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The Importance of Federation: California Community Colleges Join InCommon

A Q&A with Tim Calhoon

"Federated identity — the InCommon piece — underpins of all this; it's the architectural element that makes it all work."  — Tim Calhoon

California COmmunity Colleges logo on 3D plane

With 72 autonomous districts and 112 colleges, the California Community Colleges are looking to federated identity as an important element of their technology strategy. This week, they've announced that the system is joining InCommon. CT spoke with California Community Colleges Technology Center Executive Director, Tim Calhoon, for some insight on the CCC's move.

Mary Grush: What is the background of technology change at the California Community Colleges that ultimately led to your more current push for federated identity?

Tim Calhoon: The story really begins for us way back in the late 1990s. The community colleges at that time were putting together a fiber optic network, 4CNET, which eventually was folded into what is now our fiber optic network in California operated by CENIC. It's the California Research and Education Network that all of education in California ties into. This was the first time that the California Community Colleges acted together in a technical project. We worked together to make it happen, and the result is that all the community colleges now have broadband Internet that's paid for centrally.

The next significant project was to normalize the application for admissions. This idea came about particularly to give us data integrity coming into the system — we had our infrastructure, but we were having some problems with data integrity throughout our system. We also worked on the exchange of electronic transcripts among the community colleges.

Those were the projects that really laid the groundwork for the centralization of technology in our system. Then in the year 2001, the colleges began adopting CCCApply, the new application for admissions. By 2010 — this took almost ten years — 103 of the 112 colleges were using it.

I should note here that as a system we're a very distributed model and we can't actually mandate that our colleges use any of this. We built all this with steering committees composed of stake holders from across the colleges. So everything we do is really owned and governed by the colleges themselves.

By 2008, we came to the realization that because CCCApply was a centralized piece of software used by the overwhelming majority of the colleges, we could use it as a lever to move forward with technology at the colleges. So we decided to begin to build a whole new application for admission, and with that, at the same time, we'd create a whole new technology platform [for the CCCs, systemwide].

There were several elements in the new platform that we developed over time, and several that are to become more established going forward. We want to deliver a new suite of student services that provide a unified user experience through our enterprise portal environment; we want to take advantage of cloud computing and the ability to scale; security is always a big issue we want to address; and finally, we want to take advantage of federated identity.

So we really laid the groundwork for all of that, with the new version of CCCApply, called OpenCCCApply.

Grush: How is identity relevant in OpenCCCApply? Are you able to push for federated identity there?

Calhoon: Yes. That's related to our new, systemwide student account — the OpenCCC account. Now, when students apply for admission, they create an OpenCCC account. Each account has just one identifier, which we call the CCC ID. It's their one identifier. And especially because our students often attend several different colleges, even occasionally two or three colleges at the same time, we need a way to tie their data together. So in terms of doing that, and in terms of establishing federated identity, the single CCC ID is becoming a very important asset.

Grush: How is the adoption of OpenCCCApply?

In terms of adoption, we finally released the new application for admissions in 2013, and by the end of this June, we'll have about 100-105 of the 112 colleges using it. We now have more than 1.5 million new student accounts that use new CCC ID.

Grush: A little more specifically, where are you with your push for federated identity?

Calhoon: OpenCCCApply and the new CCC ID has been a big effort for us, but now, layer on the concept of federated identity. And I think I mentioned, because basically all the colleges needed CCCApply, we used it as a lever. We've been able to offer the the new version of CCCApply to the colleges at no cost. So we said to the colleges, "If you are going to go to this new version of CCCApply, we need you to stand up a Shibboleth identity provider, and to federate." And those colleges have done that, and they do see the benefits of federating.

Grush: What are some of the areas you are working on in your new suite of service applications, where colleges will realize the benefit of federated identity?

Calhoon: Here are three major efforts: First, we are working towards a common course management system for the California Community Colleges. Secondly, we're also working on common assessment and a placement test to use across the system. And the third area is education planning, degree audit, and career exploration.

Grush: What does this look like from a student's point of view?

Calhoon: If you were to look at a college campus maybe 15 years ago, all of the college's data would be contained in their data center. And students would probably have multiple accounts — one for each of the different services they use on campus. And everything would be contained there on the campus. Today, colleges have many applications or services that they'll make available to students — library services, the course management system, maybe Google Apps or Office 360, and so many more. But federated identity will allow one single sign on for the student to access all of these.

Grush: Is the California Community College system offering the colleges InCommon membership at no charge?

Calhoon: Yes, the system is offering the colleges InCommon membership at no charge. Initially this will be useful for the colleges to get their students to our own systemwide offerings. But over time, the individual colleges may also take advantage of other services available to InCommon members.

Grush: So it must be that there are many areas yet to be explored, where the colleges may realize the advantages of federated identity and benefit from their InCommon memberships. Are there also implications for linking to the other statewide systems — the CSUs and the UCs?

Calhoon: Yes, of course there are great possibilities in using federated identity with our sister systems in the state as well as with with other services in the future. Federated identity — the InCommon piece — underpins of all this; it's the architectural element that makes it all work. 

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