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Mahara and the Cloud

In 2012 the UC Teaching and Learning Centre engaged with Catalyst IT with funding and requirements specifications to improve Mahara handling of embed code/iFrames. Our key driver was storage related, we wanted students to store their content in services such as Microsoft Skydrive (which comes free with their email account) and therefore enable us to keep Mahara quotas low. Ultimately, this means we can better manage the cost to the university of hosting Mahara.

Of course there are other benefits that cloud services offer such as collaboration options, specialised content creation (mindmaps, presentations, charts, spreadsheets, jogging history, whatever) allowing users to embed complex, engaging, and interactive artifacts making for very interesting and interactive portfolios. Most important is by allowing students to use all the cloud has to offer we are freeing them to represent their ideas and work is ways that any one platform will never be able to do.

The principle idea we had in mind was to allow the administrator of a Mahara system to easily enable and disable the embedding of content from any cloud service that provides embed code. In our case the priority was Microsoft Skydrive for reasons stated above. At the time of the development (Mahara 1.4 and eariler) anyone hosting Mahara needed to edit hard coded arrays to add trusted embed code sources, but this arrangement also suffered from not just having to specify the top level domain name but also most of the embed code path, and these paths were prone to change. This approach was expensive and time consuming to maintain. Initially we asked Catalyst IT if they would just allow any embed code to be used in Mahara. However the developers didn't want to take that approach due to security concerns, i.e. it is possible for embed code to hack into the larger session and take data, use session details, etc, etc.

Thankfully for us Catalyst IT found an opensource project called "SafeiFrames". This allowed them to minimise development time and effort and provide a way for Mahara to refer to a domain name white list. Operationally speaking, if the embed code contained a matching domain name in the white list then the iFrame was allowed to load. In addition to the inclusion of SafeiFrames in 1.5 in Mahara we also commissioned Catalyst to add an administrative interface to Mahara as part of this development (1.6+) whereby an admin could use a web interface to manage the white list rather than having to edit code directly. Our Mahara is hosted, so any code changes like that would a) incur a fee and b) initiate a change request involving testing, staging, and finally a production move. For our users we also asked that whenever a domain is added an icon is displayed to the user in a list of allowed iFrame sources, so that they can see which services they can embed code from.

The video below (Good find Alan!) is an example of someone who is already seeing the potential of this work:

Speaking of cool Mahara features - check out how to use Skins (new feature in Mahara 1.8). Thanks again to Alan for this video link.
(Check out more skins from the Mahara 1.8 Skins Competition: )


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