Mahara theming on a budget!

Some institutions are very lucky to have a team that can develop bespoke themes for their online sites. Here at Cranfield University, we don’t have that luxury, so we’ve often just gone for a theme that’s ‘out of the box’ for our Mahara site. This time around we thought we’d be a bit smarter and try to customise our site so that the system better reflects our needs. This is our journey from ‘drab to fab’.


The evolution of ‘the look’

For our first proper run of Mahara (September 2015), we used one of the in-built themes and added our logo. We also decided to edit the static page so that it contained some text about what Mahara can do, and included a link to our Support Guide and examples of existing Mahara pages. Everything else we kept the same:


For the 2016/2017 academic year we moved to version 16.04 and changed the theme so it looked a little less busy. We removed as much of the text as possible from the front page and added a ‘What do you want to do?’ section. We also had just undergone a university-wide re-brand so needed to update the logo. Earlier this year a wonderful animated video was released, so we added that to our site as we felt that it captured what Mahara does perfectly!


For the 2017/2018 academic year we upgraded to version 17.04 and changed the theme (again) to the default one. Mahara has many useful in-built features, but we still felt that they were too advanced for first time users who are still trying to figure out ‘what to do’.


Time to try something new!

The Create, Share and Engage information block on the Dashboard is wonderful for frequent users, but can really confuse those who are just getting to grips with how Mahara works. We decided to replace them so that they would point to Cranfield specific support pages. The problem was that none of us in the team knew how to edit the code to do this, so we ‘cheated’! We switched off the block on the Dashboard and hard coded three new images to act as buttons into the static page. Luckily we were able to get a designer to create these images fairly quickly (but you could always create them yourself).


The addition of these buttons, cutting out more text, and freeing up space by removing the Homepage/Dashboard block helped to streamline the Dashboard even more.

We now feel that we have a Mahara site that is fit for our Cranfield staff and students – so hopefully no more tinkering will be needed :)Sam x


We found that with our version of Mahara that any images displayed in a static page were only viewable by those with an admin role (see bug:! So if you do try and use images in a static page, please test that all users can see them.

Many thanks to Kristina for helping me out!


MoodleMoot IE & UK 2016


Oh wow – it’s been about 8 years since I last went to one, and oh my, I was blown away!

Very inspiring conference with so many lovely and knowledgeable people to talk to and swap ideas with. The keynotes did their job – all 4 had something really inspiring to share, and every break out session I went to was full of new and interesting ways in which Moodle is enhancing the teaching and learning experience for both staff and students.


FLSC team with the ‘main man’ himself – founder and CEO of Moodle, Martin Dougiamas 🙂

We were also shown a great video all about the Moodle Users Association and how it works. The video below gives a great overview:

As you can imagine, my notes run on for many pages, but the key points that my colleagues and I will be exploring include:

  • Resurrecting monthly TEL awareness sessions (teachers don’t know what they don’t know)
  • Exploring all the new and exciting plugins for Moodle 3
    • Group choice
    • Level Up
    • My Feedback
    • Progress bar
  • Developing a VLE framework, based on the UCL Moodle Baseline guidance, that is accompanied by Module page MOTs, hands on workshops and online guides
    • Developing a better module page template that adheres to the VLE framework
  • Enabling Webservices so that the Moodle app can work with our system
    • Gavin Henrick used the Choice tool as a great alternative to the expensive ‘clickers’
  • Evaluating alternatives to the Turnitin submission tool – plugins & feedback tools within the Moodle Assignment
  • Looking at supporting the ‘Late Majority & Early Adopters’ (see below)

Both of our presentations went down very well with over 150 people in the audience each time! We spoke to quite a few people afterwards about how our Turnitin Inductions are helping improve students’ assignment writing, and how Mahara is supporting group work and assessment. (See abstracts here)

Our audience for our first presentation! Eeek!

Oh drat – wasn’t going to write a long post was I? Oh well, it was amazing and hats off to Gavin Henrick and crew for organising such a wonderful conference. I’ll be back – don’t you worry!!!

Sam 🙂


2 papers accepted for MoodleMoot IE & UK 2016!

I am so excited to be presenting not just once, but twice at this year’s MoodleMoot IE & UK 2016. Both Aurélie and I each had an idea for a paper – leading on one, supporting the other with theirs if they were accepted. Therefore we are so happy that both were approved and we get to share two Moodle stories with the delegates this year.

Our abstracts are below:

Presentation 1:  Tuesday @ 15:00 – room B
Enhancing group assessment with Moodle, Mahara and Turnitin

MMT2A group portfolio can sometimes appear as a disjointed collection of documents, often lacking a cohesive narrative running through it. At Cranfield Defence and Security (one of four schools at Cranfield University), the decision was made to trial an online collaborative space to compile a digital portfolio to be used as an assessed piece of groupwork.  The Module Manager for the Systems Engineering Workshop module, part of the MSc in Systems Engineering for Defence Capability, had used the Mahara ePortfolio platform in the past to create an online digital poster and wanted to see if it could encourage his students to work together more as a group to compile a richer and more structured reflective online Portfolio.

This presentation will show you how three learning systems, Moodle, Mahara and Turnitin, were collectively used to support and deliver the week-long module:

Moodle – the ‘lynchpin’
to provide pre-reading/activities to complete prior to the start of the module

Mahara – the student space
to give the students the space to compile their group portfolio, discuss ideas, and collect evidence and artefacts

Turnitin – the assessment & feedback tool
to allow students to submit their work and for the assessors to write their feedback

Feedback and reflections from the students, lecturer and learning technologists will be shared throughout this talk, along with a showcase of how Mahara was used to create bespoke learning resources, along with the students’ finished portfolios.

Presentation 2:  Wednesday @ 15:15 – room B
Improving Turnitin Inductions with Moodle and Open Badges

Turnitin BadgeCranfield Defence and Security is one of four schools at Cranfield University. Based at the UK Defence Academy, our students are all mature learners studying post-graduate qualifications in engineering, science, acquisition, management or leadership. 

All students submit all coursework to Turnitin during their studies. They undertake a face-to-face Turnitin induction in an IT lab at the start of their studies. This allows them to get an overview of the tool and to see how the useful features such as the filters, similarity matches and feedback options work, as well as going through the process of submitting a document.

In our presentation, we will show you how we used a Moodle course with activities to guide the students through their induction. Upon completion of these activities, the students are rewarded with an Open Badge. This badge has been shown to be a great motivator for them to complete the training. All those who fail to obtain the badge are reported to their Course Director and may be prevented from submitting further coursework.

We will also share how we refined our training during the academic year after evaluating the initial launch in September 2015 and the reaction from our staff and students to Open Badges. We will demonstrate how we set up the Moodle course for the automation to work.

This will be my second ever MoodleMoot – last one was over 5 years ago! Looking forward to seeing everyone there,

Sam x


eLearning in UK Schools – the future is looking good :)

Last week I had the pleasure to watch a great presentation from staff and pupils at the outstanding Perins Shool in Hampshire, England. During their studies, pupils undertake ‘Transform classes‘ that aim to develop creative thinking. I enjoyed hearing how the learners are encouraged to work together to solve problems using a variety of electronic media & devices:

  • Laptops and smart phones to capture and record information
  • Moodle to provide a framework, pose questions
  • The web/social media to research the answers & make connections
  • Mahara to combine and refine the answers (or ask further questions!)

What I love most is that the pupils are encouraged to work in ways that will enhance and develop their skills, skills that *most* professionals use such as effective group working, delegation and researching on the web. Anyway, the video below was played during their presentation and my jaw just hit the floor 😉

Mahara Hui UK 2015

This year’s Mahara conference took place at my beloved Southampton Solent University, with both Kristina Hoeppner (@anitsirk) and Sigi Jakob (@Networking_Lady) as the two keynotes. I was so looking forward to all the networking and idea sharing, however I picked up a horrible bug, meaning my ability to think and partake in meaningful conversations was somewhat limited. I felt really upset as the same thing happened to me at the NZ Hui 😦 I am normally a really chatty person full of ideas, but for this event I just couldn’t get as involved as I wanted. I even left the FREE drinks reception early as I felt so unwell (so sorry to all those who I had promised to chat to – I felt dreadful).

Anyway, a week on and I’m still unwell, but feel I need to get something written before I forget everything that I took away from the event.


moofy2I really liked this year’s format – just one stream running at a time meaning that we got to see everyone’s presentations! Without going into too much detail, I thought I’d share some of the key points that I took away from the conference:

  • Mahara is a living work space. What the learners do with it is up to them, however scaffolding may help them make the best use of it.
  • New Mahara 15.10 will be more intuitive, comes with more site themes (and the ability to tweak the CSS), cleaner navigation options for collections – all with a responsive Bootstrap theme.
  • A mobile-friendly media player will be added to new Mahara.
  • Students are now muli-modal learners – Mahara could be used to ease staff into the digital landscape (thanks Teresa!)
  • Lots of discussion with TDM VLE Middleware of the prospect of getting an eLearning apprentice
  • Saw great examples of it being used on a massive scale for so many different purposes – assessment, PDP, employability
  • Ask your learners ‘How do they want to learn?’ (thanks Sigi x)
  • Could CDS contribute some of their dev budget towards the Mahara project? (thanks Domi)
  • We need to provide a framework for our CDS staff who would like to use Mahara for CPD and potentially their HEA Fellowships.
  • More integration with openbadges – Open Badge Factory could users to issue badges (thanks Dajan!)
  • Special shout out to the rather awesome Perins School and their students who gave an eye-opening presentation of their use of Moodle, Mahara and social media tools to facilitate and support the learning journey 🙂

Hashtag: #MaharaUK15

Many thanks to Teresa for storifying both days:

Cranfield Defence and Security presentation

This was my first IRL presentation with Aurélie (we did one online for iMOOT15) and despite my poorliness, I had a BLAST! We walked through our implementation and showcased some of our early adopters. We also shared how we are trying to spread the word of Mahara using case scenarios and ‘selling’ them to course directors during planning meetings and course committee meetings. Thanks to the audience for the pictures on twitter:


Taken by Sigi)

Taken by Domi)

We then moved onto our case study – MSc in Explosives Ordnance Engineering. These students are using Mahara to support group work off campus and plan for the three stages of their assessment. Below is a quote from Course Director Tracey Temple on her thoughts on Mahara:

“As Course Director and Module leader for the Explosives Ordnance and Engineering MSc I wanted a platform that the students could share work and interact with when they are undertaking group work.  This need was especially important when group work consists of full and part-time students.  Mahara e-portfolio has enabled this to happen as students can communicate via the Mahara pages and forums from wherever they are based.  The Marhara e-portfolio is also a great platform for students to share information in terms of research papers and ideas.”

Here are some links to our Mahara in case you are interested:

Hoping you guys enjoyed the popping candy 😉

Thanks to Roger for organising and chairing most of Mahara Hui UK – here’s to the next one 🙂

Mahara – the joys of starting again from scratch!

It’s been almost 3 months since starting my new post at Cranfield School of Defence and Security. Since being here I’ve been able to see the tools that I’ve been using for the past 8yrs with ‘fresh eyes’. One tool in particular would be the Mahara ePortfolio system which has only just been installed here since my arrival.

Some of you may be familiar with my previous work with Mahara at Southampton Solent University where the focus was very much placed upon visually appealing assessment outcomes that could be shared online with prospective employers. Due to the nature of the courses delivered at my new place of work (Military Vehicles, Defence, Explosives etc), much of our students’ work can’t be shared due to the sensitive nature of the content (think weapons design – you don’t want that falling into the wrong hands…). Our students are also multinational, multi-skilled and exclusively postgraduate.

After watching many excellent presentations from colleagues around the world (especially Kristina, Sigi, Linda and Pascale) I have decided to adopt a new approach to using Mahara. Many of our students are already on their career path, so employability skills aren’t so high on our lecturers’ agendas. What is important though is the ability to articulate what has been learnt during the modules and put it into real life context. Also, being able to constantly feedback on progress from a student-lecturer perspective can be key to improving the end result of their Masters Thesis submission.

I’m also exploring a ‘less is more’ approach to designing the support materials, something that has been repeated expressed by Learning Technologist Domi Sinclair from UCL. Students don’t want to be spoonfed every bit of information – they just want enough to get them going.



With this in mind I have started to send out ‘feelers’ to see if any of our academics are interested in exploring Mahara further. I have created a handout that I have been taking with me to meetings, and will be shortly facilitating a couple of awareness sessions for lecturers and library staff:

What is Mahara

So, I guess it’ll be a case of ‘watch this space’! Fingers crossed that I’ll have something to talk about at the next UK Mahara Conference in November 🙂

Our #iMoot15 presentation

Everything is now set and ready for mine and Aurélie’s iMoot15 presentations. We are presenting at:

  • 4pm Thursday 28th May
  • 10am Friday 29th May

(This is UK time)

We now have our iMoot Moodle page up-and-running for those who want to get a brief overview of what we will be doing, as well as a ‘where are you’ survey using google forms and google maps. If you fancy trying to set one up yourself, this video will help you:

We had some fun last week testing Big Blue Button – the software that we’ll be using to present with. We couldn’t find anywhere that could hold a decent wifi/network connection on the base, nor could we download Java onto our machines (restrictions on downloads to computers), so instead Aurélie went back to her house and tried presenting from there – and thankfully it worked 🙂


We were seriously considering at one point presenting from the McDonald’s that’s situated outside the base’s entrance, but then we saw this… 😉

So, we’re ready and can’t wait to get going! There are so many presentations that I’m looking forward to too. Although it does feel strange presenting on something other than Mahara.