Mahara, WordPress or GoogleApps? What’s the best choice for a School ePortfolio?

My School is planning for the next course to perform an experiment based on the use of ePortfolios. In the Spanish Educational System exists in grade 7th a subject called ‘Proyecto interdisciplinar‘ literally translated into English as ‘Interdisciplinary Project’ and commonly known as PI. The School plan for this one-hour-a-week subject is to introduce students in the habit of reflecting about the skills, knowledge and experiences acquired through all subjects in grade 7th and following at the same time a PBL based methodology.

Only a few and short guidelines are given to teachers about how to teach this PI subject. It means that it’s up to them presenting a syllabus and a project to be carried out along the course. Students at grade 7th start the Secondary School and they will have to cope with much more subjects, more teachers, more exams and a stressing timetable. Moving up from the ‘sweet’ Primary to Secondary is not easy at all for them.

Normally, the staff which usually work with grade 7th are aware of the difficulties they will have to overcome, so it’s commonly accepted that PI shouldn’t be a hard (difficult) subject for grade 7th students. On the other hand, with just one hour a week is not enough to develop an extensive program. At the same time, there is another subject, mandatory for all the students in Secondary, called ‘Tutorías’, freely translated as ‘Counselling’, where a teacher (called Tutor) takes care about a group (usually 25) of students to help them to face the daily issues that usually appear in a Secondary School. Tutors (Counselors) are, as in many other countries, in charge of talking with Students and their Parents about anything related to students’s life. To perform counselling activities, tutors (counselors) have an hour a week scheduled, with the whole group in a classroom and another extra hour a week (also scheduled) to keep personal interviews with students.

Coming back to the goal of my post, I must say that the experiment (or experience) that my school is going to carry out next course consists on joining both subjects: Counselling and PI. The same teacher will be responsible for both subjects in each group (we have 4 groups of 25 students in grade 7th). The PI project will be to teach our students to create personal ePortfolios to register evidences of their improvements and achievements. The School also expects some side benefits as a consequence of the deployment of this plan: beyond the main goal which is the reflection on learnings and achievements of our students, we also expect in our grade 7th students a significant improvement in their IT and Writing competences.

Our background with ePortfolios started some years ago. A couple of teachers, me included, started to speak about how important is to collect evidences of our learning, achievements and progresses along the School life. We outlined some activities to initiate our students on the routine of collecting evidences from our subjects, creating digital artifacts and storing them in a digital ePortfolio. The selected ePortfolio for supporting this pioneer adventure was Mahara due to three main reasons:

  1. Mahara was/is an open-source application as it is Moodle, our School VLE.
  2. Mahara could/can be easily linked to our Moodle VLE so that students can take advantage of a feature called SSO (Single Signed-On) existent on both applications to log in once (we use Moodle as SSO provider) and move from one to another without having to log in again.
  3. Mahara and Elgg were at that moment the leaders in open-source ePortfolio platforms. Actually, it was a random choice choosing Mahara over Elgg.

Along the last three years we tested Mahara features, since version 1.3.x to the current one 1.7.2. We were able to see both its strengths and weaknesses along with the progresses made by its developers in each new releases.

With this landscape behind me, I’m facing a responsability in selecting the best application to build the ePortfolio system for our School. We’d like to have a robust, flexible and scalable application.  We even wondered if it was really necessary to have a common ePortfolio for the whole School or, going on as we did so far an allowing teachers and students to use whatever solution they liked. After an strong and honest debate to assess pros and cons of common and free-chosen platforms we decided to implant a common platform for the whole School. The replicable model would be something similar to our beloved and successful Moodle-VLE but, can Mahara meet the requeriments to become our trusted School ePortflolio?

Since the end  of the course in June, this question is flying around my head: What’s the best choice for a School ePortfolio?

I must admit that my School, unlike many others, has a wider range of choice among all different existing ePortfolio solutions because we can set up, install and administrate open source software by ourselves, without having to pay or rent external providers. In crisis time, with a lot of cutting down budgets, having the option to move to open source software and a do-it-yourself management is a priceless advantage for our School: Colegio Apóstol Santiago.

Mahara, WordPress or GoogleApps for Education?

Although I have a 4th application in my radar called Evernote which has all the features for becoming the best choice for an ePortfolio, I prefer to discard commercial solutions and focusing on three ‘free’ applications: Mahara, WordPress and GoogleApps for Education. Each of them with their strengths and weaknesses, are excellent candidates to become our ePortfolio platform. But what really worried me is to find a strong rationale to support the choice.

In the grid below, I’m going to post some concerns about some relevant features we need to address and comment on them based on my own experience. This is my first draft about it so I’d be glad to receive comments and suggestions from anyone reading this post to add, delete or modify some items or to extend the discussion.

Can we manage to host this solution at our School?I don’t have metrics yet about Mahara performance with a large number of users, but I think I will be able to manage it at school.Yes. The idea behind the use of WordPress as ePortfolio was inspired by Gaving Henrick (@ghenrick) and Juan Leyva (@jleyvadelgado) when they talked at MoodleMootSpain’12 about using WordPress Multiuser connected under IMS-LTI with Moodle. I’m using WordPress for my blog and I like it but I haven’t test yet with a WP Multiuser, LTI an Moodle. Anyway I ‘think’ I could get it work with our existent infrastructure at school.Applications from GoogleApps4Education are owned by Google infrastructure so we wouldn’t need to install or configure anything. We have our school mail domain integrated into Gmail but only for Staff, not for students. We’ll do what we already are doing now, it means, inviting students (throughout their parents) to open a gmail account to be used at school but under their own responsability. Easy to manage for School -;)

Some concerns Mahara WordPress (WP) GoogleApps for Education
What about usability and the learning curve to master the application? Mahara is a bit complex and it needs to be taught to become proficient. Creating a web page seems to be easy at first sight but it’s not at all. There are some features that I don’t like related to the edition of pages. I miss a way of creating simple pages without using the preconfigured textbox block and I’d like to embed images from my files area inside texbox blocks just to mention a few flaws in usability. It also lacks a formula editor so it can be disappointing for STEM students and teachers. WordPress is very easy to use. The WYSIWYG HTML editor provide a friendly area for typing text and adding easily multimedia resources. A smooth learning curve should be expected for getting users feel comfortable on working with WP GoogleApps is already quite familiar to many users thanks to their Android devices. Whatever our choice for an ePortfolio was, we will go on using GoogleApps with our students. I wouldn’t expect problems to become fluent in using GoogleApps so usability and learning curve to master this application shouldn’t be a problem.
Some concerns Mahara WordPress (WP) GoogleApps for Education
Can we expect that they keep the current free status for the next years? Yes. Although Mahara doesn’t have behind a community support as large as Moodle, it’s expected they will keep the current open-source status Yes. WordPress is a powerful open-source blog software with a large amount of followers and contributors. GoogleApps is an amazing set of tools but I wouldn’t dare to say if they will keep the current status (free for schools) for the coming years.
Some concerns Mahara WordPress (WP) GoogleApps for Education
Will it be easy to export/import contents when our students left the School? Mahara offers LEAP and  HTML exporting features as a way of keep-your-contents with you when you leave the institution. Although I haven’t tested enough both export formats, I suspect that they are not as useful as they claim to be for exporting/importing contents across web applications. If anyone reading this post has already done it, please let me know. WordPress stored contents in a database so I guess it will be easy to get a script or even a wordpress third-part add-on to download a copy of contents so that it can be restored successfully in another WP or in another blog application. Recently, I was able to successfully import posts from an account in blogger to another in WP. That’s why I guess the same should happen from WordPress to other blogs.. GoogleSites is widely use in many educational institutions around the world. GoogleSites provides a WYSIWYG editor to create web pages and a strong strong integration with all the extraordinary applications of GoogleApps4Ed (Youtube, Drive, Docs, Presentations, Calendar,..). Not sure about how easy would it be for exporting/importing contents from GoogleSites to other applications. On the other hand, as the students are owners of their own contents (our school doesn’t provided a School google account to our students) we assume that they wouldn’t need to worry about this issue when leaving the School.
Some concerns Mahara WordPress (WP) GoogleApps for Education
Can the application work as a repository for Moodle? No. Mahara can’t be set up as repository for Moodle. No. WordPress, as far as I known, hasn’t been designed to work as a repository. Yes. Google Drive can be added as a repository for Moodle since the arrival of Moodle version 2. Anyway we must be aware of that this status could be changed unilaterally by Google at any moment.
Some concerns Mahara WordPress (WP) GoogleApps for Education
Can our students embed contents from external repositories and popular webtools from other sites? Yes. Improvements in recent releases of Mahara brought us a better integration of a wider variety of popular webtools as for example GMaps, GDocs, Youtube, Vimeo, .. Mahara admins can set up a list of sites from where it will be possible to embed IFRAME HTML tags. This is really a cool and valuable feature for administrators because they can restrict sources of external contents that can be displayed on the School ePortfolio. Yes. WordPress has also a WYSIWYG editor to write your posts and a tab to toggle to a HTML editor when it was needed. I assume that you can embed whatever you want in your posts using IFRAME HTML tags. On the other hand WP doesn’t allow administrators to control what IFRAME tags can be displayed in posts, so losing the control over this feature can become an open door to inappropriate external content and a source of problems. There’s no way for School staff could control contents that ours students create through GoogleApps4Ed because they own their own accounts. I heard that GoogleApps for Education have some tools to protect privacy and forbid access to inappropriate external content, but these tools are for those Schools admins who provide their students with a Google account under the domain of the School (that’s not our case).
Some concerns Mahara WordPress (WP) GoogleApps for Education
Are they ready-to-go on mobile devices? Mahara has a Android App (Maharadroid) which allows users to upload files easily from their mobile (currently only android) devices. It’s a promising and new cool feature. An step ahead in the way of integration with mobile devices but nothing that we could still compare with WordPress or GoogleApps4Ed. WordPress has both an Android and IOS App from where users can easily manage (post, edit, upload pictures, comment,..) their own accounts. WordPress integration with mobile devices is far better than the one of Mahara. Fairly enough to allow users to perform the usual tasks that a blogger needs.. GoogleApps4Ed has also a strong integration with mobile devices and we can also expect the best on this field because most Google Applications are mainly headed to mobile devices.
Some concerns Mahara WordPress (WP) GoogleApps for Education
How well will do they link to our Moodle VLE? Integration with Moodle is a key request that we need to take seriously into consideration. Some of the activities that students will have to do in a ePortfolio will be assessed or guided by teachers as learning activities and they will be launched from and /or submitted at the end to Moodle. There are big efforts to create a strong link between both platforms. Both are open-source, both complement each other and both are supported by an increasing community of users. At the moment only two features are evidences of this approach:  SSO (Single Signed On) among them and a feature to export entries from some Moodle activities to Mahara. It also exists a pluging for submitting a page created on Mahara to a Moodle assignment activity to be assesed, but unfortunately it’s not ready for Moodle 2.5 yet . SSO is a interesting feature that we need to take into serious consideration as well when working with young students. A single point of logging saves a lot of time when we are in a computer classrooms and it also avoids common students’s mistakes as typing and/or missing their usernames/keywords. WP Multiuser seems (I never tested it!) to allow a kind of SSO from Moodle through LTI. Exporting contents from Moodle to feed WP blog posts is not possible currently and, there is no plans for using WP as an external repository for Moodle Since version 2 Moodle allows admins to set up external repositories where students and teachers can share files stored for example in GoogleDrive and export Moodle entries to their accounts in GoogleDrive quite easily. In addition, most of GoogleApps allow embedding throughout IFRAME HTML tags to other sites. So, no problems are expected from the GA4Ed side regarding to this issue. On the other hand students will have to deal with having a different username and password for Moodle and GA4Ed. Regarding this issue we would need to explore other Authentication plugins if we finally decided to use GA4Ed as our School ePortfolio.
Some concerns Mahara WordPress (WP) GoogleApps for Education
Can School staff control the privacy of our student’s contents? Yes. It’s up to Mahara admins to decide if students’s contents will be public to internet users or just for the School Community with an account in Mahara. A properly set up of groups and institutions from the Mahara menu for admins can assure a safe control of privacy according to the School rules. I’m not sure if WordPress could be configured as a kind of intranet to share content only among School members, as Mahara does. Actually I wonder if it has sense to use WP as a intranet application. So unless someone told me that I’m wrong, I suspect that we couldn’t control privacy with WP multi-user. If our students used Google Apps as their e Portfolio platform their (or their parents) would be fully responsible for what they have and what they share publicly.
Some concerns Mahara WordPress (WP) GoogleApps for Education
Can School staff easily supervise student’s contents? Yes. Although Mahara allow users to control who can access (view) to their resources keeping pages as private or sharing with others, Mahara admins also have  a ‘login as..’ option to become another user and check if students are using Mahara as it’s expected. Besides, footers of Mahara pages always display a link to ‘Report objectionable material’ so anyone clicking on it could complain about inappropriate uses Yes. WordPress admins could always see what it’s stored in the WP database. But the question is: Would it be easy to supervise student’s contents? I don’t think so. Only admins could do it and I’m afraid that they would have to deal with SQL statement to query the database and grab the evidences for supervision. I mean, I don’t think that WP Multiuser had a ‘login as..’ feature for admins so I would prefer (as a Mahara admin) not to load this responsibility over my shoulders. No. GoogleApps for Education doesn’t allow others different from owners to see user’s contents. In other words: Staff could never supervised students’s contents if they explicitly didn’t allow us.

Probably , I will go ahead with Mahara because although it doesn’t meet all our expectations I think they will go on polishing their flaws and make it better and better at each new release. Nevertheless we will be keeping an eye on WP, GA4Ed, Evernote and any other application which evolve to provide a better solution.

I hope that this out loud reflection posted in my poor written English could help anyone out there. I’d like to receive comments and suggestions so, feel yourself invited to participate 😉

Happy summer 2013 from Northern Hemisphere!

5 comentarios

  1. Sorry- I don’t speak Spanish! But many thanks (mucho gracias?) for this posting, which was extremely timely- my department is going through much the same process and a colleague found your thoughts. Again- thank you!

  2. I have been using WordPress with University students to create their eportfolios for quite a few years now. We have Mahara available at my uni (Australian Catholic University), but I have hesitated going there mainly because I want my students to have the option to have their eportfolios publicaly visible to friends, family etc…. I like all the reasons you give above about the simplicity of use of WordPress…. I am going to stick with it.
    Best wishes

    • Hi Michael,

      Thank you for commenting my post. I fully agree with using WordPress with University Students to create ePortfolios. They are adults so University teachers don’t need to care/protect their digital artefacts. I’d like to know if you provide your students with an Institutional WordPress or let them to choose a free WP provider.

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  4. Hi Toni!
    I have just read your enlightening post, food for thought. I was wondering, since it has been a while since then, do you have any updates about your experience/exploration of Mahara? Are you still using it? Have you found any new pros/cons? Have you changed your mind and are currently using any other app?
    Gracias por compartir! 🙂

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