take place in an ePortfolio system, and no other learning — and its corollary: no reflective learning should take place outside an ePortfolio!

While it might sound non-sensical to try to eliminate learning from an ePortfolio environment, or at least limit it to reflective learning, it is just as non-sensical to try to eliminate assessment from it or keep it apart, which is probably the main function of the Mahoodle plugins.

Assessment is learning about learning. It is a form of meta-learning that involves reflection. What better place than an ePortfolio environment to learn about learning, to reflect on one’s own learning? Why should we keep assessment apart from ePortfolio platforms? Isn’t all the information one needs to learn about one’s own learning within the ePortfolio itself? If not, maybe it is because the ePortfolio lacks sufficient evidence? If so, why would Moodle be better at supplying supplementary evidence than Mahara? If the answer is multiple choice questions and the testing paraphernalia provided by Moodle, then it is probably a good idea to keep it at more than a barge-pole distance from ePortfolios!

Anyhow, as ePortfolios are supposed to provide a more holistic vision of an individual why keep them apart in favour of the fragmented testing mechanisms provided by Moodle?

So my conclusion was: adding a Moodle layer to Mahara didn’t make it a personal learning environment either…

Mahara vs WordPress — institutional vs personal

My experience with students over several years — I had the opportunity to introduce ePortfolios in AIGEME, a master degree at Sorbonne Nouvelle — is that when students are offered the choice between Mahara and WordPress, they all choose WordPress. The reason? Well, there are probably more than one, but the most obvious is empowerment: if students open an account on WordPress.com, it is their account and they can decide to keep or discontinue it without depending on an institution’s policy. If they decide to install their own instance of WordPress, something that takes minutes on a service like greengeeks at a cost less than the price of a pint of beer per month, there is almost no limit to what can be done: WordPress has 29,705 plugins (source) against 40 for Mahara (source)! Drupal an open source content management system requiring a higher level of technical literacy than WordPress has 14,715 extension modules available (source).

In order not to be dependent on the institution, a student could also decide to create a Mahara account on a service similar to wordpress.com — http://foliofor.me/ is one of them. Yet, the students (the ones I know, at least) prefer wordpress.com. For them, it’s a kind of no-brainer.

Despite what precedes, I believe that Mahara is a wonderful institutional ePortfolio platform. It provides powerful features to manage multiple institutions, roles, publications, etc. Even a teacher with low levels of technical literacy should be able to use it. The main problem I see with Mahara is the discrepancy between the claim to be user-centred and the reality of its institution-centredness. This misunderstanding relative to centredness keeps Mahara away from maximising the benefits one should expect from an institutional ePortfolio system.

While I fully support the idea that an ePortfolio system should be learner-centred (well, I prefer to say learning-centred as learning is individual and social), I also support the idea that it is perfectly legitimate for an institution to have specific requirements regarding the type, range and format of evidence to be provided in order to get a qualification or a diploma. In a competency-based awarding model, a very simple template is needed to cross-reference pieces of evidence with the competency standard, so it makes it practical for the assessor to verify that all the criteria of the standards are covered by a range of sufficient and authentic evidence — and one of the great benefits of Open Badges is the element of trust added to the evidence collected in the ePortfolio! There are a number of institutional ePortfolio systems behaving this way, in particular all those used for the delivery of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) in the UK — Learning Assistant, Maps, PaperFree, etc.

Keeping away from Mahara all the features that would facilitate the assessment process (by oneself, peers or an institution) does not make it more personal and less institutional. If the objective was simply to make it personal then it would make much more sense to use WordPress, Tumbler or even Facebook! The real value of Mahara is institutional.

Mahara and Open Badges

Moodle as Issuer, Mahara as Displayer (link) was the very first attempt at integrating Open Badges to Moodle and Mahara — with a potential reach of 70 million users! As the title of the project states clearly, assessment and ePortfolios were kept apart —issuer/displayer. Yet, as the evidence used to deliver a badge should be in the ePortfolio, why not issue a badge directly from Mahara? Why be obliged to go through Moodle? I interpret that as yet another manifestation of the Open Badge asymmetry: teachers issue badges, while learners display them like stamp collectors.

Should Mahara have a badge issuer plugin, and should that plugin be accessible to all ePortfolio authors? This could be an interesting step to reduce the current OBI asymmetry, empowering everybody to not just receive, but also issue badges. This might even contribute to the mutation of Mahara into an authentic personal learning environment associated with a personal data store (PDS) combining its ePortfolio repository, with the current Open Badges Backpack and the xAPI Learning Record Store (LRS) in a federation of  personal Credly or personal Open Badge Factory.

To be continued!

PS1: the relation of my experience with Moodle and Mahara are to be taken in relation to a specific approach to learning and assessment. Other approaches exist, as the 70 million Moodle users will confirm. To create a learning environment, I need the freedom of a blank canvas, not one where I have to choose among a limited numbers of patterns to paint by numbers. This also goes for those using that learning environment: I’m not interested in what the participants have memorised but in what they have contributed to the learning community. I don’t want to provide them either with a paint by numbers canvas.

PS2: the different national versions of the TRANSIt training environment will be made public in the following weeks. A summer school on Teacher Competences Fostering Inclusive Learning wit the participation of the TRANSIt project will take place in Attica, Greece, 13-18 July 2014. More at: http://udlnet.ea.gr/

8 thoughts on “What have I learned from Moodle and Mahara?

  1. Thank you very much, Serge, for that great post – I hope we will meet again as soon as possible to discuss these ideas about ePortfolio, PLE and Open Badges 🙂 I am not very happy about the Moodle and Mahara integration as it is used at the moment, and I totally agree with your analysis of institutional/personal aspects and perspectives.

    Thank you also for the reference to the Scottish Curriculum of Excellence – that’s not only one but at least two steps forward!

    Kind regards from Vienna

    • Serge says:

      Thank you Klaus for your kind feedback. Yes, once more Scotland is ahead of the game when it comes to education. And it goes back some times ago:in the 15th century, Scotland had more universities (St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen — Edinburgh was created next century) than England (Oxford and Cambridge)!

  2. Great article Serge, you make some telling points about Mahara as an institutional solution in effect if not intention.

    What about Mahara as issuer? openbadgefactory.com is about to issue an API for Mahara if they haven’t already. The evidence can stay locked with a submitted page.

    Also, I wonder why you are pursuing Drupal instead of WP? Can you talk more about that, given the prevalence of WP? Are you avoiding the 800lb gorilla?

    • Serge says:

      Apologies for missing your comment… by 3 months…

      What about Mahara as issuer? We should be able to issue badges from everywhere, including Mahara, but also from a personal OpenBadgeFactory (OBF) — let’s call it iBadgeFactory. Mahara is just the place where the evidence is located (preferably a narrative linking to a series of pieces of evidence). As an institution issuing badges, a plugin linking to OBF (or elements of the BadgeKit or any self-contained badge issuing system) would certainly be useful. Someone submits a narrative linking to a series of pieces of evidence which are tagged with the criteria required to obtain a badge, then the issuer issues the badge, connecting to the badge management/issuing system through an API — from Mahara or anywhere else. Having a full Badge issuer within Mahara, Moodle or any other system might make sense, but only as a very temporary solution. This approach will become irrelevant in the near future. Let’s make a parallel with emails: I don’t want to write/read/store my email in Moodle or Mahara (nor I want 3 different systems to read/write/store my emails!), I want them to connect to my mailbox. The missing piece of the Open Badges Infrastructure is the Open Badges Mailbox (what I earlier called the Trustbox) where one can send/receive/store/display Open Badges. I want my very personal OB read/write/storage/display system.

      why [] pursuing Drupal instead of WP? I tried to use WP but I rapidly felt that I would have to write a lot of PHP code to do what I wanted to achieve. I was a total newbie to both systems and, although I haven’t done proper programming for over 30 years, I still have a good sense of system design and architecture, meaning I know that if I want to do something, there must be a solution to make it work, either through configuring a system, adding extensions or writing some code / html / CSS. So, starting from my requirements I had a look at WP and Drupal and I found that WP would be of very little help unless I wrote my own plug-ins, while there were more than enough Drupal modules to cover 95% of my requirements. Drupal has some downsides, like the number of ‘clicks’ to configure something or the time lost to find the right patch. A good programmer (which I am not) could probably go much quicker by writing directly some code, but then comes the maintenance problem, e.g. when a new version of the core system requires changes in the added modules. My experience seems to indicated that WP plugins are less well maintained than Drupal’s and, moreover, that many of them are very idiosyncratic, while most of Drupal’s are much more generic, more like tools designed to build many different products, than end-products.

      For example, WP taxonomy is heavy to manipulate and difficult to exploit when compared to Drupal’s. I find controlling the layout complicated with WP and relatively easy with Drupal (pages and views — probably someone expert in CSS would have done it in WP in no time at all!). I also find exploiting the relational database complicated with WP and relatively easy with Drupal (e.g. having a complex display where the different elements are dependent on conditions from other items). As a newbie to those systems (although with a solid background in system design and lack of recent experience in programming) I felt totally empowered with Drupal and clueless with WP. Is it a question of mindset and/or skillset? It might be interesting to give the same brief to professionals 1) with no experience of WP and Drupal 1a) graphic designers (with strong competencies in CSS, HTML and basic competencies in PHP and databases) 1b programmers (with basic competencies in CSS/HTML) 2) with experience in WP and Drupal. What would we learn from this experience? May be it has been already done?

      To conclude: I love both WP (for example ‘Social’ a plugin allowing to publish a post to Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and Drupal, and I would certainly like to do more with WP, for example using Buddypress. A future project?

  3. An interesting article, but since applications move on, perhaps some of the issues that were very evident at the time of writing have now been addressed. For example, Mahara now includes a tool called Smart Evidence, a competency based assessment system, and indeed Moodle has also moved in the competency verification direction.

    Of course it it interesting to compare the various pro and cons of the systems, but I do believe that Mahara is moving in the right direction, especially since students need to have a justification for using a system, and storing all your work in one place is just one very good reason to use an e-portfolio system such as Mahara.

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