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A universal digital learner ID would help universities better understand their students

Alexander Iosad supports an identity system which connects each student’s learning journey across all stages of education, while placing them in control of their data
This article is more than 2 years old

Alexander Iosad is a policy lead in the Digital Government Unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

Attentive Wonkhe readers will know that the education data landscape is a mess sorely in need of simplification. It is the kind of issue that can be easily dismissed as too technical to matter.

But with regulators’ sights shifting to universities playing a greater role across all ages and stages of education, the need for consistent and reliable data on students’ progress going back all the way to primary education (and perhaps early years) will only grow.

Useful to students

Education systems will always require and produce large volumes of data. Today, these are mostly used for management purposes, if they are used at all.

David Kernohan recently highlighted the variety of identifiers that UK students have and the barriers this presents to lifelong learning policy. But the bigger challenge here is not the complexity; it is making the data useful, not just to administrators but students, too.

Securing the long-term future of good education data requires putting in place a system that actually benefits students in ways they themselves can see.

What might such a system look like? Imagine a lifelong persistent record, going back to the start of compulsory education. Based on a single ID number issued on day one at school, it connects a pupil’s learning journey across stages of education and offers seamless access to relevant public services such as libraries or discounted public transport.

Feedback from teachers, records of their achievements in and out of the classroom, and evidence of their mastery of various skills do not disappear into thin air as they do today. Instead, students can log into a digital platform and see their progress over time, deciding when and what information to share with third parties – such as universities for their UCAS application, prospective employers towards the end of their degree, or lifelong learning providers.

Such a future is entirely possible – and is one of the proposals in the report on tech-inclusive education published recently by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

A universal digital learner ID, underpinned by a sufficiently strong regulatory and legal framework setting the terms of use by various parties and, crucially, rights of appeal and redress, would transform the quality and utility of data in education.

A federated approach

Many of the common objections to such a universal ID can be addressed through good technical design.

For one, there is no immediate need to replace the tangle of existing multiple identifiers, as long as we have one single universally agreed ID that can be associated with existing records.

Instead of a single centralised database, with attendant implementation and cyber-security risks, a federated approach allows for the ID to be managed through a separate system, linking information across otherwise unrelated databases. (The UK’s Open Banking ecosystem shows how this might function.)

For extra brownie points, a “self-sovereign” system, where encryption keys confirming ownership of the ID are held by the user in their own “wallet”, would remove much of the already remote prospect of third-party interference.

Another aspect of good design for the system would be an interoperability framework that allows third parties, such as tech providers, to securely add and read data.

Students’ accounts on platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom, and Zoom already represent yet another form of learner identifiers (and yet more cyber-security risks), which a universal ID would help to streamline.

This also points to the need for a third, and most important, element: a simple and highly usable way for students to access their records, see their data, and grant or revoke permissions. This should be underpinned by regulations setting out students’ ownership of their data and clear procedures for addressing errors in their records.

Student controlled

Most importantly, such a system would place students firmly in control of their data while streamlining interactions with education systems as well as other public services they may be entitled to.

The secure aggregation of data from across different datasets will give providers new insights to support decision making, provide better pastoral support and – to take one example – better understand the long-term impact of activities such as widening participation initiatives.

Governments will have access to longitudinal data to better inform policy interventions and a richer understanding of the lives of students. And in the future, as the system develops, it could become the technical infrastructure for seamless harmonisation and recognition of qualifications, including across borders, or a way to radically reduce the burden and stress of job applications.

Much as I don’t want to put David Kernohan out of a (part of his) job mashing together all sorts of datasets for our entertainment and edification, a universal lifelong learner ID – done right – is a no-brainer. Making it happen requires a coalition of policy-makers, technology providers and education leaders but the prize is worth the effort.

4 responses to “A universal digital learner ID would help universities better understand their students

  1. Sounds logical could be a backwards extension of the ORCID ID so go from Primary all the way through to publications to show how learning is used as well as acquired

  2. Apologies for the delayed feedback … actually the system described has been in use for years already for formal education in the Netherlands, serving citizens from kindergarten up through tertiary education. Data are archived throughout a person’s active educational and employment careers (60 years) and are available to the citizen via the national digital authentication system, where citizens can see and share their educational data in the national system Mijn Diploma

  3. There is an assumption in all this that the data is itself useful. What is described here is a straightforward aggregation solution also based on the assumption that this would be a good thing. A technocratic systems approach without any questions about data validity. Once such a system is built, it becomes a form of ‘truth’ making it even harder for deeper thinking about what an education ‘is’ to be discussed or revised. Be careful what you wish for.

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