Vendors Tout Single Sign-On Technology to Schools Awash in Software

By Benjamin Herold — May 14, 2014 4 min read
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Step foot in a digital-era school, and there’s a good chance you’ll see a painful sight: Students waiting for help logging in to one of the many pieces of software now being used in their classrooms, while a harried teacher struggles to find a username or password or tech-support phone number.

“You would be shocked at how much [instructional] time is spent just getting students able to use software,” said Tyler Bosmeny, the CEO of San Francisco-based ed-tech company Clever, in an interview. “It’s one of those problems that if you’re not in the classroom, you might not appreciate what a huge deal it is to teachers.”

Clever’s response, announced Wednesday, is known as “Instant Login.” The technology, which gives teachers and students the ability to access a wide variety of learning software with a single username and password, is one example of the type of “single sign-on” solutions now being offered to schools by vendors. Convenience and classroom efficiency are the name of the game: A survey of 204 elementary and middle school teachers commissioned by Clever found that about one-fourth of classroom time spent on learning software is wasted on troubleshooting and getting set up.

“We knew it was bad, but we didn’t know how bad,” Bosmeny said.

Similar approaches have been available to general tech consumers seeking to manage multiple passwords and logins for years.

In the education sector, San Carlos, Calif.-based Education Elements has offered single sign-on to its personalized learning platform since 2010, and a variety of learning management systems and other digital learning platforms now incorporate related functionality.

“As soon as you start using digital content for core instruction, you really need to have a mix [of software programs], and you really do need to help people switch between products easily,” said David Sanchez, the vice president of product and partnerships for Education Elements, in an interview. “We see [single sign-on] as mission-critical to blended classrooms.”

Essentially, what both Clever and Education Elements do is connect learning-software vendors to schools’ student information systems, which contain class-roster information. That ‘integration,’ as it’s called, saves time on the back end for teachers, who no longer have to manually create and manage separate accounts for each of their students on each software program they use. It also saves time in the classroom, because students can now log in once, to Clever or Education Elements, and from there have direct access to all the different software programs they’re expected to use.

Sanchez of Education Elements touted his company’s “visual log-ins,” which allow young children and students who cannot yet read or write to gain access via pictures of themselves and their teachers, as well as image-based passwords. The Education Elements platform is also part of a more robust set of offerings to district, said Sanchez, including consulting advice on different models for setting up blended classrooms that rely in part on education software; recommendations on what software to use for what purposes; data-sharing that goes beyond class rosters to include information about learning activities; and help cleaning and organizing district data, which can often be quite messy. Education Elements does that in-depth work with about 25 districts serving roughly 30,000 students, Sanchez said.

Clever, for its part, touted the scale at which it operates: With its back-end account creation and management service, the company now connects 20,000 K-12 schools in the U.S. to more than 100 software developers, including such heavy-hitters as Achieve3000, ClassDojo, DreamBox Learning, and Khan Academy. And beta-testing of the new “Instant Login” feature has already taken place in the 348,000-student Miami-Dade County school system, the 37,000-student Oakland Unified School District, and Florida’s 85,000-student Lee County school system, Bosmeny said.

“I just think it’s really rare in education to see so many schools and so many vendors coming together to do something in a common way,” he said.

Efforts to increase data-sharing between schools and third-party vendors have prompted backlash from parents and advocates concerned about privacy. But Robert Siciliano, an online security expert for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based computer security company McAfee, praised the value of single-sign on solutions, saying they are generally well-encrypted and often help eliminate poor password-management strategies, such as writing passwords down or using the same easy-to-remember password across multiple sites or services.

“Any streamlining of the process that balances out usability and security is necessary,” Siciliano said. “Too much security ends up with people just not using the technology, and not enough means that people can hack into it and wreak havoc.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.