Students looking at their computer together

Replacing Shibboleth with OpenAthens transformed online information access for Aston University

26 April 2016 • Sophie Allen, marketing officer

Aston University, based in central Birmingham, offers a broad range of graduate and post-graduate courses to 9,500 students. As well as education, Aston has a reputation as a center of research excellence, so fast and easy access to information resources is critical to teaching and learning.

The challenge

Providing licensed access to multiple online resources is becoming increasingly complex because license terms are opening up to allow more diverse types of users to access those resources. The problem is compounded by students and staff now spending more time working off-campus, and the University expanding its international partnerships.

The library service at Aston University was using Shibboleth as its authentication system but they found it difficult to install and maintain, and they struggled to cope with complex multi-service, multi-user type access. In particular, people trying to access resources off-campus found logging on slow, that it was not the same process for each resource and, in some cases, simply failed. For example, publisher licenses allow different levels of access to different groups, such as international students or ex-staff, compared with home students. The Aston librarians found it difficult to configure Shibboleth to distinguish authentication between these groups.

Trying to adapt Shibboleth was in itself complex and complicated by the fact that the original developers had left the University.

"The ease of use and flexibility of OpenAthens has been invaluable to Aston University in enabling us to transform the service we provide to students, staff and our partner institutions”

Erica Lee, information resources specialist, Aston University

The solution

Aston decided to replace Shibboleth with OpenAthens, incorporating the in-built proxy module. Aston is using OpenAthens as the gateway to its discovery service (EBSCO Discovery Service) and its subscribed online resources. The OpenAthens proxy module is used to improve access to linking services (EBSCO A-Z, LinkSource, LibGuides) so that researching e-journals and databases is as smooth as possible for staff and students.

Compared to implementing Shibboleth, which needs an IT team, OpenAthens was installed quickly, with virtually no problems by just one person. When needed, Aston can call on support from the OpenAthens team for the application itself, but also for advice about how best to use OpenAthens to further improve services for students. Also, day-to-day OpenAthens operations are handled by non-technical library staff.  Shibboleth had to be managed by IT staff.

"Library staff now spend a lot less time dealing with logging in queries. Before OpenAthens, I’d be working on a project but would constantly be interrupted to help with a student who couldn’t access something from off-campus”

Erica Lee, information resources specialist, Aston University

The results and benefits

  • Vastly improves information library services Aston provides to students and staff
  • Cuts time to access resources to seconds compared to minutes or even not at all
  • Number of user queries and complaints cut by up to 70%
  • Reduces time library and IT staff spend fire fighting minor problems, allowing them to focus on more valuable projects
  • Enables international partnerships because multiple user types with multiple services and access levels are easy to set up and manage
  • Much easier and quicker to set up resources using the OpenAthens’ intuitive, simple user interface