How can we create an identity economy for research and education?

This is the entire transcript of my FAM11 presentation that some of you have been mad enough to ask for. I hope you enjoy or ignore as appropriate! The slides are here if you would like to follow along.

How can we create an identity economy for research and education?

When I was asked to take on the role of UK Access Management Focus, one of the things I was asked to examine was the general state of access and identity management within the UK Research and Education environment. After a year in this job, I find myself asking a simple question:

Do we have an environment in which identity plays a role?

I’m not sure we do as yet.

Many of our conversations around identity at the moment involve the institutional role in provisioning identity vs uptake of social networking identifiers, or to put it more bluntly…should we give students emails if they are already using

However, before we start worrying too much about where a user’s identity is coming from I think we need to start creating an identity economy in research and education. To do this, I think we need to look at 3 different steps:

  1. Legitimise the web as a place for scholarly activity.
  2. Fix the right problems.
  3. Shift from constructing spaces to supporting actions.

I’m going to take a short time today to argue around each of these points, predominantly from the student perspective, and argue that we need to transition ourselves more fully in to the open web before we can start to build a proper identity economy for education.



The problem with the web is that for too long people have not considered it a legitimate space for scholarly research. Its’ not safe, it’s not defined, it’s just not scholarly – I mean ANYONE can write a blog. So we tend to build spaces where we feel more comfortable and that discounts a large amount of the information overload we are faced with. I’d argue that there are 2 ways of achieving this – creating silos or filtering information – and that we tend to pursue the first as a typical approach to education.

The alt tag for this reads: the most exciting new frontier is charting what is already here.

Dave White has been interested in this area for some time, and has been pulling themes of legitimacy in to his work on Visitors and Residents. For those not familiar, Dave uses the terms visitor and resident to refer to the different ways people interact with the web – with visitors dipping in and out of services, and residents more akin to what we consider a digitial native – those that immerse ourselves online.

The Visitors and Residents project is currently undertaking work to look at a student’s motivation for being involved with resources online. It makes some interesting observations that cross over in to the identity space, as shown in this diagram:

Image Scott Room – David White – CC attribution license.

GWR = Google > Wikipedia > References. It’s an approach often adopted by students but one that they feel is illegitimate as a study approach. This can lead to a tension between using the source but not referencing the source due to its illegitimacy: hence creating the learning black market. In other words, it is not in the legitimate learning SPACE.


People often gravitate towards a known ‘space’ on the web, it’s a great comfort blanket and one we often use in R&E: if it’s in this portal, behind this wall, on this list it is ok. Anything else by default is not – it’s part of the learning black market. The urge to define your own perpetuates every discipline, everyone who works in technology will recognise this approach to defining standards:

By creating your own space on the web, you are asserting control and a structure. What do I mean by space? I mean anywhere where I have to learn to visit a certain point to start my scholarly process rather than just opening a web browser. This could be a variety of things – a library portal, channeling through a proxy server, reading lists in a VLE, even a publisher website. I’m not saying any of these approaches are necessarily wrong, but that they should not be the only solutions we explore to enrich the user experience.

We learnt a long time ago that structure is perhaps not the most important part of how we approach our interaction with the web. We began by using HTML as the language of the web, a language that focuses almost entirely on structure – bold, header, italic, paragraph. The limitations of such an approach were soon realized, and XML was developed to help us describe features and content – a more semantically rich approach. This is exactly what we use in the UK federation….it would be pointless for us to send information to another party saying ‘this element is bold’, they need to know which part of the information we are sending is the entityID for any given member of the UK federation:

JISC Monitoring UnitRestricted access to JISC Monitoring Unit data×64.png

I think when we are approaching discovery of scholarly resources, we need to see a similar shift as we have seen from HTML to XML. Because we have complete control over the spaces, we can focus on a structured approach to the way we think about those spaces. Anyone who has worked in the JISC space over the last 10 years or so will be familiar with the concept of ‘discovery verbs’ – i.e. search, find, use. I’d like to see these enhanced by some identity verbs, and I’d argue that the only way to use identity verbs effectively is in a completely open web context, and not in a siloed space. More on that later.


One thing we do really really well within education is find workarounds to problems.

My absolute favourite example of this happened when I first started working for JISC. Our host institution was very suspicious of us as individuals and would not allow us to have admin rights to our laptops. When we campaigned to be allowed rights for a 24 hour period so we could add the printer drivers for our home printers, we were refused. Instead our host BOUGHT US ALL NEW PRINTERS FOR HOME AND INSTALLED THE DRIVERS FOR THESE PRINTERS THEMSELVES. We were also only allowed to put work issued printer cartridges in them…I can’t imagine how much this particular workaround actually ended up costing.

A more recent and relevant example was a request from an institution to help with a provisioning problem. The institution in question was taking a long time to properly register students and provision them with accounts, so there was a gap when students did not have the credentials to access online resources. I was asked if there was a way to create ‘guest accounts’ with Shibboleth to get around this problem.

My response was as follows:

  • It’s up to an institution whether or not they want to create guest accounts within their system, but generally it is bad practice;
    It should take the same time to provision a guest account as to provision a guest account, if not, the IDM system is broken;
  • If a student is not formally registered and provisioned in your system, they aren’t ‘eligible users’ and shouldn’t be using resources;
  • The provisioning process needs fixing, you don’t need to find a library workaround.

My response was not well received – this was not the answer they wanted to hear.

I think it is far to say that because the IT requirements within different areas of an institution are often poorly articulated, there is a ‘no’ culture towards departmental requests for new or changed processes. I also think it is fair to say that there is a tradition of friction between IT departments and libraries in many institutions. This often leads to departments seeking a work around just to make things work for users. I have a lot of sympathy with that.

However, it is clear that if it is taking several weeks to provision a user in to your systems, your process is broken. A recent CSO-Online article sets Average time it takes to provision or de-provision a user as one of the key metrics for a successful IDM system. The full list is interesting and includes things like number of accounts per user and time it takes to approve a change. Have a look at the list and if these things aren’t working for you, you need to fix your IDM system, not try and work around them.


We all know the words associated with spaces. Of course it is always going to be important that we feel we understand, and it some sense have influence over, the spaces in which we are learning and teaching. There is however another way of looking at it.

This is what I meant by the identity verbs I mentioned earlier.

Follow, Share, Tweet, Check-In…and most importantly – LIKE.

With the LIKE button, Facebook realized that it had more power and reach outside of , but needed to take its meme and apply it as a metric or filter on the open web. They may not do it in a way that makes them very popular, but it has undoubtedly been a successful approach.

The ‘like’ approach is about Facebook trying to filter its brand through open web searching to support user interaction with resources. At a very different scale, the recent changes to discovery within the UK Access Management Federation try to achieve a similar vision, although not with the brand of the federation. MDUI allows you to have both the institutional brand and the service provider brand at the right points in the login flow so that a user does not get lost when they get sent to an external service provider. I’d encourage Identity Providers in the room to look at using the new Discovery Service code that means you can include automagically include the SP logo that the user is logging in to on your login page, as per the following examples. I’d also obviously really encourage Service Providers to give us the MDUI information – Service Providers have the most to gain from making use of this feature.

One of the most important lessons we can learn is how we position ourselves in relation to the Internet. Recently, I asked a group of people to draw me a picture of ‘how the see the Internet’. I didn’t tell them why I was asking or what I wanted to do with the information, I just wanted their interpretation of HOW THEY SEE the Internet. These were all information professionals that I would consider to be Residents in Dave White’s definition.

I think it is interesting to compare the first two images with the second two, purely from the perspective of inclusion of self in the picture. It is only in the second of these four images that we see someone who places themselves at the heart of the Internet and how it is working for him.

In a recent Guardian article, Dr Abhay Adhikari argues strongly for an identity driven approach to digital literacy, and says that Universities must rethink their approach to student digital literacy.

“We need to stop digital literacy training that uses the internet and social media to achieve pre-defined outcomes.”

Instead we should teach students to use the internet as a communication tool, noting that:

“Reflection + Internet = Digital Identity”

This is about getting beyond the mechanics of ‘find’ and ‘use’ the tools, but about using the environment to have conversations and to both research and evaluate resources and discussions online. This is the journey towards becoming a resident and towards becoming a mature researcher capable of managing the open web. If we can get to that point, we start to have an identity economy for R&E, and can then evaluate our provisioning role within that environment.


Of course, if we are talking about an economy, we have to add value in that space. What value does an institutional persona hold to me?

Getting access to services I would otherwise be locked out of is quite a negative use of a powerful tool. Citing affiliation is a much more powerful approach. Give me more because I have affiliation.
The UK federation is already beginning to show the power of being able to express ‘studentyness’ to gain access to services. We have student union services, student discount services and student housing services all making use of the assertion of ‘student’ within the UK federation – a more positive use of federated identity that perhaps we are used to seeing.

The need to be able to effectively identity yourself as a researcher is a large-scale problem being investigated by organisations such as NISO, ORCID and VIVO. VIVO in particular shows the importance of being able to openly share institutionally created profiles of authors. These initiatives in turn are starting to feed the use of search engines such as Microsoft Academic Research and Google Scholar.

Neither of the mentioned search approaches from Microsoft or Google have been particularly successful or adopted as a mainstream approach by institutions, hence the adoption of closed discovery services to tackle the academic discovery problem. However if we perhaps put some more time and effort in to the identity side of research and education, could we perhaps help solve this problem?


In this talk I’ve argued for a proper scholarly layer to the internet, filtering information appropriately, supporting affiliation within the search engine and controlled and directed by the identity transactions of our users. We aren’t there yet – Google Scholar has failed to fill this niche effectively – but there are behaviours we can adopt, stop and change to get us closer to this vision.


All links available from this Google Bookmark list:

Adhikari, Adhay. Universities must rethink their approach to student digital literacy. <>. Accessed 10th October 2011.

Villavicencio, Frank. Identity Metrics that Matter. <>

White, David. “The Learning Black Market”: <>. Accessed 10th October 2011.

3 thoughts on “How can we create an identity economy for research and education?

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