Social Identity Credentials Spark Conversations in Higher Ed

A handful of universities are piloting technology this fall that could help them better manage "arms-length" relationships.

by / October 22, 2013 0

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Logging into campus services with Google or Facebook shows promise in some cases, but still has a ways to go before universities will adopt it on a larger scale.

While a Social Working Group of Internet2 members has been tackling this issue since 2011, universities are just starting to use this technology in a handful of pilots.

Brown University in Rhode Island uses social identity for groups of people who have an "arms-length" relationship with the institution. These groups include pre-college students, professionals, artists, adult learners, instructors, faculty and non-Brown undergraduate students.

Instead of having to manage temporary institutional identities for these individuals, Brown University allows them to authenticate their identity with their Google email address and password. This allows them to access campus services through a third party. While Brown could use any number of social networking sites, it chose Google because it is a Google Apps for Education campus.

This access to Brown University resources helps instructors and physicians who attend summer training sessions, said Catherine Zabriskie, a director of academic technology who spoke during a session at EDUCAUSE on Oct. 17. Both of these groups form online communities so they can learn with each other before, during and after their training. In the case of the physicians, the communities allow them to encourage each other as they create research grants and continue their research.

Before social identity authentication came along, many physicians would leave professional development with ideas, but not follow through on what they had learned during the summer.

"We historically have not been able to meet those needs," Zabriskie said, "and oftentimes our faculty will use tools that are not provided by the university."

The institution is currently using a gateway service for social identity from start-up Cirrus Identity, which plans to pilot its technology with five other universities in November and launch the service in early 2014. The gateway service translates OAuth — an authentication protocol that social identities use — into SAML, which universities use.

Audience member and CIO Laurent Flory was surprised to hear that the session included commercial content, and he expected to see a solution like this come out of a university.

At the Université de Lyon in France, he is trying to address the issue of managing temporary user accounts for incoming Ph.D. students. A technology like this could allow him to use outsourced accounts instead of creating local accounts, said Flory, who is also a board member of the CSIESR, an association of French higher education IT professionals.

Previously, he had not heard of other companies making this kind of technology, and now he will be thinking about whether his IT staff could create a solution for Université de Lyon.

"If they did it, we can do it," Flory said. "It's just, 'Will it be worth it to code the connectors or would it be much more interesting to buy the solutions?'"

A lot of applications that are coming to campus today already have social identity functionality built in, and that poses an interesting challenge for Stephanie Cox, principal systems engineer for virtualization at Indiana University.

She virtualizes applications and can imagine that if she releases an application with this functionality in it, students will get the upper hand. She wanted to hear more about the technology — including policies that would address it on campus — so that she could be prepared to handle it.

"We don't even know really at this point what's a safe test or trial," Cox said. "It's just how do you test the waters even. I want some more information like that."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.