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iTunes of the digital educational market

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During meetings I often joke when introducing myself, “And now you know what I do...” which is not really the case. My name is Martin Dias d’Ullois and I am an Advisory Board Member at IDnext. I also work for Kennisnet as an Authentication and Authorisation Product Manager.

Kennisnet is a Dutch public (semi-governmental) organisation that promotes the use of innovation in IT in primary and secondary education and in vocational training. It provides educational content and information to teachers, pupils and parents. Kennisnet also stimulates the use of IT in educational processes by providing technical and practical support for the creation of innovative educational aids.

As my professional title suggests, I work in access management. In my day-to-day work as a product manager, I am responsible for the Kennisnet Federation, an identity federation that addresses the needs of schools and educational service providers in the Netherlands. The federation is enabled through the use of open industry standards (SAML) and openly published specifications, and it allows multiple parties - in our case schools and service providers – to achieve interoperability for common use cases. Typical use cases involve cross-domain, web-based single sign-on and cross-domain user attribute exchange for student and teacher identities.

The Kennisnet Federation has grown extensively over the last two to three years, both in terms of plain usage as well as in the total number of connected services and schools. In my opinion, this growth is the result of three trends. These are:

1) the increased use of digital learning tools in the school domain;
2) the frequency with which users use digital content for their schoolwork; and
3) the increasing standardisation of the various links in the digital educational chain.

Looking at the situation from a holistic point of view, things seem to be going in the right direction. That being said, much work still needs to be done. For example, one of the most important features that the educational domain needs is the implementation of a well-functioning single sign-on, and this has not yet been achieved. The Kennisnet Federation is one of various solutions that offers single sign-on.

The marketplace itself offers various solutions to the various educational sectors (elementary school, secondary school and vocational institutes). However, none of the solutions offers seamless SSO (Single Sign-on) for all content.

So what forces have created this situation? One of the most important is the fact that schools have little to no experience with information management, identity management or access control. This is not unexpected since schools are in the business of educating their students and have limited budgets. A typical school has no knowledge or expertise in the field of IDM (identity management) and is ill-informed about the legislation to which it is subject. As a result, schools depend on market forces, which are limited, given that a limited number of players dominate the market.

One trend has become obvious over the last couple of years and that is that every player wants to become the “iTunes” of the digital educational market. I often compare the educational market to the music business: when digitisation kicks in, publishers and distributors do not really know what to do. In the music industry, we saw that music businesses were at a loss when the MP3 came in. Their cash cows were in danger and no new cash cow was within reach. Along came Apple, which offered an ecosystem: the software, hardware and the platform where the music business could sell to Apple users while Apple took a 30% margin on all sales through its platform.

It seems as though many parties targeting the educational market want to be the Apple in education, and this creates friction.

Some teachers are happy to use one solution in their classes, while others argue that an important part of learning is that students learn that there are various ecosystems (e.g. Android, iOS, Windows etc.), and that schools should teach their students that there are many tools which they can use to reach their learning goals.

Traditionally, the education sector as a whole has no real face and there is no central body that defines their needs and preferences, and informs the market accordingly. However, programmes have recently been started, which will address this issue. In 2015, the school councils will publish their requirements of the products and services encompassing digital educational content delivery and usage.

Another important issue that will be addressed is the digital identity of students. In the governmental domain, the persistence of identities has been solved by issuing individual Citizen Service Numbers, called the Burger Service Nummer (BSN) in Dutch. The usage of this number is subject to national law: only a few organisations are permitted to use this number and the suspicion is that changing the law would result in a never-ending story without any benefits. An additional point is that the school system in the Netherlands is open to anyone, including illegal residents and asylum seekers, who do not have BSNs.

The issues around digital identity remain painful. When a school changes its electronic learning platform, all users get new digital identities. As a result, all the history and profiles that have been gathered are lost. This is a nuisance, especially in the domain of digital licencing: students purchase a licence, switch schools and get new digital identities. Once given new identities, they lose their access to their previous licence. How hard can it be to address this issue? Ever since schools have been in “business”, they have identified, registered and administered students and teachers, haven’t they?

This issue is being debated even within the circles of government that are designing the new national digital identity for all Dutch citizens. The people who are designing this new digital identity claim that schools do not identify and register students well enough to deserve high levels of confidence in the associated digital accounts. To me, this sounds contradictory. After all, the government spends billions of euros on issuing diplomas based on the administration done by these very same schools.

Since there is no persistence as yet, many efforts in the digital educational domain are devoted to tackling the resulting problems. A lot of personal information is shared in the form of attributes, frustrating many people as the exchange of such vast personal datasets entails a vast number of legal implications and paperwork. The pending European privacy laws are making matters even worse for the market players, as they have to take huge responsibility and potentially face heavy penalties issued by the watchdogs.

Holy Grail

At the moment, the Holy Grail is to have a persistent digital student identity. In 2013, a project was started to address this issue. Hopefully, this project will generate much interest among the parties involved, as the timeline is already showing. One of the most challenging issues in this project appears to be teamwork, while good governance would help to speed things up. Unfortunately, our legislators do not have a deep understanding of the importance of these issues, so they are not designing any policies, thereby fuelling the struggle. However, I am convinced that somewhere in the near future, persistence will be implemented.

About IDnext and me
At the end of 2011, a colleague of mine alerted me to the IDnext platform. After meeting Robert Garskamp, the founder of IDnext, Kennisnet supported the IDnext conferences and its mission. Coming from a large federated domain, which is operated within an organisation with little in-house technical expertise, I was looking for channels that would ensure we remain informed on the subjects surrounding identity management and access control. IDnext is that platform. The IDnext platform has many enthusiastic professionals, each of whom has his/her own expertise, be it certificates, biometrics, information management or signing services. There are always professionals and expertise at hand on the IDnext platform. We rely on IDnext’s international network to keep up with developments.

Martin Dias D'Ullios - Kennisnet