Published June 11, 2014

The University of Florida has joined a consortium of public research universities looking to develop a “learning ecosystem” that would enable them to seize control of their online learning programs and map out their own future.

The consortium, called Unizin, will allow UF and three other universities — Indiana University, University of Michigan and Colorado State University — to pool their resources instead of going it alone in the creation of online educational programs, saving each university money and speeding the development of their online programs.

And, collectively, they will be able to negotiate better prices for services from technology vendors and other digital learning partners.

“It is important for UF to address large infrastructure needs in online education in a coordinated and integrated fashion,” Provost Joe Glover said via email. “Since the development of these resources is a large project, it makes sense for a consortium of institutions to pool their resources to accelerate development.”

As founding investors, UF, Michigan, Indiana and Colorado State each will contribute $1 million over three years to finance the required infrastructure for creating a common learning management system and repository, and for conducting learning analytics.

Other universities that have been invited to join the consortium include Oregon State, Purdue and the universities of Maryland, Texas, Wisconsin and Utah.

The consortium will provide a common learning management system — or tech platform — for the four universities, a “learning object repository” where the charter members could share the material they’ve developed for online.

Finally, it will provide learning analytics — the gathering and measuring of data about students and how they learn.

That system will be delivered over the secure research and education fiber optic network developed by Internet2 — a nonprofit community of 252 American universities, 82 corporations and scores of government agencies, researchers and education networks.

Such consortia are not new to higher education, said Anthony Picciano, executive officer of the Ph.D. program in Urban Education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Picciano was a co-founder of CUNY Online in 1998, a multimillion-dollar initiative funded by the Arthur P. Sloan Foundation. He also is a co-founder and board member of the Sloan Consortium, one of the earliest collectives for online learning.

“I think it’s a good idea, actually, to develop a learning platform that will generate learning objects,” Picciano said. “There is a savings if you can do things collaboratively.”

The Unizin consortium’s board of directors is made up of administrators from the four universities — Elias Eldayrie, UF’s chief information officer; Brad Wheeler, CIO and vice president for information technology at IU; James Hilton, dean of libraries and vice provost for Digital Education Initiatives at UM; and Patrick Burns, vice president for Information Technology and dean of libraries at CSU.

Eldayrie said the consortium is a means to an end.

“We really hope to influence and control the ecosystem of digital learning and higher education,” Eldayrie said. “If we put our efforts together as universities, we are going to be better off, in a much better position in how learning impacts students and aids faculty in doing day-to-day teaching.”

The consortium has contracted with Instructure for use of its Canvas learning management system. UF currently runs its e-learning on Sakai, an open source provider, Eldayrie said. “We will transition out of Sakai and be going to Canvas over the next 24 months,” he said.

UF already uses Canvas broadly across the campus for online learning, he said.

The intellectual property generated by faculty will be gathered in the learning repository that others across the consortium community could access for their courses. Such objects could include syllabi, videos, instructional games and other materials used by online faculty in their courses.

There are discussions of licensing the material and letting non-consortium members use it for a fee, Eldayrie said.

“We haven’t gotten as far as the fee structure and licensing, but it’s one of the things that could very well happen,” Eldayrie said.

The third component, the learning analytics, links the learning management system and the learning objects repository and is key to mapping out the future, Eldayrie said.

“We will be able to look at both the learning management system and repository to turn data into information for faculty, students and administrators to help influence the learning environment,” he said.

It will enable them to perform predictive analysis, help students with their academic progress and adapt courses to their learning experience by helping faculty figure out what works and what doesn’t work, Eldayrie said.

“It will be the brain behind the operations,” he said.

And with so many institutions of higher learning branching into online learning, he said, the data being generated could be useful to UF’s researchers — and Big Data is one of UF’s pre-eminence priorities.

“We believe the consortium will help us do that,” Eldayrie said.

Also, the money UF invests in this consortium is less than half of what it would have to spend to develop a learning object repository and analytics on its own, Eldayrie said.

“Each of these universities were trying to do the same thing on their own. They were going to invest regardless,” he said.

But they realized that they can do it cheaper, better and faster if they pooled their resources than if they went out on their own. Eldayrie said.

“We anticipate moving UF Online forward would cost at least $2 million on our own,” Eldayrie said. “By investing $350,000 a year for three years, collectively we can get there faster and cheaper.”

Staff writer

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