Portfolios, assessment and Mahara

We have recently introduced the Mahara e-portfolio system at the University of Sussex, as part of our integrated e-submission and e-feedback solution (ESEF), electronically managing assessment from assignment brief to moderated marks. The primary aim of adding Mahara to our suite of applications was to broaden the range of assignment types available for electronic submission, both allowing our students to submit a more diverse range of media types and also capturing the more complex relationships between assignment elements that characterise portfolio submissions.

ePortfolios have a wide range of differing conceptions and purposes, leading to a certain level of ambiguity in definitions and terminology (see Hughes, 2008, Grant, 2005). Our initial implementation, paying particular attention to the role of the portfolio in presenting selected content for assessment, therefore represents only a section of the possibilities for learning and personal development, but more on that later.

Personal versus Institutional

One of the key elements underpinning the development of ePortfolio systems such as Mahara and at the core of their ethos is an understanding of them as providing personal spaces to be managed by each individual, rather than by the organisation that administers the system. This is often contrasted with other institutional systems, such as Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), which provide spaces that are managed by tutors on behalf of the institution. One way of considering this is to picture the VLE as a series of rooms corresponding to each module. The rooms belong to the institution and the institution decides what to put in them. The institution also controls access to the rooms, giving keys to the people (students) it wishes to have access.

All images by Antony Coombs, published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence

By contrast, in Mahara, each individual has their own room. They have complete control over what to put in their room and over who can have access. Mahara has no inherent understanding of hierarchy or relationship between two individuals. The only limit that can be placed by the institution is over the overall size of the room.

All images by Antony Coombs, published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence

This introduces a certain tension, particularly around assessment, in that the institution providing the ePortfolio space may have specific requirements about how the individuals use their portfolio (e.g. the format of the submission and who requires access in order to carry out the various assessment and moderation tasks). From a student’s perspective it may appear odd that they are being given a system to use by the institution, but then have to set it up themselves to match that institution’s requirements. Fortunately, the integration through ESEF and techniques such as using templates allow us to avoid this, for the most part.

Portfolios as objects of assessment

From our experience so far, working with the first modules to try out Mahara, and investigation into practice elsewhere in the sector, it seems fair to say that there are three main purposes driving the presentation of a portfolio for assessment:

  1. providing evidence of achievement or competence against predetermined criteria;
  2. exhibiting selected work to demonstrate understanding or skill (as in a traditional fine art portfolio);
  3. recording commentary on issues or experiences over a period of time.

Any single submitted portfolio may, of course, serve more than one of these purposes.

Below are some examples of the portfolio submissions we’ve been working on so far:

  • Psychology students maintain a weekly reflective journal, considering both the topics of the module and their experiences of study and practice. For their submission, they combine this with two formal pieces of writing, exploring course topics in more depth (bringing together commentary and exhibition purposes);
  • Education students prepare a series of reflections on their experiences on placement in schools, with supporting evidence, to demonstrate values and abilities aligned to the nationally defined Teachers’ Standards (primarily for the purpose of providing evidence, but with an element of commentary);
  • Filmmaking students submit a completed short film, coupled with a log of the development of their ideas and technical decisions taken in producing it (combining exhibition and commentary purposes);
  • Global Studies students write weekly blog posts during their module. For their submission, they select and refine four of these (an exhibition purpose).

The types of content Mahara can incorporate into portfolio submissions include:

  • Text, either entered directly into Mahara, added as a document for download, or displayed embedded in portfolio page (if a pdf);
  • Images, either embedded in a portfolio page or added as a file for download;
  • Video, either embedded to play in a portfolio page or as a file for download;
  • Any other file type for download and viewing offline;
  • Journal entries (individual entries, groups of entries, or an entire journal) using Mahara’s inbuilt journal tool;
  • Posts from Mahara’s inbuilt group discussion forum tool;
  • Task lists (called Plans);
  • A range of personal information;
  • A CV, either created with Mahara’s inbuilt tool or else uploaded as a document;
  • External content via URL;
  • External content (e.g. blog posts) embedded through an RSS or ATOM feed;
  • External content (e.g. a YouTube video) embedded using the external site’s embed code;
  • Content from Google (e.g. from Google Drive, Google Books, Google Maps, etc.);
  • HTML code (which must be uploaded as an HTML file)

The future of Mahara at Sussex

Whilst the portfolio examples above are specifically linked to summative assessment, ePortfolios have a far broader application, including their ability to capture connections between the different areas of a student’s study and experience at university. We will be looking to explore these other areas as we move forward and as its use for assessment becomes embedded at the University.

For University of Sussex staff who would like to learn more about Mahara or discuss how they might use it with their students, we are running a number of workshops over this term. You can also contact us at tel@sussex.ac.uk to find out more.

All images by Antony Coombs, published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence

Posted in Marking and assessment, Study Direct
4 comments on “Portfolios, assessment and Mahara
  1. Thanks for sharing! We use mahara for assessment in language learning, you can see more here https://altc.alt.ac.uk/blog/2014/04/using-mahara-in-language-learning/#gref and there’s a set of openly shared tutorials here https://warwick.mediaspace.kaltura.com/search/searchkeyword/mahara

    • Antony Coombs says:

      thanks for the case study and tutorial links, Teresa, that was really interesting reading – we’re also exploring Mahara to support language courses, specifically our BSL modules, so your experiences give us an extremely valuable precedent.

  2. Louise Carr says:

    A really interesting post,thank you for adding this. We have been using Mahara for HE industrial experience units and Initial Teacher Training at Hadlow College in Kent for several years and would be happy to exchange ideas and developments. I am now exploring how they can be used to develop professional identity. The decision whether to template or not is the challenge and we have tried both with interesting initial results.

    • Antony Coombs says:

      thanks, Louise – we’d be very happy to share ideas. The professional identity purpose has already triggered quite a few conversations here, exposing both variability in value across disciplines, but also highlighting the knotty practical problems around portability of portfolios beyond university.

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