Open Source | Spotlight

Lehigh U Pilots Open Source E-Portfolio

If you haven't heard of Mahara, the open-source e-portfolio system, you're missing out on a free, Moodle-integrated tool that promotes student success and engagement and fosters a collaborative teaching and learning experience with flexibility and creativity.

At least that's how they see it at Lehigh University, a top-tier residential research school in Bethlehem, PA. Lehigh recently implemented Mahara in a pilot program, and three of the school's senior instructional technologists led a breakout session on that program at the annual Campus Technology 2011 conference in Boston in late July.

The session, entitled "E-Portfolios: Integrating People, Life, and Learning," looked at the implementation, evaluation, and early findings of the pilot. The session was led by Carly Klimash, Ilena Key, and Jason Slipp.

"We found that we had a real gap on our campus," said Key. "We had Moodle for what the students considered to be very academic types of things. They go in, get their assignments, submit assignments--there is communication and collaboration that happens in there, but we had a whole host of other stuff that was happening [that wasn't supported]."

The school wanted to find a system that provided a single "place" where student and faculty artifacts could be stored and shared by many different types of groups--in other words, an e-portfolio.

After looking at range of off-the-shelf products, Slipp explained, the school implemented the University of Denver Portfolio Community (DUPC) in a pilot program. The DUPC is a Web-based app with a searchable database of electronic portfolios for students, faculty, staff, and alumni. It includes features for community discussion, academic program assessment based on student work, and an assessment rubric library.

"We liked it because it was more or less free, though we had to host it on our site," said Slipp. "But at the time it lacked some social features, exportability, integration with our LMS, and other things we hoped to get working in our environment. In fact, we sort of learned what we really wanted through this [implementation]."

Mahara seemed a better fit at Lehigh. Created in New Zealand in 2006 through collaboration among Massey University, Auckland University of Technology, the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, and Victoria University of Wellington, Mahara is a popular open-source e-portfolio with core social networking capabilities. It's billed as a "user-centric, open-source e-portfolio and social networking system." The Marhara e-portfolio bundle includes a blogging tool with a WYSIWYG editor and support for embedded images. It also comes with a feature for creating and maintaining a list of friends among other e-portfolio users.

Mahara was designed from the beginning to be integrated with an LMS, which was just what Lehigh was looking for. In fact, according to the Mahara's maintainers, its architecture was inspired by the modular and extensible architecture of the Moodle LMS. It also supports single-sign-on, another key feature on Lehigh's list.

"We have found that tools like Mahara are helping us to support students arriving on campus with a lot more experience with multimedia," said Klimash. "We're also starting to see cross disciplinary programs that span colleges. A good example at Lehigh is our engineering students. A lot of them are taking business courses to diversify their learning so that when they have a more marketable set of skills when they go into the job market. The ability to be able to store those things and be able to display them later to an employer is very important in an e-portfolio."

Mahara's plug-in architecture was another selling point. Because it was designed as a Web application composed of plug-in components, it's possible to scale it up by separating hardware for search, database, file storage, and Web servers.

"Students need to do whatever they can to promote themselves and show potential employers what their capabilities are," said Klimash. "One of the great things about Mahara is that [it allows] you to create separate views that you can customize for a specific company or market of interest that you can share with those potential future employers...." 

Lehigh is currently running Mahara for about 2,000 users on a virtual server and plans to move to a physical system when space becomes an issue, Klimash said.

"Another great thing about Mahara for us," said Key, "is that we don't have seven people dedicated to keeping this going. This was able to be a kind of side project for us."

Mahara is licensed under the GNU General Public License, which means that schools can copy, use and modify it as long as they provide the source code freely to others in the community, not modify or remove the original license and copyrights, and apply the same license to any derivative works.

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