Sunday, 9 October 2011

Mahara 1.4 Cookbook Review

A short while ago I was asked to review the Mahara 1.4 Cookbook, written by Ellen Murphie. I was quite excited to see what suggestions she had to offer on the many differing ways to use Mahara.

The book is split into eight chapters covering different types of user and use-cases with each chapter being made of a number of recipes (well, it is a cookbook!). There are suggestions utilising many of the features of Mahara, plus in depth steps on how to carry out each recipe. Although the book does assume that you've got a little prior knowledge on how to use Mahara, there are some very basic recipes for those who have not.

The first chapter, Mahara for the Visual Arts, focuses primarily on visual arts and makes some great suggestions, such as combining the Collections feature with Audacity to create an audio-guided tour which I particularly liked.  I was especially pleased to see discussion of Creative Commons licensing -- a subject which more authors and artists should be aware of!  The second chapter, Literature and Writing, gives some good ideas for using Pages to present journals in a variety of different ways. I liked the combination of RSS feeds and Journals within a Page to present a newspaper page (A Daily Gazette) complete with topical and up-to-date external content such as YouTube.  I was also pleased to see that the book covered ePortfolio for professional use and not just for students with the inclusion of chapter three, The Professional Portfolio. I liked the way that a combination of Secret URLs were suggested as a way to give different potential employers access to a personalised Curriculum Vitae. The suggestion of uploading HTML, and Copying Pages were very useful to avoid duplicating effort and I'm glad that they were included.

Chapters four and five focused more on using Mahara as a teaching tool than for users wanting to create portfolios and I was surprised to see them in the middle of the book rather than at the end.  Chapter four, Working with Groups, gives ideas on different ways of using groups - primarily for collaboration, but also for assessment. It gives an introduction to the possible uses of groups, and details some of the basic operations (adding and removing members), and also goes on to detail some ideas on how to use groups to engage students more.  Primary education and teaching is a topic I'm not overly familiar with and I was surprised by the number of recipes in chapter five, The Primary Education Portfolio. I was intrigued by many of the ideas - I'd previously assumed that primary school aged students wouldn't typically work heavily with Mahara.  I liked the recipe on creating a reading list with book reports.

I felt that chapter six, The Social Portfolio, gave lots of good ideas to help users to organise their profile page and include all sorts of external content (e.g. Twitter, and external blogs) and it was good to see mention of the RSS export features of Mahara.

Chapters seven and eight were more focused on higher education and the recipes focused on using features of Mahara to exhibit work and information for college applications. Several of the recipes suggested similar ideas but used the techniques in different ways. I liked that the topic of archiving portfolio content was covered, though disappointed that LEAP2A was not actually discussed.

Overall, I found the book very interesting and it gave me some thoughts on how others might be using Mahara. I was a little disappointed that some of the tips at the end of the book weren't included earlier (notably the ability to upload a zip file and unzip it in Mahara, rather than uploading each file individually -- this wasn't touched upon until chapter 7), but I don't think that this detracts from the book as a whole as they were still covered.

I think that this book would be ideally suited to users wanting to be able to make their work stand out and be seen, but also to teachers and advisors looking for ideas to give their students. I shall definitely be recommending this book to others.