U of G Has a New Service to Simplify Your Online Life

Single Sign On project is simple up front, complicated behind the scenes

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Before Apple coined the phrase “there’s an app for that,” many computer users were already frustrated with the number of “apps” they had on their systems, especially when it came to logging in. As a student, for example, you might have an application for email, another one for the program where your professors put up class notes and quizzes, and a third for your distance education course.

For each application, you’d need a user name and password, and you’d have to log in to each one separately when you wanted to do some work.

That’s all going to get a bit easier for students, faculty and staff at the U of G, thanks to some work that’s been going on behind the scenes for more than a year now on a project known as Single Sign On, or SSO.

Zdenek Nejedly is the project manager for Computing and Communications Services (CCS) who is implementing SSO with CourseLink, the University’s learning management system. This is the latest application to be included.

“This is our second year of integrating services and adding partners,” he says, and points out a couple of benefits. “First, it’s more secure. There will be a single point of authentication where the person’s username and password is sent, as opposed to entering information in a number of different applications.  It also minimizes the potential for phishing because people will know they only give their credentials to this single, trusted source.”

Secondly, Nejedly sees SSO making it easier for the University community to get done what needs to be done. Log on once, and you’ll be able to move from one application to another. “For example,” he explains, “the physics department has a lab scheduling application. With Single Sign On, a person can go into CourseLink then easily click on the next application to schedule a lab without signing on again, even though this is a totally different server and program.”

“CourseLink moving to SSO is just one chapter of a bigger story, though,” adds Richard Gorrie, who is manager of learning technology and courseware innovation. “It’s the first major service to adopt it, but when Gryphmail and other services are added, that’s when you are really going to see the benefits.”

Nejedly says that the support of partners such as Student Housing, the Office of Open Learning and Human Resources (HR) is critical to the success of this change. For example, HR now offers a paperless option to replace printed pay stubs. In that partnership, SSO provides a simple and secure way to log into the Pay and Pension Link service.

CourseLink itself was simplified last year. Gorrie explains that for the past 10 years, professors teaching on-campus classes were using a program called Blackboard for their online materials, while Open Learning was using another one called Desire2Learn (D2L). “About two years ago, the University made the decision to move to one platform,” he says. “D2L is a local company based in Kitchener, and Open Learning has had a great experience with them. Moving all of our courses to D2L means that all credit courses, face-to-face as well as distance, are using the same platform.”

CourseLink/D2L is a learning management system with considerable flexibility, says Kyle Mackie, who manages courseware services. “The tools D2L provides can be repurposed to meet a variety of needs, such as training and collaborative work.” Courses are being moved to the program “by request,” but Mackie says the growth has been steady. “We had more than 860 sites for the 2010 winter semester,” he points out.

One example of D2L’s flexibility is that it has been used by U of G to provide training in the new Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act requirements. Modules created on the D2L platform are easily used by staff who need the training, no matter where they are located on campus. Another use: the President’s Task Force on Sustainability has all meetings, minutes, discussions and documents managed through D2L. Mike Ridley, chief information officer, says: “We are pushing the envelope with D2L, and the company likes it.”

As the SSO process continues, Ridley says there will be potential for “role-based authentication.” Once this step is in place, people logging on to the system will be shown only the applications appropriate for them. A staff member, for example, might have a button or tab to connect to information about payroll and pensions, while a student might not.

“This is a simple benefit from the user’s point of view,” says Ridley. “But it’s super-complicated behind the scenes, as each application and program has to be added separately. Once it’s done, though, it will be seamless, and people will only notice that they don’t have to keep logging on over and over.”