Universities to take back control of digital resources

A new consortium called Unizen hopes to exert greater control and influence over digital education

unizen-digital-resourcesFour large research universities have formed a new consortium in an attempt to wrestle some control of the digital learning landscape from educational technology companies, the founders announced Wednesday.

Called Unizin, the consortium consists of Colorado State University, Indiana University, the University of Florida, and the University of Michigan.

According to its website, Unizin will function as an evolving set of tools that can be used to improve all kinds of digital learning — including flipped classrooms, online courses and degrees, badged experiences for Alumni, and massive open online courses (MOOCs).

“It’s tilting the table in favor of interoperability and university control,” James Hilton, the vice provost for digital education at the University of Michigan, said in a conference call Wednesday. “It’s about affirming that our faculty and students create unique learning environments, not the technology.”

In a blog post last month about the then-rumored collaboration, consultant Michael Feldstein said Unizin should have organizations and companies like the MOOC consortium edX worried.

The Internet2 network, the consortium of 250 institutions that all four universities are members of, and the learning management system Canvas will be the framework for the collaboration. Canvas, developed by Instructure, also offers its own MOOCs.

“Assuming that Unizin could succeed in making a big media splash and attract students to their course catalog, I don’t see what edX offers that Unizin on Canvas couldn’t do better, and the value to administrators of getting all MOOC and non-MOOC courses on the same supported platform shouldn’t be underestimated,” Feldstein wrote. “If I were Anant Agrawal, I would be very worried about Unizin poaching my customers.”

(Next page: How much money are the universities investing in Unizin?)

Both Michigan and Florida are prominent members of the MOOC platform Coursera, and while none of the current universities are members of the edX consortium, Unizen does plan on expanding to include several more like-minded universities. In Wednesday’s call, however, Elias Eldayrie, chief information officer at the University of Florida, said Unizin will not be in the business of offering courses.

“You will never take a course from Unizin,” Eldayrie said.

The founding universities will each make a million dollar investment in the consortium over the next three years. Other universities hoping to join Unizin should also be willing to make an investment, the officials said Wednesday. But a university will not have to become a member in order for its students to benefit from the project, Hilton said.

“The point at the really broad level is to push for interoperability so no matter where the students are, if those institutions pay attention to those standards, then the world gets better for everybody,” he said.

That would require an awareness campaign about those standards, and Unizin — like Internet2 for that matter — is a “hard concept for people to get their heads around,” Hilton admitted.

“It’s about creating common gauge rails,” he said. “Its about leveraging open standards and making sure content and data can pull between tools and systems rather than being locked up inside a single tool.”

That train analogy made a few appearances in Wednesday’s call. Brad Wheeler, chief information officer at Indiana University and likely the driving force behind the consortium’s creation, equated the current digital education landscape to what would have happened if train companies had all used different track gauges.

If there had not been a standard for the spacing between rails, then all trains couldn’t travel along the same tracks. It’s the same with digital education tools, Wheeler said.

“There is a lot of capability out there already today, but where do these things go over time?” he said. “Do we want to repeat the last 15 years where each institution is an island and making one-off decisions about this technology or that technology? [Unizin] is shifting the game from one-off decisions to acting together.”

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