Screen shot of Mahara portfolio

Using Mahara to Supervise Thesis students


At Cranfield Defence and Security, one of four schools of Cranfield University, there is a process for supervisors and students to follow regarding Thesis writing and submission. However, there is no defined system to support the management of communications and sharing of data, so therefore many supervisors design their own online process for their students to follow. One such process, initiated by Lecturer Laura Lacey, involves the use of a templated page created in the Mahara ePortfolio platform. This page is private between the supervisor and the student and acts like a dashboard. It is used solely for thesis progress and not for formal University communication and can also be adapted for a group project, although that is not explained in this case study.


  • One of the main advantages of the Thesis page is its ability to facilitate a number of activities required by the supervisor and the student without both parties having to be co-located. The notifications generated by Mahara remove the onerous task of having to look for edits, which is especially useful if a supervisor manages more than one student.
  • Another key advantage is, if the supervisor is off on long-term sick or leave, a full record of all correspondence remains and the student just needs to add an additional supervisor to the page to continue their work.
  • Finally, for students who are studying on a Tier 4 visa, this record provides evidence of all interactions with the supervisor and when they took place.

The set-up

The set-up process is very straightforward; a Mahara Administrator sets-up a controlled group adding the supervisor to it, and the supervisor updates his/her user settings so he/she is notified by email whenever a Watchlist page gets updated. The supervisor then takes the time to create the template for the students to copy, ensuring that the purpose of it is clear, and that the content and tools contained within it are able to achieve the expected functions.

Next the supervisor adds the student to his/her Mahara group, thus granting access to the template. The student then copies the template to his/her pages and updates it with his/her full name. Once ready, the student adds the supervisor to the access list for that page. The final step in the set-up is for the student to notify the supervisor that the page is ready and for the supervisor to add it to his/her Watchlist.

Everything is now set up and ready to go (see Figure 1).

Screen shot of Mahara portfolio

Figure 1:  An example of the completed Thesis page

Benefits for the supervisor

  1. Previous supervision of a student’s thesis meant numerous email exchanges, with or without an attached document.  The process of trying to find a specific conversation or thesis feedback meant searching through emails and probably folders.  An advantage of using Mahara is that all this information is in one place for both parties; a complete history of the meetings, progress and expectations presented in one page.
  2. It is also advantageous if students upload the original thesis proposal, providing the timeline against which the thesis should be conducted.  Therefore, when conducting the monthly or weekly meetings, depending on whether the student is full- or part-time, a quick check of the actions outstanding is available and the history of the action can be undertaken to enable progression of the thesis to be monitored.
  3. When having a face-to-face thesis meeting, only one of the attendees needs access to Mahara for both parties to be able to see the information, but both can view it if the meeting was being conducted online.
  4. Using Mahara to monitor a student’s progression and provide feedback means that access to the University file storage area is not needed, which is especially advantageous if the supervisor is working off site. Students can use their Mahara page as an electronic back-up for their thesis document, highlighting whether it is for the supervisor’s eyes or a draft they are still working on. Some students have welcomed this additional storage facility.
  5. Having a separate Mahara page for each student enables the supervisor to quickly monitor when and where changes have been made.  It also highlights very quickly if a student is not engaging with the thesis.

Benefits for the student

  1. Students have commented on how easy the process of setting up the page is, although there have been a few initial problems, e.g. if the student does not add his/her full name to the page title.
  2. The email notifications highlighting when the supervisor has provided updates, either to the comments or by adding documents, means students do not have to keep looking for feedback.
  3. Using Mahara as a backup for the thesis document provides peace of mind; even if a student accidentally deletes the latest version he/she is working on, a backup with feedback will be available on Mahara.


With time and effort, Mahara can be used to create a system with which to manage a series of conversations and assist with the sharing of information, all instigated by ‘push’ notifications into email inboxes. The framework for this process is now in place should any other supervisor wish to utilise Mahara in this way.  The designing of the Thesis page itself can be done in collaboration with a Mahara Administrator who can showcase any features that will meet the supervisor’s needs. The availability of all correspondence and documents in one place for both parties ensures a much smoother process and saves time and effort. The student is provided peace of mind and the supervisor can easily see when updates are made and how much progress has been achieved. Some effort at the start when creating the page provides a simple system that can be used by all the students the supervisor is managing.

Sam Taylor, former Learning Technologist at Cranfield University, now eLearning Specialist at Catalyst IT EU @samwisefox, and Laura Lacey, Lecturer in Defence Systems Engineering at Cranfield University

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