In my fourth and final installment of my "Power of Students Publishing Online" series, I take a look at a tool that is completely new to me,Mahara (found at http://mahara.org). I stumbled across this tool overTwitter, where I was able to ask an excellent educator from Nebraska,Brenda Smith, more about how she uses the product (by the way, if you're not connecting with educators yet over Twitter, what are you waiting for?).
That conversation led me to investigate further to see how well Mahara stacked up with other publishing platforms such as the ones I've detailed in this series- Kidblog, Weebly, and Wikis. What I've found is that Mahara offers some excellent features that the other services do not!
So, what is Mahara? It is an open source ePortfolio system. If you're new to the term "open source", this refers to software that is developed as a huge group project, with software developers pitching in through global collaboration! It is all completely open and free for anyone to use, create add-ons for, or make improvements upon (read more on open source here, from Wikipedia). This means that Mahara is constantly being upgraded by the users themselves and will continue to be free for as long as it exists- a definite bonus!
Mahara offers every user/student a portfolio space, a blog (or multiple blogs), access to groups/classes as set up by a teacher, access to forums, the ability to make friends with other users, upload files, create a resume, and more. As with all digital tools, the best advice I can give is for you to create an account and start playing with the interface. As you play and research, here are some pros and cons I discovered while doing the same:
**Special thanks to both Brenda Smith and Rob Griffith for their help in testing Mahara out!!**
- Lots of storage space per user. Each user has up to 1 GB of storage space, which is plenty for almost all uses. If your students are creating a lot of videos or large images, they might need to host them elsewhere (like Youtube, Vimeo, or Schooltube) and link to them on Mahara.
- Social Networking aspect. Users can interact with one another through friending on Mahara. This enhances the community atmosphere of the class.
- Forums, Blogs, and simple file uploads. This is the only tool I've seen that seamlessly allows all of these for free (especially the 1GB storage space).
- Ability for students to have several classes at once. As a teacher, you can create several classes or courses (or "groups" in Mahara). You can then invite the correct students into each class. This means that students can be set up in multiple classes with just one account. That is a big plus, management wise.
- Ability to export the portfolio when the course is over. This is a big plus for me. One of the biggest pains in the neck when tackling digital portfolios is the question of "What do we do once the class is over?" You don't want to delete all that wonderful work- you want students to be able to take it with them and use it as they need to. Mahara offers this functionality under "My Portfolio" and "Export."
- Requires students to have an email account to set up. This can be a major sticking point.
- Some of the embedding is glitchy. I was able to embed a Voicethread and a few other tools, but Glogster, Timetoast, and Animoto did not seem to work correctly for us.
- A bit more technical to manage. Of the four tools I've presented in the past four weeks, Mahara will take the most time to learn how to manage. It is not much more difficult, but there are more moving parts here when dealing with users, setting up permissions, forums, blogs, etc.
The bottom line is that if you have student email accounts and feel comfortable after playing around with Mahara, it may just be the best portfolio tool of them all so far! In fact, after playing around with it I may push for this to be our main vehicle for student portfolios in our county next year.
Have fun with it and let me know if I can help!