Learning Technology

Using the Mahara e-portfolio – what our students say

August 22nd, 2013 at 07:08

As those who use e-portfolios know, it can be difficult to assess the true extent of its use amongst students. E-portfolios are by their nature learner-centred, with a private ‘workspace’ area (journals, files, action plans, career development planning, etc.) and a sharing function enabling users to create a webpage where they have control over how they share their information, what they share, with whom and for how long.

They may be producing wonderful and beautiful e-portfolios helping them to present themselves and organise their work, but we don’t always get to see them and find out what benefits they might be gaining outside of its use on their course.

Student demo e-portfolio page from the School of Biosciences

At Nottingham, we are using the open source Mahara system in a number of academic Schools and learning contexts with 1500+ registered users.

While students will be using their e-portfolio as instructed by their course tutor and sharing the materials they are required to do so, they may also be using it for other purposes.

We wanted to find out more about what our students are doing in Mahara, what they would like to do and what challenges they faced so we ran a survey from January to May 2013. We had 116 responses, 89% students and 11% staff.  Below is an overview of the survey results.*

What are students using Mahara for?

Mahara is being used currently by around 11 academic Schools. Their purposes for using the system differ (assessment, feedback, placement, tutorial support, collaboration, employability) and the results below the variety of purposes that are currently being supported with ‘student portfolio/cv’, ‘placement’ and ‘assessment’ in the top 3.

What features of Mahara have students been asked to use on their course?

Many of the students are uploading files. Often, in using the e-portfolio for the first time with students, keeping the learning tasks familiar is a way to ease in new practice. Once students and staff become more comfortable with using the system and see other functions which support teaching activity such as learning journals or action planning, then these extra functions will be introduced.

We asked respondents ‘are you using any features of Mahara that aren’t directly related to your course?’

Some students were using Mahara in addition for

  • personal use for sharing information with peers
  • developing and updating CV and cover letter
  • connect with my classmates
  • personal statements
  • communicate with tutor and other students
  • searching information about placements

We asked ‘what benefits can you see in using a tool like Mahara in relation to its current use on your course?’

Feedback, connection with tutors/supervisors and placement support were key themes emerging from the responses. Students reported that Mahara could help with the following:

  • share assessments and feedback between supervisors
  • exchange work and ideas
  • save time
  • make contact with tutors and students
  • directly submit work to our tutors and receive feedback
  • see work/documents which have been uploaded by tutors/other members of staff
  • create a page for external examiners
  • practise our planning, reflecting and evaluating skills (essential in a professional course)
  • help to be more focussed in my aims by allowing me to have my CV and other information about my placement together
  • keeps me informed about tips for interviews and job applications from received feedback
  • works like a notebook. Most coursework I have done has been uploaded on Mahara
  • quick response (from tutors)
  • document lab work and store it online so it’s accessible to supervisors
  • action plans give long term focus to your work and training
  • self-regulate my learning, reflect on my practice, set goals and develop important skills
  • upload my work and have feedback from my tutor or my peers
  • a social environment for students and student-tutor interaction, which is very important to enhance the learning experience

We asked ‘what benefits can you see in using a tool like Mahara: in contexts not related to your course?’

For non-course-related purposes, students saw the e-portfolio as being able to support jobs and careers.

The main themes reported were:

  • communicate with other students on course/other courses
  • internal social media tool
  • CVs
  • discussion of any topic
  • group reflection
  • improve chances of placement
  • improving planning and self-evaluating skills
  • see experience from last year’s students
  • discussion and groups outside field of study
  • journal to keep track of tasks to reflect on when applying for jobs
  • show potential employers organisational skills
  • career planning

Below are some student comments (paraphrased for anonymity)

  • “I enhanced my CV by looking at different sample CVs.”
  • “I send personal messages on Mahara like any other social networking site”
  • “I am aware of so many companies now related to my course”
  •  “I can contact people from different backgrounds to polish my language and technical skills”
  • “All my teachers can see my paper and can give me feedback, it’s very easy to contact them by Mahara”
  • “It helps me to develop metacognitive and reflective thinking as I can go back and forward and see my previous work”
  • “I can speak with my classmates through messages.”
  • “Mahara could work well for any prolonged piece of assessment, that requires students to contribute material weekly/monthly”
  • “Helps me to develop a CV outside of the typical academic CV”
  • “Excellent for engaging with external organisations – I could see this adding great value in terms of debate”

We asked ‘how might Mahara be useful for other parts of your course?’

Respondents had ideas about how Mahara might help them with other areas of their course, these were:

  • to practice writing
  • connect with group members and learn from each other
  • a forum to be on Mahara so students can discuss modules or general scientific subjects
  • promotion of collaborative learning
  • contact other students to show what we are doing on placement
  • group work
  • encouraging more use of journals for reflective practice generally
  • online cloud for data storage across networks
  • help me to find out about UK companies
  • discussion forums (staff-student or student-student)
  • repository of learning portfolios
  • save my files, papers, textbooks, journals

Also, students reported that Mahara could be used as a platform to share and discuss ideas, help them to plan, communicate with tutors, help learn about placements and the sector and developing communication skills for interviews.


Like any eLearning platform there will be enthusiasts who will push the boundaries and experiment with the tools, those who will do what they need to do as required without any particular strong feeling about it and those who are reluctant to use eLearning tools, or to use a system as proscribed in a certain way. Most of our respondents (59%) were in the ‘neither enthusiastic nor reluctant’ camp, with the rest equally either side.

We also took the opportunity to ask about particular challenges or issues which can be summarised as: interface and navigation; staff and student engagement; generic training and support; too many systems; understanding the purpose and how it relates to Moodle.  We are working on addressing some of these and have also fed relevant feedback to the Mahara development community (who are always interested in how they can improve the system for its users).

To conclude

This survey was discussed at the June ePortfolio Pioneers Community of Practice Seminar. A further post will follow summarising some of current e-portfolio practice from a teaching and learning viewpoint and tips on how to support engagement with the technology.

See also “e-portfolio pioneers – Community of Practice Reports” – series of posts by Kirstie Coolin and “Supporting face-to-face collaborative learning using a Mahara group blog” – post by Dr. Gordon Joyes

Kirstie Coolin

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