Published June 11, 2014

The University of Michigan and three other major U.S. research universities have formed a technology consortium to improve the way in which educational content is shared across universities and ultimately delivered to students.

Unizin, a partnership among U-M, Colorado State University, Indiana University and the University of Florida, will provide a common digital infrastructure that will allow member universities to work together to strengthen their traditional missions of education and research using the most innovative technology available today.

For instructors, Unizin will provide powerful content storing and sharing services that will allow them to retain control over the use of their intellectual property.

For example, a faculty member can publish a lesson plan to be used by other instructors that will note the creator as the originator. Or, when a faculty member is building a syllabus they can search member institutions for content that may make their course more effective.

Students will benefit by gaining access to course materials from some of the best minds in higher education in formats that serve their individual needs – from massive open online courses (MOOCs) and flipped classrooms, where lectures are given online and class time is reserved for discussion and group work, to traditional in-person courses.

“Unizin stands behind open and transparent standards that allow institutions to use multiple tools and reuse content,” said James Hilton, U-M dean of libraries and vice provost for digital education. “Unizin is about sharing infrastructure – it doesn’t differentiate us from each other. What will differentiate us is what we do individually and together.”

The tools and services eventually provided through Unizin also will allow partner institutions to collect and analyze large amounts of data that provide clearer assessments of student learning. These analytics will provide insight into the ways students best learn, thus shaping future approaches to teaching. Analytics will allow faculty members to get as much information as they can about how their students are accessing information within the learning platform and can identify trouble spots.

The development of policy around data access and privacy will be the result of faculty input.

“When the faculty at our institutions are using Unizin to offer MOOCs, online programs and in-class residential learning, the outcome is highly engaged, active learning,” said Laura Patterson, chief information officer and associate vice president for Information and Technology Services. “The outcome also feeds into improved teaching and learning, whether it’s a MOOC to thousands or a five-person graduate seminar.”

While much attention over the last two years has been given to the tools and providers that support MOOCs, Unizin will focus broadly across all of the technologies that are used to create and deliver digital content, services and data for residential and online educational environments. Unizin seeks to give institutions control over the digital education ecosystem, which will include strategically contracting with leading vendors and supporting open standards.

Discussions around the concept of Unizin began more than a year ago and resulted in a charter to enable content sharing, common software systems, and greater scale in analytics. The charter was signed by each of the founding partners, and Internet2 will host the Unizin consortium. Each investing institution has committed $1 million to Unizin over the next three years to develop and shape the shared services.

Unizin will operate as an unincorporated association with an operating agreement with Internet2,
 a leading not for profit global technology organization with more than
 500 member institutions across the higher education, government and 
business communities. The Unizin platform will be delivered over the
 ultra high-speed national research and education network operated by 
Internet2 on behalf of the U.S. research university members.

“The intent of Unizin is to create a community, akin to Internet2, of like-minded institutions that are willing to invest time and resources into creating a service grounded in openness and collaboration that will allow all members to leverage the tremendous power of today’s digital technologies,” Hilton said. “In that spirit, we look forward to welcoming additional members to the Unizin consortium.”

New learning management option available through Unizin

By joining Unizin, U-M will have access to the Unizin license agreement to Canvas, a common learning management system for use by member institutions. Canvas is a cloud-based technology platform that provides a wide range of functions associated with university classroom administration, including assignments, grading, student-teacher communication, collaborative learning tools and more.

U-M’s current system, CTools, will continue to be supported and maintained for at least another two years, for both classroom-related and project-based use. Beginning this summer, a faculty-led sub-committee of the Digital Innovation Advisory Group will develop a plan to evaluate Canvas, which may include pilots and other evaluation activities.

“While the university has realized tremendous value from its investment in CTools, there has been significant innovation in learning systems and it is a good time for the university to begin exploring other options,” Patterson said. “We already have units and faculty that have expressed an interest in participating in a pilot. The decision to, and pace at which we implement, will be driven by the faculty.”

“This is the first of many technology-related services that Unizin plans to provide to its members that will allow universities and their faculty to take greater control over how educational content is created, used and shared, and which we hope will result in the creation of powerful analytics that will lead to improved student outcomes,” Hilton said.

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