Stakeholder perspectives

Over the last Hotel Lobbysix months the Logins for Life team members have been interviewing stakeholders on campus at the University of Kent. We wanted to know what views were held by staff from all University departments and from some of our other partners here on campus, on the project’s proposals. Some of our informants were extremely techie and some of them not techie at all. We have now published an analysis of the interviews .

We encouraged people to be frank and open and promised anonymity. As a result we got a pretty wide range of views. From the extremely positive to the downright negative. But certainly more leaned towards the former rather than the latter.

There was lots of support for integration of social networking tools – especially for prospective students browsing the website – and most thought there were clear benefits in continuing to supply an email service to alumni. Many raised the issue of dealing with users who have multiple roles in the organisation – for example, students who do also part-time work for the university – and whilst it was agreed that it could be frustrating to have to log off and then on again to change roles, there was some opposition to combining both roles in a single log on. Many thought that having to go through the log on process whenever a person changed roles helped to remind them of the different responsibilities and rights associated with each role. It was also thought that the central administration of single identities with multiple roles would be fraught with difficulties. Often local, departmental  knowledge would be needed to protect sensitive data whilst allowing sufficient access for efficient working.

The report is now online.

As we enter the last few weeks of the project it is becoming clearer what the team will recommend for Kent.  Kent has already started to roll out alumni email and it seems there is a business case for this – for ex-staff it is perhaps not so clear though there is definitely demand for it. There are, however, many models which could be used for the provision of email to those no longer physically attending the university so many HEIs may well find a good fit.

The linking tool being developed by the School of Computing – which will allow users to access some of their university data using credentials other than their Kent IT credentials – is in the final stages of development and early feedback is very good. It certainly seems like a tool that will improve the user experience – especially if we also adopt a policy of allowing initial registration with the same social networking application credentials. It has security benefits too – especially when university data is accessed from public computers.

One observation on how rapidly the worlds of work ethics and social conventions change: It seems not so long ago that the  argument was raging as to whether email was as valid as the printed word. Many were asking questions like:  Is email appropriate for all types of communication? How formal should our style be when we communicate by email? Can you give bad news by email? Well that battle was won – or lost depending on your viewpoint – and now the big question seems to be:  Is Facebook appropriate for work/academic communication?!

It seems the most popular answer to that is sometimes but never exclusively.

It is easy to forget that the social networking aspect of the Logins for Life project is not just about Facebook – in fact the project states that it will ‘investigate incorporation of exisitng digital identities with University accounts’.    I admit it is usually easy to find Facebook related issues to blog about so I am in part to blame . It is quite difficult to get away from Facebook. At the moment the list of digital identities that can be linked using the tool developed by Kent’s School of ComputSocial networking logosing is as follows:

  • Google,
  • Twitter,
  • Facebook,
  • OpenID
  • and the UK federation

But the tool only links the Kent IT account to these applications. Kent does not require a user to subscribe to any of these applications to interact fully with on-line services. And if a new candidate comes along to steal Facebook’s crown – then we could link to that too.

Too much information?

shredded paper
photo by Dave Bleasdale

The Logins for Life project proposes allowing the use of social networking tools and other third party applications to register with the University of Kent website – in order to request a prospectus for instance. The School of Computing have also developed a linking tool which will allow a member of the university to associate a Kent IT account with certain third party applications thus allowing access to some restricted resources without always having to present Kent IT credentials. Note that so far in this article, as in many of the reports produced in connection with the project, I use the phrase ‘social networking tools and other third party applications.’ But if I can be candid for a moment, let’s admit that currently for the vast majority of Kent’s users that is going to mean just one thing – Facebook. With over half a billion users worldwide Facebook is everywhere. What percentage of users arriving at the website of any UK or US higher education institution will not have a Facebook account? I would guess less than ten per cent. Considerably less than ten per cent.

It may also be that a very high percentage will also have an OpenID – if they have a Google or Yahoo account they will get one by default – but how many will even know this let alone use it?

In a survey of current students carried out by the Logins for Life team in the summer and autumn of 2010, we discovered that 35% of respondents spent more than 5 hours a week on Facebook. Amongst the autumn 2010 intake of new students less than 2% claimed never to use Facebook.

So if Kent is ‘encouraging’ the use of Facebook it makes no difference does it? As most of our students have got it already.

Well I am not so sure on this point. At very least I think we have to accept that we are endorsing Facebook if not actually encouraging it. Though I am not, as yet, saying this is a bad thing! We are clearly not advocating that the university ever reaches a place where a student is forced to have a Facebook account but if we offer easier methods of access through Facebook and a large percentage of students use this method then it will have its own momentum.

If we make Facebook a powerful tool that is available to students – making it easier for them to log on, creating and supporting ‘official’ university pages, putting Facebook Share buttons on our website – many would argue we are encouraging its use. Some schools at Kent now ‘officially’ state that they use Facebook and Twitter for official announcements, though not exclusively of course, and this makes a lot of sense. During the recent bad weather Twitter and Facebook were a very good place to look for ‘instant’ updates on what was happening on campus. Some of these feeds were supplied officially by staff and some, on an ad-hoc basis by helpful students and staff in an unofficial capacity. The University of Kent like many other HEIs has a Facebook page and we know prospective and current students find it useful. We feature Facebook Like buttons on some of our blogs.

So is this wrong? I don’t think so but I do think we have an obligation to make sure our users know there are alternatives that do not involve social networking applications. I also think our students need to be made aware of the privacy issues involved in using applications like Facebook and just how much data is gathered on their activities.

screen shot from Facebook

Universities are not alone in embracing Facebook, Twitter et al. Government websites feature ‘Follow Us on Facebook’ and ‘Bookmark Us on Facebook’ links. The NHS goes one step further – their advice pages contain ‘Facebook Like’ buttons. If you are so inclined you can visit the NHS advice page on Smelly Feet and click the Facebook Like button. Facebook will then tell your friends, via your profile page, that you ‘like Smelly Feet at’ There are worse afflictions you could choose too. This is where things start to get a bit murky. You might think no-one in their right mind would click the Facebook Like button on such a page but in the wonderful world of Web 2.0 we are used to giving feedback. What if a visitor thought they were just helping with a ‘I found this page useful’ type input? If you have visited the gender disphoria or the STI help pages, even out of curiosity you may not want all your Facebook friends to know this. Smelly feet might be not so serious and a little bit funny but you can see where I am going with this – and it’s not funny at all.

But it’s OK as long as you don’t click the button, right? Well not exactly. Even if all you do is visit the webpage, if it has a Facebook Like button on it, and you have not logged out of the application, Facebook will receive notice that you have done so. Currently Facebook say this data is anonymised and they do not sell data to advertisers in a form which could identify an individual. Still feels a little uncomfortable.

None of this will not be news to those of us who work in IT related areas but how aware are our students of the trail they leave as they surf the net and what that data might end up being used for? We have a duty to inform our users not only of the advantages of using applications like Facebook but also what the unintended consequences might be too.

It’s not an Open and Shut case

Just returned from the JISC Innovations forum – taken aback by the huge quantities of positivity and enthusiasm from delegates – despite these straitened times.

The word that one seemed to hear every few seconds was open.  Open data, open source, open knowledge. It got me thinking about what we mean by open.  Lots of people try to qualify it – ‘open does not mean free’ was one phrase I heard. Not sure I agree with this. Is something still open if you start to attach conditions to it which may exclude some from being able to use it? It is still open to some – those who can afford or wish to pay for it – but it is no longer open to all. The definition of  open knowledge given by the Open Knowledge foundation is:

A piece of knowledge is open if you are free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike.”. (c) Open Knowledge Foundation

Which explicitly says it must be free.

This leads me to thoughts about another use of the word : OpenID . Part of the Logins for Life project is looking at the possible use of technologies like Open ID and Facebook Connect as acceptable credentials for access to HE on-line resources. 

Is going this open wise?

I should say from the outset that no-one is proposing we let just anyone with an OpenID roam at will through the entire online resources of  a University or College.  But it could be a useful tool all the same.

OpenID would allow those applying for a  prospectus or even just browsing the web site to easily establish a digital identity with the provider – no forms to fill in, usernames to invent, email verification etc. The vast majority of users will already have an OpenID – though it is probably still true that many won’t realise this – through previous registration with Google, Yahoo, Flickr, MySpace and many other popular websites.

There are obvious advantages –

  • interested parties immedately gain a sense of ‘belonging’ or ‘membership’.
  • the host organisation has the opportunity for email contact with these potential students or staff.
  • the user does not end up with one more  username/password combination to remember.

But are there disadvantages too?

If these prospects do join the university then it would be possible to link their OpenIDs with their Kent log on credentials and allow access to at least some online resources.  A liberating open attitude or the on-line equivalent of leaving the key in the door?

Anyone out there already using OpenID within the Higher Education world? Or planning to?