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The future of digital identity: a Lifelong Learning Identity perspective

23 May 2022 | Lauren Harding, senior marketing officer

Jon Bentley, Commercial Director at OpenAthens, offers insight into his keynote presentation at our Access Lab event on the subject of the future of digital identity. He discussed how the UK could make single student identity systems work to support lifelong learning objectives.

The current educational system

Lifelong learning is part of the UK government’s agenda to develop the skills needed across the country to enable a future where digital and tech is embedded into what we do nearly every day.

Our schools are the foundations of our future education. The workplace is changing, we need to equip learners with the knowledge and skills they need to prosper. As our education continues and our careers progress, it falls to us as individuals to enhance our knowledge and develop skills to propel our own vocational and professional development.

Never has this continual education, upskilling and reskilling been more important. Today, skills shortages are prevalent in almost every sector. From cybersecurity professionals and engineers in the tech industry to project management, procurement and planning in the environmental sector.

The UK government recognizes this. Providing the tools and encouragement for the working population to develop their own careers through the power of education. Yet in the current system, there are challenges in joining the dots across education, training and employment – and the funding that will support it.

A lack of a UK wide single student identity system

In the UK, learners create many different data personas throughout their lifetime. From further and higher education to adult language classes, learning journeys and qualifications often happen in different places and at different times. This fragmentation creates individual pockets of disconnected data.

Indeed, across the UK there is no single student identity system supporting lifelong learning, resulting in missed opportunities for all stakeholders across the learning journey. There are identifiers that get close – and the unique learner numbers (ULN) in parts of the UK– is the most mature.

Additionally, for employees and employers alike, being able to verify qualifications to an assured identity is vital. It’s important to show where and when an individual studied so they can demonstrate how what they’ve learned translates into tangible skills. But this is difficult to achieve when presented with disparate data points.

Equally, for government policy makers, a more detailed overview of the population’s qualifications and learning histories could provide insight into potential skills gaps. This insight could help to enhance the relevancy of policymaking.

Success stories

Indeed, some nations have made single student identity systems work.

In Finland, much like we are used to with health or national insurance numbers, every student is assigned an education ID at an early age. This identification then stays with them throughout their life. It is carried through school, college and post graduate learning in order to connect the entire learning journey and create a trusted and validated record of all qualifications.

Equally, the Netherlands has developed its own ‘eduID’ – an identity that students can use at any educational institution before, during, and after their studies.

The challenges

In the UK, achieving something similar is unfortunately a complex undertaking.

A key issue stems from the fact that education systems and strategies across the UK are fragmented. Higher education is structured differently to further education. For example, governance barriers create complexities between Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Therefore, we need a holistic solution to better enable lifelong learning.

A challenge here is creating a common identifier that is portable, persistent and privacy preserving. Indeed, all those data points become much more powerful and insightful if you can link them to an individual. However, we must handle these with care due to data privacy laws.

The future of digital identity

Jisc is a UK not-for-profit company. Jisc provides network and IT services and digital resources for higher education and research institutions. It provides UK universities and colleges with shared digital infrastructure and services to transform the student experience.

Identity, data and digital platforms will be integral to enabling and elevating lifelong learning in the UK. Everyone we have spoken to is united by an ambition to create opportunities for all through education, training and learning.

The future is unlikely to be a single, student identity. A realistic aim is to instill common identifiers as a means of weaving disparate data profiles together across different systems.

The OpenAthens capability in managing single sign-on enables us to curate and support access to vital knowledge within a single institution. Whether or not our sector can uncouple an ID from an institution while retaining its assurance and authenticity (similar to the role of ORCID in research) is the question we want to answer. And in answering that question, we will also engage with the challenging questions of data and identity related to lifelong learning.

Watch Jon's presentation

Opening keynote: The future of digital identity. Jisc Lifelong Learning Identity project
Conference attendee Access Lab 2022