UK schools trial open source access control

An open source access system should ease teachers' password woes
Written by Ingrid Marson, Contributor
The number of pupils and teachers using an open source system to access e-learning applications is set to double next month.

Shibboleth, an open source authentication system, is being trialled in a pilot project involving over 500,000 pupils and more than 50,000 teachers and administration staff. The system allows teachers and pupils to access secure online content from different providers using the same password, eliminating the need for them to remember multiple passwords.

Paul Shoesmith, the assistant director of technical policy at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) which is funding the project, said in a speech at the BETT trade show in January that remembering numerous passwords to e-learning tools can be a challenge for teachers.

"Over the last 2 years more and more online learning resources have become available," said Shoesmith. "Teachers have to learn three, four or five passwords to get into the e-learning systems."

John Chapman, a project adviser at Becta, said that Shibboleth is being used by more than 3800 schools in 49 Local Educational Authorities (LEAs) across the UK, but the number of users is set to double on 18 March when nearly all users within those LEAs will be given access to the system. Eventually all schools in the UK could be using the open source system to simplify access to secure online content, said Geoffrey Mullings, project adviser at Becta.

"The pilot started in December and is due to complete at the end of March," said Mullings. "The findings will be made publicly available and it is hoped it will help develop a national strategy -- it [Shibboleth] could be rolled out across the country over time."

The Shibboleth system sits on top of the school's existing authentication application, so that when a user requests access to an online resource, it authenticates them locally and then passes on information about the user to the content provider, which uses this information to decide whether or not to grant access to the user.

The system not only cuts down the need for numerous passwords, but can also operate without releasing personal details about the pupil as the content provider only needs to know the pupil's school and age, rather than his name. As the system works with the existing architecture, it is relatively easy to get it to work with existing content providers, according to Chapman.

"It should be possible to 'Shibbolise' any web site that requires users to login to access the content," said Chapman.

The fact that Shibboleth is open source rather than proprietary is useful as educational establishments are not tied into one vendor and the application can be easily modified, said Mullings. "As it is open source it reduces lock-in to one supplier," said Mullings. "Having it open source means we can tailor it to our users. It is good that we can go in and make these changes."

The pilot is being managed by London Grid for Learning (LGfL), a consortium of London LEAs that has been formed to procure broadband services for schools. Becta is due to launch another Shibboleth pilot project with three LEAs in the West Midlands in the near future, according to Chapman. The software is already used by the higher education sector in a number of countries including USA, France and Switzerland, and is part of a growing trend towards open source in schools. Establishments in various countries, including the UK, Norway and Chile have decided to migrate from Windows to Linux on the desktop.

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