Portal combat

April 30, 2004

A revolutionary plan for an electronic student record offered by schools, colleges and universities is running into data-protection problems. Tony Tysome reports.

Data protection is proving a potential minefield for technicians constructing an electronic student record link-up between schools, colleges and universities. The project, piloted by the Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc), would enable every student in the UK to transfer and update an e-portfolio or record of achievement as they moved through education and into work.

Learning resources, information about careers and courses and online support could all be channelled through a single online “portal”, which could also make managing credit accumulation and transfer easier.

The £10 million project has aroused great interest in schools, colleges and universities. It is also receiving close attention from the Department for Education and Skills.

But there is an acute awareness among those involved that the project could end up with characteristics that closely resemble a national identity card scheme.

Two pilot projects, one in the southwest and the other in Northern Ireland, have made good progress in linking data systems in further and higher education and are now turning to schools, but the scope of their work has been limited by data-protection constraints. They have stayed inside the law by restricting ownership of data to institutions and securing students’ permission to gather the information when they register.

However, this means that access to data becomes “segmented”. Bryan Vines, head of project and partnership development at North Devon College, which has been taking part in the Shell pilot project coordinated by Plymouth University, says: “The student can see the whole record, but the institutions can see only their part of the data, unless the individual gives them permission to view all of it,” he says.

Terry Rourke, the project’s manager, says this is fine on a small scale but will not work if the scheme expands. “You could end up with too many data controllers. What we are looking for is a data controller operating at a regional and then at a national level.”

Sarah Porter, programme director for e-learning at Jisc, says that, in terms of technology, the plan is not a problem. “The only problems stem from legal issues about moving learner data between agencies. We need to set up unique identifiers for students. Some of the pilots have had serious problems in trying to reconcile this. People do see it as a priority, but some would see it as moving towards a national identity scheme. We have to be very clear about what the data is going to be used for and who owns it,” she says.

Jisc has launched a study to investigate the legal issues and the DFES has commissioned PA Consulting to examine the practicalities of setting up student identifiers, such as a unique learner number.

But Malcolm Read, Jisc chief executive, insists that these moral arguments are not the concern of the project. “Questions like that are not for us to worry about,” he says.

Greg McClure, project manager for the Northern Ireland Integrated Managed Learning Environment pilot project, which aims to link further and higher education to the Northern Ireland schools’ managed learning environment system, Classroom 2000, agrees.

“The project is about giving students the tools to reflect on where they are, where they want to be and to identify the holes in their education and experience,” he says.

Sue Boase, assistant principal at Estover Community College in Plymouth, which is taking part in the Shell project, says the scheme is helping to raise pupils’ aspirations by encouraging them to go on to higher education and allowing them to tap into online resources provided by Plymouth University.

“We are talking about linking it with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services and putting personal statements in the records so we can build up a profile of the student,” she says.

Jisc is in no doubt that there is a huge demand for the system it has in mind. When it invited bids for institutions to take part, 65 submitted proposals. Porter says Jisc was “bowled over” by the level of enthusiasm. But she thinks the data protection issue and other factors will take longer than two years to resolve.

She says: “People really want to do this, but they do not know quite how to go about it. Some of them see it simply as a technical issue, but the cultural issues alone are extremely complex.”

ICT in Higher Education, Issue No. 3
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