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October 13, 2010

What current trends tell us about the future of federated access management in education

As mentioned previously, I spoke at the FAM10 conference in Cardiff last week, standing in for another speaker who couldn't make it and using material crowdsourced from my previous post, Key trends in education - a crowdsource request, to inform some of what I was talking about. The slides and video from my talk follow:

As it turns out, describing the key trends is much easier than thinking about their impact on federated access management - I suppose I should have spotted this in advance - so the tail end of the talk gets rather weak and wishy-washy. And you may disagree with my interpretation of the key trends anyway. But in case it is useful, here's a summary of what I talked about. Thanks to those of you who contributed comments on my previous post.

By way of preface, it seems to me that the core working assumptions of the UK Federation have been with us for a long time - like, at least 10 years or so - essentially going back to the days of the centrally-funded Athens service. Yet over those 10 years the Internet has changed in almost every respect. Ignoring the question of whether those working assumptions still make sense today, I think it certainly makes sense to ask ourselves about what is coming down the line and whether our assumptions are likely to still make sense over the next 5 years or so. Furthermore, I would argue that federated access management as we see it today in education, i.e. as manifested thru our use of SAML, shows a rather uncomfortable fit with the wider (social) web that we see growing up around us.

And so... to the trends...

The most obvious trend is the current financial climate, which won't be with us for ever of course, but which is likely to cause various changes while it lasts and where the consequences of those changes, university funding for example, may well be with us much longer than the current crisis. In terms of access management, one impact of the current belt-tightening is that making a proper 'business case' for various kinds of activities, both within institutions and nationally, will likely become much more important. In my talk, I noted that submissions to the UCISA Award for Excellence (which we sponsor) often carry no information about staff costs, despite an explicit request in the instructions to entrants to indicate both costs and benefits. My point is not that institutions are necessarily making the wrong decisions currently but that the basis for those decisions, in terms of cost/benefit analysis, will probably have to become somewhat more rigorous than has been the case to date. Ditto for the provision of national solutions like the UK Federation.

More generally, one might argue that growing financial pressure will encourage HE institutions into behaving more and more like 'enterprises'. My personal view is that this will be pretty strongly resisted, by academics at least, but it may have some impact on how institutions think about themselves.

Secondly, there is the related trend towards outsourcing and shared services, with the outsourcing of email and other apps to Google being the most obvious example. Currently that is happening most commonly with student email but I see no reason why it won't spread to staff email as well in due course. At the point that an institution has outsourced all its email to Google, can one assume that it has also outsourced at least part of its 'identity' infrastructure as well? So, for example, at the moment we typically see SAML call-backs being used to integrate Google mail back into institutional 'identity' and 'access management' systems (you sign into Google using your institutional account) but one could imagine this flipping around such that access to internal systems is controlled via Google - a 'log in with Google' button on the VLE for example. Eric Sachs, of Google, has recently written about OpenID in the Enterprise SaaS market, endorsing this view of Google as an outsourced identity provider.

Thirdly, there is the whole issue of student expectations. I didn't want to talk to this in detail but it seems obvious that an increasingly 'open' mashed and mashable experience is now the norm for all of us - and that will apply as much to the educational content we use and make available as it does to everything else. Further, the mashable experience is at least as much about being able to carry our identities relatively seamlessly across services as it is about the content. Again, it seems unclear to me that SAML fits well into this kind of world.

There are two other areas where our expectations and reality show something of a mis-match. Firstly, our tightly controlled, somewhat rigid approach to access management and security are at odds with the rather fuzzy (or at least fuzzilly interpretted) licences negotiated by Eduserv and JISC Collections for the external content to which we have access. And secondly, our over-arching sense of the need for user privacy (the need to prevent publishers from cross-referencing accesses to different resources by the same user for example) are holding back the development of personalised services and run somewhat counter to the kinds of things we see happening in mainstream services.

Fourthly, there's the whole growth of mobile - the use of smart-phones, mobile handsets, iPhones, iPads and the rest of it - and the extent to which our access management infrastructure works (or not) in that kind of 'app'-based environment.

Then there is the 'open' agenda, which carries various aspects to it - open source, open access, open science, and open educational resources. It seems to me that the open access movement cuts right to the heart of the primary use-case for federated access management, i.e. controlling access to published scholarly literature. But, less directly, the open science movement, in part, pushes researchers towards the use of more open 'social' web services for their scholarly communication where SAML is not typically the primary mechanism used to control access.

Similarly, the emerging personal learning environment (PLE) meme (a favorite of educational conferences currently), where lecturers and students work around their institutional VLE by choosing to use a mix of external social web services (Flickr, Blogger, Twitter, etc.) again encourages the use of external services that are not impacted by our choices around the identity and access management infrastructure and over which we have little or no control. I was somewhat sceptical about the reality of the PLE idea until recently. My son started at the City of Bath College - his letter of introduction suggested that he created himself a Google Docs account so that he could do his work there and submit it using email or Facebook. I doubt this is college policy but it was a genuine example of the PLE in practice so perhaps my scepticism is misplaced.

We also have the changing nature of the relationship between students and institutions - an increasingly mobile and transitory student body, growing disaggregation between the delivery of learning and accreditation, a push towards overseas students (largely for financial reasons), and increasing collaboration between institutions (both for teaching and research) - all of which have an impact on how students see their relationship with the institution (or institutions) with whom they have to deal. Will the notion of a mandated 3 or 4 year institutional email account still make sense for all (or even most) students in 5 or 10 years time?

In a similar way, there's the changing customer base for publishers of academic content to deal with. At the Eduserv Symposium last year, for example, David Smith of CABI described how they now find that having exposed much of their content for discovery via Google they have to deal with accesses from individuals who are not affiliated with any institution but who are willing to pay for access to specific papers. Their access management infrastructure has to cope with a growing range of access methods that sit outside the 'educational' space. What impact does this have on their incentives for conforming to education-only norms?

And finally there's the issue of usability, and particularly the 'where are you from' discovery problem. Our traditional approach to this kind of problem is to build a portal and try and control how the user gets to stuff, such that we can generate 'special' URLs that get them to their chosen content in such a way that they can be directed back to us seemlessly in order to login. I hate portals, at least insofar as they have become an architectural solution, so the less said the better. As I said in my talk, WAYFless URLs are an abomination in architectural terms, saved only by the fact that they work currently. In my presentation I played up the alternative usability work that the Kantara ULX group have been doing in this area, which it seems to me is significantly better than what has gone before. But I learned at the conference that Shibboleth and the UK WAYF service have both also been doing work in this area - so that is good. My worry though is that this will remain an unsolvable problem, given the architecture we are presented with. (I hope I'm wrong but that is my worry). As a counterpoint, in the more... err... mainstream world we are seeing a move towards what I call the 'First Bus' solution (on the basis that in many UK cities you only see buses run by the First Group (despite the fact that bus companies are supposed to operate in a free market)) where you only see buttons to log in using Google, Facebook and one or two others.

I'm not suggesting that this is the right solution - just noting that it is one strategy for dealing with an otherwise difficult usability problem.

Note that we are also seeing some consolidation around technology as well - notably OpenID and OAuth - though often in ways that hides it from public view (e.g. hidden behind a 'login with google' or 'login with facebook' button).

Which essentially brings me to my concluding screen - you know, the one where I talk about all the implications of the trends above - which is where I have less to say than I should! Here's the text more-or-less copy-and-pasted from my final slide:

  • ‘education’ is a relatively small fish in a big pond (and therefore can't expect to drive the agenda)
  • mainstream approaches will win (in the end) - ignoring the difficult question of defining what is mainstream
  • for the Eduserv OpenAthens product, Google is as big a threat as Shibboleth (and the same is true for Shibboleth)
  • the current financial climate will have an effect somewhere
  • HE institutions are probably becoming more enterprise-like but they are still not totally like commercial organisations and they tend to occupy an uncomfortable space between the ‘enterprise’ and the ‘social web’ driven by different business needs (c.f. the finance system vs PLEs and open science)
  • the relationships between students (and staff) and institutions are changing

In his opening talk at FAM10 the day before, David Harrison had urged the audience to become leaders in the area of federated access management. In a sense I want the same. But I also want us, as a community, to become followers - to accept that things happen outside our control and to stop fighting against them the whole time.

Unfortunately, that's a harder rallying call to make!

Your comments on any/all of the above are very much welcomed.

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