Will Unizin be a game changer for higher ed?

Published June 17, 2014

Despite a decided lack of media attention before its official unveiling last week, Unizin — a new consortium of universities including Colorado State University, Indiana University, the University of Florida, and the University of Michigan — has the potential to transform several areas of higher education economics.

According to Unizin’s founders, a key goal of the project is to ensure that universities and their faculty stay in control of content they create, collectively owning the infrastructure that will deliver that content both on and off campuses. Another goal is to use open-standards software to create interoperability and to help scale digital education.

Unizin member schools will have access to services for sharing course content and analyzing how effective the teaching is for that content.

In a blog announcing their ambitions, co-founders Brad Wheeler, CIO and business school professor at Indiana University, and James Hilton, vice provost for digital education initiatives and information professor at the University of Michigan, pointed to lessons learned when universities failed to control their content.

“Research universities largely left the publication of journals to others, and that has not worked out well,” Hilton and Wheeler wrote. “We now pay an escalating, collective billions to rent the right to read our own scholarship each year.”

That’s in contrast, they say, to the group of universities that invested their own capital to create Internet2 in 1996: a university-owned and -operated high performance network.

“The lessons could not be more stark: Universities benefited immensely when we came together to steer our own path to scale by creating, owning, contracting, governing, and then uniquely using shared infrastructure to serve each university’s mission,” Hilton and Wheeler wrote.

Until Unizin’s formal announcement this week, the secrecy surrounding the “learning ecosystem” project had invited plenty of speculation about its goals. The publishers of the e-Literate blog, which owned the story from a reporting perspective, stepped into the knowledge gap with suppositions based partly on a thorough analysis of Wheeler’s past writings and presentations — and their speculation was basically spot-on.

Here’s what we knew about Unizin before the announcement, based on e-Literate’s reporting, and what was announced officially this week through its website and conference call with reporters:

  • E-literate: At least 10 schools had been asked to join the group: Indiana University, Colorado State University, Oregon State University, Purdue University, the University of Florida, the University of Maryland, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Utah. Rice University may have been considering joining.
  • Officially: Unizin’s founding partners are Colorado State University, Indiana University, the University of Florida, and the University of Michigan.
  • E-literate: The invitees were asked to chip in $1 million each for the project over a three-year period.
  • Officially:  Each member will pay about $350,000 per year for three years.
  • E-literate: The initial goal of Unizin seemed to be forming a buyers’ club to license the open-source learning management system, Canvas by Instructure. Unizin was also considering adding a learning object repository and a learning analytics platform. The expertise of Wisconsin and Purdue in the area of analytics may be a reason why those schools were asked to join.
  • Officially: Canvas will be used as the learning management system, but the membership fee does not cover the Canvas license fee for each member. Member schools will be able to use Unizin for a learning management system, learning analytics, to store content, and to provide their faculty and students with a learning infrastructure bearing the school’s own label. The end users will not see the Unizin brand.
  • E-literate: Unizin plans to hire an executive director soon.
  • Officially: No mention was made of an executive director. The Unizin website lists the group’s co-founders, Wheeler and Hilton.

Because the organizers of Unizin didn’t talk to e-Literate prior to the official announcement, the publishers of the blog tried to fill in the blanks based on hints from a Colorado State presentation on the consortium, Wheeler’s writings, and other sources.

Prior to the announcement, Michael Feldstein, co-publisher of e-Literate and a partner at MindWires Consulting, told Education Dive that it appeared the ultimate goal of Unizin was to reduce the cost of content and potentially develop a revenue stream from selling content or courses to students or other universities.

“I don’t know if Brad (Wheeler) is specifically focused on extracting revenues out of (massive open online courses),” Feldstein said. “I think MOOCs are a convenient pitch to universities that are already literally spending a million dollars or more on MOOCs, with no revenue stream. It’s easy for him to say: ‘Well, you’re already spending a million dollars on edX; we can give you the same or better, if you give the million dollars to us.”

On the conference call, Feldstein asked the Unizin founders if they had a long-term goal of creating a shared course content market among their members. Hilton, the Michigan vice provost, said it was not about creating a content market, but an attempt to help evolve standards so that previously isolated databases can be easily transported and shared.

Wheeler, the Indiana CIO, was less definite, though, about what Unizin will ultimately make possible, but he didn’t shoot down the content market concept. “We’ll see where it goes.”

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