RA21 looks to align and simplify pathways to subscribed content across participating platforms and are currently exploring many of the stumbling blocks for students accessing this content with ease and efficiency.
One of the common issues highlighted is the popularity of search engines in research, and the issues that students may face if they come across quality published content that they have a right to access and that they want to access immediately.
Placing content in the Reading List or Virtual Learning Environment offers a simple and effective way for students to utilise quality content that their institution owns or subscribes to. The student simply selects the content and uses their authentication login to access materials (hopefully they may have already logged in to the list or VLE via the same authentication and can therefore benefit from single sign on).
However, students won't always come across useful reading materials via these institution managed tools. Often students will come across these resources via independent learning (which I think most people agree should be encouraged as much as possible) and may therefore not be within the confines of institution managed platforms that can offer instant access to content.
This isn't a scenario that hasn't been reviewed by any means. Many STM publishers will have on their websites the ability for students to search for their institutions or authentication providers and allow them to login to access the content that their institution is subscribed to. However, this user journey is not always clear, easy to use, or consistent across different platforms and providers. RA21 is looking to review common user experiences to create best practice guidelines, allowing students easier access to content.
Best practice may also look into other areas of authentication, for example, best practice on session sign in limits. In the first discussion I attended, many of the speakers were supportive of far more broad session login times, to allow students to more easily navigate through their resources without continuously having to log in time and again. Some instances only permitted 30 minutes of access before a refresh forced students to log in again, should they have to access further content. A session of 12 hours was floated as perhaps far more reasonable, especially considering the length of time a student might be conducting research, which is even more vital at peak times of the year.
With representatives from STM publishers and plenty of engagement with the Higher Education sector, hopefully the RA21 initiative can offer the solutions for far better user experiences in the sector - and allow students to appreciate the value of the resources their institutions own and subscribe to.
But what about CLA and the Digital Content Store? What issues have we faced in the journey of the DCS?
The DCS initially only allowed authentication via Shibboleth, which was the most common federated system for the sector and by far the easiest to integrate. Some Athens users could also integrate with the DCS, but the Federation Gateway often presented an annoying obstacle to a successful Athens integration.
Soon came a lot of pressure from our customers (and potential customers) to allow authentication via EZProxy, which was also popular in Higher Education institutions, and offered many of them the opportunity to offer single sign on, as their VLEs and Reading Lists also used this method.
Finally, CLA was able to offer WAYFless authentication, which is something that the RA21 initiative advises as standard, and which allows students to bypass the Gateway when accessing their CLA licensed digital content. This also resolved the Athens issues around the Gateway and really did offer the majority of the state higher education community the ability to use the DCS and secure their content.
But what about smaller institutions, some of whom don't subscribe to electronic resources and have small bespoke libraries that fully utilise print materials and Digital Copies under their CLA licensed material? Although CLA also allowed authentication via IP ranges, students off campus or who were based remotely were unable to access content and therefore unable to use the DCS.
Many of these smaller institutions offered access to content simply via VLEs or Sharepoints and therefore federated solutions would not work for them.
There are, of course, other authentication methods, for example Active Directory, but making HEIs wait while each and every non-federated option was explored was not ideal when every HEI pays the same rate for the CLA HE Licence and expects the same level of access to CLA material and resources.
Therefore, CLA has released a new manual authentication method. Simply by uploading student emails, all students can access CLA licensed material. The DCS authenticates against the email and uses the email address to allow students to setup their passwords. Students can then create a login for simple access from then on. Students only need to login to access material once in a session, and we have set a session length at 12 hours, to match the sector's views on best practice.
This won't be the end of the DCS' exploration of authentication and access to content, but we believe the platform is now truly available to all higher education institutions in the UK with no more direct barriers to access.