Thursday, July 10, 2008

Parental usernames - why we don't (currently) do them & why the Government needs to put more thought in...

Keys. Lots of them. If you're involved in educational technology in the UK you'll probably be aware of "targets" for all sorts of things - but the thing that's made most schools wake up recently is the issue of Real Time Reporting. Put simply(ish) this is the target that any parent should be able to access their child's progress reports online - at any time. This is a target for secondaries for 2010, while primaries get an extra two years to get this in place. A quick Google for information turns up all sorts of things, but here's a quote from the Government News Distribution Service pages:

By September 2008 all secondary schools will be expected to provide information to parents covering achievement, progress, attendance, behaviour and special needs, on a timely and frequent basis - this should be at least once per term.By September 2010 all secondary schools will need to offer parents real-time access to this information (including the opportunity for secure online access) wherever they are and whenever they want. [More]

It was the 2005 publication of Harnessing Technology which gave the oft-quoted, rarely understood, completely missed "access to an online learning space" target ("a target with no teeth" as I heard someone wearing a Becta badge describe it once). The updated version of HT was published recently - for a point of reference, here's a completely unscientific word cloud of the 250 most popular words in the 2005 original (click to enlarge):

During our Moodle training sessions we're often asked about our BucksGfL username system - a common question is Can we create usernames for parents? While it's (in theory) possible to create usernames for parents, sometimes (in my opinion) this seemingly straightforward question can have all sorts of unforseen implications, which aren't often thought about. It's also my position that (currently) the idea of Real Time Reporting (RTR) via a "secure" web site doesn't think about many of these issues. As far as I can tell, as envisaged in the realm of RTR, parents would log in to a secure area on the school's web site / MIS system / intranet / Learning Platform / some other named tool which hasn't been dreamed up yet. Here are some questions about this:
  • How many usernames is this per school?
    If you have 1000 pupils in your school, is this two thousand usernames? Two per pupil? One per family? More than two per family? What about parents who don't live locally?
  • Who manages the usernames, passwords and authentication?
    Do schools create, delete, monitor and administer the usernames? Do they need to employ someone to do this - surely recent scandals about failures in data handling mean that this can't be left to part-time responsibilities for non-specialist staff.
  • What asumptions are being made here?
    That parents can use a system like this? That they can be relied on to remember their login details? Who will do the training / support / equipping?
  • When the parents do forget their details, who do they call?
    The school? If so, they're likely to call in the evening... will they just leave a message saying I can't log in? When does the school call back? During the day while they're out at work? Anyone for answerphone ping-pong? How does the school validate that it's really the parent on the phone?
  • What about multiple roles / responsibilities / access rights?
    I might be a parent of a child at one school, a teacher of a hundred children at another, and not allowed to access the records of a child at another, a governor at another school - well, probably not that exact scenario, but you get the idea. Who is going to manage and enforce those relationships and the data structures which underpin them? The school? The LA? The RBC? The Government Department? Becta?
  • What's the role of pupils in this?
    Since in many (but not all) families some children will be more capable in using technology than their parents, will it be significant if a pupil installs a keylogger on their home PC? Maybe it's just a subtle way of enabling students to see their own data under Freedom of Information (that's obviously not a serious point... I think)?

Maybe there are obvious answers to these, but in my mind this fundamentally isn't a technological problem (like I said, we could create plenty of usernames if we wanted to...) and therefore funding/finding a technological solution won't do, will it? If it will, please tell me so I can stop worrying...

I wonder if the Contact Centre of a Local Authority might be part of the answer to this, however there are clear issues around validation, data security, authentication & validation(heck, even Apple don't get this last one right all the time). A Contact Centre, even an effective one:

  • could deal with calls out of hours (good);
  • would keep a record of what happens (good);
  • would need access to data, password resetting tools, etc. (potentially not good);
  • could take much of the burden from schools (good);
  • would need detailed information on who was allowed to see what data (hmmm, the data structures thing again);
  • would need to validate that you are who you say you are, Caller... (errrr...).

Now, please don't read into this that I'm advocating a Call Centre to manage parental access to this - but can you think of any alternative to turning schools into ICT support centres for their parental communities? Will schools / LAs get additional funding to provide out-of-hours technical and organisational support - because it's fairly clear that, if as a parent you're trying to log in to a school's web site and can't, then you're going to want to call the school as a first resort. Has anyone thought of the implications of this or has more power to/access to data 24/7/365 by parents been thought up in isolation from the context of schools, which it clearly exists within? You could always read The Register's Parents to get classroom spynet in 2010 article and the predictable comments - some of which are predictably empty & reactionary, while others raise good questions.

Back to near where we started, here's the word cloud from the just-released update to Harnessing Technology (again, click to enlarge):
Now, I know that it's juvenile to infer anything from how often a word occurs. It is, however, quite fun to do so... compared to the earlier version, the word Becta is more prominent, as is technology. Can you see schools? I can, just...
By the way, I don't presume to have the answer to all this, just some questions. If you have any more of either, please feel free to leave a constructive comment. Thanks!
Photo credit: Keys by steena

6 comments:

  1. Think of all the internet user names passwords that you have currently. Even those leading to sensitive information, like banks and HMRC, seem to have fairly low overhead. I've never had to call anyone to obtain a user name or find out what my password is. It just seems to work, people set their own password and username, once they have established their identity. It would make sense to put this in the hands of the local authority. No one can ever get hold of them on the phone anyway :)

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  2. Agreed, but "you" and "I" (i.e. the sort of people who would write a blog post and/or comment on one someone else had written) aren't the sorts of people that this would be an issue/struggle for - as this is an "every parent" thing, there will definitely be parents who are not comfortable with this and who wouldn't know an online identity if it waved at them. Where the support for these parents and carers comes from is critical to ensuring that this move doesn't become another way of broadening the divide between the digital haves and the analogue have-nots...

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  3. It's a challenge for the local authority/school to develop such a system, for sure. It will be a challenge, once the system is in place, for some parents to access real time data about their children. The sort of challenge, which, once overcome will help them in other areas of an increasingly complex modern world. I appreciate you are simply trying to point out the problems, so that they can be overcome. I'm learning a lot from your Blog, more so than from any other.

    ReplyDelete
  4. An excellent post - and I for one (as Moodle admin at my school called on nearly everyday to reset some pupil or other's password that they've forgotten overnight) I agree with you about the difficulties in setting up parental access. Currently, merely for the purposes of viewing Moodle scores and homeworks, we have our parents log on as their child - but that will have to change I expect, and it is something yet to be thought through.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi, at Global Gateway, the free service for international partnerships and projects in schools, we are learning more about Moodle as a tool for communication and collaboration.

    We think that the new secondary curriculum must be recognised for requesting ICT to support communication and collaboration, broadening outlook to other cultures and communities, recognising new communication technologies and their signficance and dangers...

    Moodle does all this. We have a giant Moodle community across the UK and seven Asian countries currently being launched specifically for curriculum based work.

    We are supporting a group of secondary schools to run a fairtrade enterprise project with a school in Uganda including Moodle training.

    We are working with iEARN one of the few places in the UK to offer Moodle training for ICT and other teachers to implement Moodle networks to run projects and partnerships virtually.

    We have put Moodle on our toolkit, but are still gathering info from across the UK on how schools can use it and the problems they face with support.

    http://www.globalgateway.org/toolkit

    The main worry appears to be the responsibility of setting permissions and access, filtering, and moderation.

    But we hope that VLEs will come to incorporate a community element instead of purely information management.

    We have a database of thousands of schools across the world, keen to collaborate and co-learn, and offering authentic shared learning experiences.

    Would like to hear more from anyone about this! We currently have 6000 UK schools active on our system, which includes referrals to many networks and platforms.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi, at Global Gateway, the free service for international partnerships and projects in schools, we are learning more about Moodle as a tool for communication and collaboration.

    We think that the new secondary curriculum must be recognised for requesting ICT to support communication and collaboration, broadening outlook to other cultures and communities, recognising new communication technologies and their signficance and dangers...

    Moodle does all this. We have a giant Moodle community across the UK and seven Asian countries currently being launched specifically for curriculum based work.

    We are supporting a group of secondary schools to run a fairtrade enterprise project with a school in Uganda including Moodle training.

    We are working with iEARN one of the few places in the UK to offer Moodle training for ICT and other teachers to implement Moodle networks to run projects and partnerships virtually.

    We have put Moodle on our toolkit, but are still gathering info from across the UK on how schools can use it and the problems they face with support.

    http://www.globalgateway.org/toolkit

    The main worry appears to be the responsibility of setting permissions and access, filtering, and moderation.

    But we hope that VLEs will come to incorporate a community element instead of purely information management.

    We have a database of thousands of schools across the world, keen to collaborate and co-learn, and offering authentic shared learning experiences.

    Would like to hear more from anyone about this! We currently have 6000 UK schools active on our system, which includes referrals to many networks and platforms.

    ReplyDelete