Is Shibboleth the solution to too many student login IDs?

Alastair Wells is one of those guys you should stay away from if you want an easy life, but unfortunately he teaches just up the road from me at The Netherhall School which makes him pretty hard to avoid. He has this bad habit, you see, of telling you how wonderful [insert elearning product here] is, and then demanding a terribly hard-to-implement new feature. And somehow you always wind up saying ‘yes’. Well, I do.

So it came about that earlier this year, Alastair declared Yacapaca perfect in all respects but one. He wanted the students’ logins to be the same as they are for the school intranet. Alastair tells me that his students can typically remember three online IDs, but may be registered to a couple of dozen online services. You see the problem.

We’ve been here before. Paperless School was designed as a school-wide system, so we worked with SIMS to create a sophisticated tool to import student data (including all class memberships, and class and form teachers, and login details) from SIMS direct into Paperless School. Technically, it worked a dream. The problem was that it took three meetings of the SMT to decide whether or not Chalkface should be trusted with that data. The subject teacher who needed it could not afford to wait that long, so new IDs got typed in anyway.

As usual, Alastair is asking for the moon.

Happily, though, a solution is on the way, and it goes by the name of Shibboleth. Shibbloeth is an open-source solution to shared logins that is now endorsed by Becta. It is currrently being piloted by LGfL, Worcestershire LEA, and others. The promise is that each student logs into the school network as now, and after that access to authorised services is transparent. Never mind how, It Just Works.


We do have to look into the technicalities just a little bit. Shibboleth requires each “institution” to hold student data centrally on a suitably-configured server. What do we mean by “institution” in this context? Shibboleth is another hand-me-down from HE, where it is taken to mean a university, acting autonomously. But look at who is piloting Shibboleth in schools – GfLs and LEAs. So now, schools are being asked to surrender their SIMS data to the LEA or grid. Back to Square One.

In fairness, LEAs have more clout with the schools than Chalkface does, and they may get faster results. After all, what’s wrong with providing such data to a centralised authority? It probably is OK, and they probably have it anyway, but I shall leave you with one thought for your next school debate on Civil Liberties.

The word Shibboleth comes to us from the Bible; specifically Judges 12: 5-6

And the Gileadites seized the passages of the Jordan before the Ephraimites; and it was so, that when those Ephraimites who had escaped said, “Let me go over,” that the men of Gilead said unto him, “Art thou an Ephraimite?” If he said, “Nay,” then said they unto him, “Say now ‘Shibboleth.’” And he said “Sibboleth,” for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him and slew him at the passages of the Jordan; and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

It’s named after an ethnic cleansing tool.


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