Imagine this: identity computing

October 25, 2012 | Leave a comment

I originally wrote this over on Google+.

I’m sat at my laptop, which has a monitor attached via a digital connection. On the other side of my desk is my phone, and a tablet.

That’s the setup I actually have right now, as I’m writing this. But all these devices (monitor aside) are connected to the Internet, rather than each other. And they’re mostly incompatible. What if they all knew about each other in relation to each other’s position? And what if they were part of one big, decentralized, identity-aware system?

I pull up my email, and with one mid-air gesture – swipe – it swooshes across to my second monitor. I grab a document, and with another gesture – swipe – it lands on my tablet. Finally, I take the project I’m working on, for example source code in an IDE, and with another gesture – swipe – it’s on my phone.

They’re all talking to each other as a mesh network, and because they’re all my devices, I can move applications to them with no problem, my computer and datastore always acting as the central hub, with authentication handled through my saved identity information.

Then you walk up holding a device (a phone, or a tablet), and I want to share that document with you. Swipe, thumbs up – after a gesture and a confirmation by both of us, you have the information running on your screen. I might revoke it later, but for now, you can read it and make suggestions. (And no, that thumbs up isn’t the default gesture, but I’m a cheeseball, and I like giving my data the thumbs up.)

You walk away, and your device switches seamless from the proximity mesh network to using the Internet to access the data and keep it synchronized. I decide to go for lunch, so I pick up my phone. My other devices lock down. While I’m at lunch, I can still check out all my data and applications through my phone, using my Internet connection. And as I walk back to my desk, my other devices unlock. I see that my colleague has used my laptop while I was away, but that’s cool; it will have used their phone as their identity, and they will have seen their own applications and data. In fact, these days I use my phone to authenticate everywhere – although I can choose any one of my devices to be my primary identity. I can pick a couple as secondaries, too, and I can always nominate a new primary if I lose or change my phone. And of course, this is my work ID; I can flip over to my personal ID, or a pseudonymous ID, if I need to. Depending on the permissions, I can even share data, applications and resources between IDs. (My work ID doesn’t let me do that, but I can certainly set my main personal ID and my pseudonym ID to share some stuff.)

Now that I’m back at my desk, I see that you’ve made some changes to the document. I accept them, revoke access, and swipe you a new document. Even though you’re not nearby, the Internet allows me to act as if you are. It’s as useful as it ever was, but it’s more of a long-range extender for my personal network, and a backup, than the place where I always live.

There’s no need for my applications to live in “the cloud”, although they could. But identity-aware decentralized computing gives me the freedom to share with the people I need to, on the devices that make sense at the time, in the place that makes sense at the time. My applications are smart enough to decouple form from function, so they adapt to the screen and capabilities of my choice (and the operating platform handles a lot of the heavy lifting here, making sure interfaces are consistent – and adhere to my settings – in the process). And my data can live anywhere I need it to.

Access to free courses is a freedom of speech issue

October 19, 2012 | Leave a comment

ClassroomThe Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the State of Minnesota is requiring any degree-granting educational institution providing an online course to pay a registration fee:

Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst for the state’s Office of Higher Education, said letters had been sent to all postsecondary institutions known to be offering courses in Minnesota. She said she did not know specifically whether letters had been sent to other MOOC providers like edX and Udacity, and officials there did not immediately respond to questions from The Chronicle.

Slate adds more detail about the purpose of the law:

State law prohibits degree-granting institutions from offering instruction in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. (The fee can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, plus a $1,200 annual renewal.) That means that it’s Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, the University of Melbourne, et al. that are violating Minnesota law by partnering with Coursera to offer courses that Minnesota residents can take for free.

This seems counter-intuitive to me. Accreditation is important; there are plenty of non-accredited degree scams out there. But banning a free course that carries no degree credits? I’m not a lawyer, but that appears to be a First Amendment violation. After all, that’s all a free course really is: expression. A sensible requirement might be for the courses to clearly say they don’t carry credit, in order to protect consumers, but an outright ban is fundamentally counter-productive.

Of course, there is likely to be a time when the Internet disrupts the institutional accreditation process, just as it’s disrupted many other gatekeeper processes. That will raise some serious issues: I think accreditation really is important to protect both students and employers, and I think it’s fair to say that many online course startups are positioning themselves in readiness for this change. Finding a way to protect the job market, students and educators will be important. But restricting access to information is never the answer – and particularly not here, where knowledge from traditionally expensive institutions is being made available to everybody.

Update: the Minnesotan Office of Higher Education has responded to the furore:

“When the legislature convenes in January, my intent is to work with the Governor and Legislature to appropriately update the statute to meet modern-day circumstances,” said Pogemiller [director of the Office]. “Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings.”

There’s more over at the Washington Post.