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Designing Mahara training for 400 students

The software in this situation is Mahara, an e-Portfolio system and this post follows on from the post Making connections, growing e-Portfolios. Training is required for the unit convener (Cathy), ~14 tutors and ~400 students.

Regarding Mahara' user interface, some staff and students have commented in the past on how powerful but, to a degree, unintuitive the system is. The complexity in this system largely stems from it's sophisticated e-Portfolio model and capabilities - the community is aware it could do more to hide the complexity. While some students seem to pick up the interface after little training, others continue to struggle. This makes training a challenging task, and for some students an ongoing one.

After some discussion around the Cathy' curriculum and student needs we came up with a plan below. I should note that the plan below inherits aspects from collaborations with Occupational Therapy (Stephen Isbel, Alison Wicks) providing in-unit Mahara support throughout 2012.  Through trial and error in the OT discipline we developed a combination of strategies: just-in-time mahara training, scaffolded feature delivery, and student experience screen recording as a flexible training resource for students.

 Just one of the cool things Cathy adds to this formula below is a fun aspect to the first portfolio developed in training.


1) Start small and just-in-time.

For people new to the powerful e-Portfolio system that is Mahara, especially 400 of them in one week, it's a good idea to scaffold the exploration of it's features. Rather than show them everything in one go, pick a skill to develop (e.g. reflective/critical thinking) and show only the journal features of Mahara. This itself will be enough because they will have to be exposed to profile settings, concept of multiple journals, concepts of posts, concepts of tagging, adding journals to pages, and sharing their portfolio with others. Also, so that the instructions are fresh in students minds when they need it most, provide the training just-in-time.

2) Create screen based videos for their accessibility and re-playability, augment with other communication mediums.

Use screen video capture tools to record someone going through the process, as a student would have to. Using my account would be a mistake because my account is already set up, and contains masses of links etc. Record a someone like a tutor who is basically at the same stage in Mahara as the students, then students will see in the training video what they see on in their own Mahara account. Students can then replay these instructions as many times as they wish saving everyone time and effort. Maybe augment the video with an online forum - students will inevitably ask similar questions, and also answer each others questions, just be sure to moderate.

3) Scaffold the training in a hierarchical fashion (so distribute the training work load, and so that students rely on their tutors for support - in turn the tutors rely on the convener and in turn the convener would rely on me)
  1. First the unit convener may need to learn or practice the technology. They may need to design from scratch or refine the curriculum design in terms of integrating the e-Portfolio. This training/support is one-to-one, e.g. myself working with the unit convener.
  2. Second, the tutors need to come up to speed with what the students are meant to be doing/creating with the e-Portfolios, and also the technology. Some may want to know the pedagogical rationale behind integrating e-Portfolios and this would be helpful if there is time. This training is two-to-many, e.g. myself and the unit convener training and supporting the tutors. These sessions involve the tutors doing what the students will be expected to do (in terms of the technical process) and recording one of the tutors using video capture (e.g. using Echo360 Personal Capture if you have the Echo360 system, Captivate, Camtasia, etc). These online videos can be replayed by the students as many times as is needed in a time and space suitable to them.
  3. Lastly, the students receive one session of in tutorial just-in-time training (in a lab for hand's on experience to reinforce the learning of the process), and then if required they can watch the video of the tutor going through the process. The just-in-time aspect is important - if they take a long break without using Mahara they will most likely forget the process (this has been one of our experiences in OT).

Cathy also mentioned she would provide a finished example of the expected work, not just of the portfolio but also an example of the nature of the content she is looking for.

The above strategies are not new, but they are combined in a way that is catering to the needs of students and staff. This approach takes into account the learning curve of Mahara, the time constraints and workloads of academics, and the flexibility that working/busy students require. From a support point of view, it also distributes the support load, making it possible to support even more adopters of e-Portfolios.



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