Mahara UK conference 2011 in 500-ish words

Today I’ve been at the Mahara UK conference, hosted by Southampton Solent university. This is my first visit to Southampton Solent University, and also my first time at a Mahara conference. I have some objectives for attending today.

It was been a great morning. First thing today we heard from Mark Osborne who came all the way from Albany Senior High School in New Zealand to tell us the amazing story of their approach toward learning. Mark and his team have such a clear strategy around learning technologies so clear is this vision that some of the challenges most of us are still struggling with are not even on the agenda! A BYOD policy – bring your own device – including mobiles, tablets, laptops applies. It’s down to you, the learner. Expectations of teachers in the organisation is loud and clear: this is how we do it, are you with us? Powerful stuff that has produced seemingly impressive results. What I can’t convey easily here is the fantastic common learning spaces used throughout the campus. These are open spaces large enough to accommodate several classes, and enable them to work flexibly in one space at the same time. Mark provided some images for us in his slideshow – I encourage you to take a look.

Kristina Hoeppner was going to talk about fifteen ways in which you can support the Mahara community. By the time she started, this had grown to 21 and 3/4! You can follow some of the ideas she proposed to the group via my contributions to the #maharauk11 Twitter thread, or check out the slides. I think I enjoyed this session most though because I got a mention for being such a prolific (that could equally be ‘annoying’) Tweeter, and including regular refences to Mahara along the way.

Among the other sessions, Mary Cooch led a session about making mahara an attractive platform for younger learners – 14 or less. Her presentation included a great reference to video podcasts produced by one of her students, and published through his Mahara presence. University of Kent are clearly some way along the Mahara implementation track, having already gained considerable experience with PebblePad, and subsequently with Mahara. There were some great ideas here that came out of this session; CPD points collection scheme sounds outstanding in so many ways; there are a multitude of ideas emerging for using Mahara to support CPD. After lunch we had some narrative to explain the development roadmap for Mahara over the coming months, including a number of key points that might be of significance to the education sector, namely MaharaDroid and change of the familiar ‘views’ term to ‘pages’.

In one of the later sessions of the day, Don Presant demonstrated to us how he uses Mahara as a tool for presenting learner activites – and more importantly, learner skills. Most powerful in Don’s presentation was an individual demonstrating through video his understanding of electronic components. This is surely a powerful message to a potential employer, and is one step beyond the perhaps more obvious ‘interview’ style video.

You might remember that I had some objectives today. Five, as it happens. How have I done?

PS: Don’t forget the Mahara Guide!

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Pre-conference thinking time for Mahara

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Ahead of this week’s Mahara conference at Southampton Solent university, I want to start thinking about how we will continue development of Mahara in our organisation.

To date, we have had a successful year piloting the portfolio system. There have been a few downs (and arguments) along with plenty of ups – with the latter really winning through now.

Early in this acadmic year I put some work into getting the Mahara Guide up and running, but honestly ran out of steam as other projects took precendednce. This didn’t come at the cost of our own use though. The tutorials have given everyone a good head start, providing a quick reference for uncertain new adopters. Those tutuorials continue to be viewied regaularly, primarily by our learners, but equally by others I have encouraged to sign up and have go with Mahara using our own hosted installation. I continue to believe that the next step for Mahara Guide is to encourage some other interested individuals to contribute to te site, working with me (and my colleagues) to produce more valuable content for the community. So that’s objective number one: try and persuade a few others to contribute.

Our pilot has been just that – a pilot. The next vital stage is to move our Mahara installation to a permanent hosted location for long term use. I need some help to undertand what this might involve. We are running Mahara 1.2.5 at the moment. With 1.4 just released, this is a bit outdated, and we haven’t really performed any upgrades or maintenance during the pilot. Is an upgrade to the latest version right for us? What are the issues sorrounding a windows hosted mahara install? That’s objective two: clarify my thinking on a permanent Mahara presence

The user experience needs more investment. More specifically, what help and assistance do our users need in order to make the best of an e-portfolio system? Mahara is no doubt a really clear system to use. Our staff and learners quickly demonstrated this by signing up without any assistance, and trying things out for themselves – this just doesn’t happen with other products! However, it is a new concept for many. The idea of writing content online is unfamiliar, and our expectations of Mahara must not be confused with those of other established systems, like our VLE. Objective three: clarify our intentions.

The cultural and technological changes. Everyone is so used to the Moodle experience: Upload a resource, share it, get learners to download it again, do something with it, upload again. Mahara is different though, and one of the stumbling blocks I have found is the previous experience of nearly all users leads them to expect the same thing (upload content) and present the same questions (how much space do I get). Objective four: understand other methods of educating our users and bringing them into the new world of online content.

Going to a conference always presents the opportunity to meet others ith the same interests, and the mahara confence will be no exceptio. I’m already looking forward to a few from my own region. There’s also the chance (i think) to meet a few from the global mahara community, to say hello to some of the wonderful team at ULCC and n doubt many more i haven’t thought of. Objective five: get in amongst it and learn from the community (my favorite, I think).

Can’t wait.

FOTE10 and what I learned from Joe Dale

I remember this time last year really getting enthused by the vast number of resources available through the growing medium of Twitter. I could connect with a seemingly unlimited number of people just like me who were exploiting the benefits of new technology for the benefit of education. These gracious individuals were forming communities of sharing, building their expertise by connecting with others and sharing their experiences, knowledge and resources.

Whilst exploring this fantastic new service, I also stumbled upon a couple of events. Initially, the Association of Learning Technologists conference, and shortly after, the Future of Technology in Education conference. What I noticed first about the ALT-c conference was that apart from being a bunch of really clever folk, they were openly prepared to challenge accepted norms in order to promote development and change for a better future.

As the FOTE conference approached, I was becoming a little anxious. Me, an IT Manager, attending a conference organised and delivered by a bunch of really clever folk whom I respect greatly. But was this going to be an event where I felt comfortable?

So the day arrives, and having arrived at senate house i still feel a little unsure about my place at the conference. Not to worry. I soon felt right at home thanks to an opening session from Microsoft that really seemed to be a plug for the Microsoft vision of things to come. Trouble was, this vision seemed to be very generalized, rather than adopting an educational perspective. I have great respect for Ray and the Microsoft Education team, particularly for their work in promoting the resources available to education via the Microsoft HE and FE blogs; somehow it missed the spot for me, though.

On went the schedule through more products and technologies which individually were really great, but ultimately they were all ‘just tech’. This wasn’t what i was expecting from FOTE. I was expecting talk of new teaching techniques where technology is involved, changing learning styles and how we accommodate the with technology, blending technology with learning. I wasn’t really getting a message here other than ‘here’s some more great technology’.

Enter Joe Dale. I think Joe is a very brave individual – and I congratulate him. Joe agreed to present to the audience his experiences of technology as a teacher of modern foreign languages. As the presentation began, Joe explained some of the tools and techniques he has employed in his work with colleagues and students (most notably Twitter) which has helped Joe establish a wide personal learning network. Around half way through Joe’s presentation, some negative comments were evident from the audience, listeners were not entirely sure why some of these basic tools were being explained to a group of experts. To be honest, so did I.

The event closed and I went home – getting most of the way there before the train ground to a halt at a nearby station leaving me stranded in the rain.

The following day, I began to reflect on Joe’s presentation. I realised that Joe had done a fantastic job. He had illustrated what we should all be focusing on. We spent a whole day hearing from other presenters about some really interesting and leading edge technology, but where were the needs of our everyday staff and learners? Well, thanks to Joe telling us his story, it’s clear that many might be some of the skills held by those staff could be lower than we might assume. Joe has already been on a learning journey, made considerable steps toward becoming a teacher who broadens his student learning experience with newly available technology. Sure, his presentation was an unusual mix of colors and screenshots, and maybe it wasn’t quite 10/20/30, but the message for me was loud and clear: despite all the new stuff, we must help our staff and learners identify the right tools, and integrate them with the curriculum. I really can’t return from a conference about ‘the future of learning technology’ with a bunch of new tools or technologies and some glimpses into the future. Useful as these ideas and concepts are, I am expected to break this down into meaningful and understandable additions to the learning experience. I did expect more of this from the conference.

Couple Joe’s presentation with that of Matt ‘all we need is love’ Lingard and perhaps you have a winning formula. Spread the learning technology love among teachers and support staff. Listen to our learners and consider their generation and their needs. Add to this the awareness that Joe has conveyed to us through his work with colleagues in a number of organisations, and maybe there is a new future in truly establishing learning technology as something that staff from all areas of the organisation – particularly the curriculum – can be comfortable with. More importantly, comfortable enough that they become confident in further developing their own skills and techniques, and confident enough that technologists like us will embrace them and their needs.

Well done Joe.