ICON Direct: Iowa’s Recipe for Saving Students $1 Million

Leading up to the Unizin Summit 2019, we will feature a monthly Summit-centric blog post and webcast.  First up in the series is a Q&A with Annette Beck, Director of Enterprise Instructional Technology in the Office of Teaching, Learning & Technology at the University of Iowa, in which Annette will provide insight into Iowa’s inclusive access program.  Then join us on February 28th at 1pm ET for a panel webinar with experts from the University of Iowa, Unizin, and the Ohio State University.

Annette, can you tell us about your role at Unizin?

Sure! I am the Director of Enterprise Instructional Technology in the Office of Teaching, Learning & Technology at the University of Iowa. My team handles all the large-scale, campus-wide teaching and learning tools such as the learning management system, student response systems, digital media solutions, and web conferencing. Currently, we handle about 20 services and are always looking for more innovative, yet scaled services to help in the teaching and learning environment.

I have been involved with Unizin since Iowa became one of the founding members. I am the current co-chair of the Learning Tools Strategies and Operations group, which is all about the scaled technologies. I am also a member of the Teaching & Learning group, which is comprised of leaders in teaching and learning and is a strategic group helping to drive the vision of how members work together to build out plans for Unizin. I am involved in most of the subgroups for Unizin including faculty development, accessibility, learning analytics, and others.

I see Unizin as an opportunity to share content and data, and to collaborate with vendors, as a consortium which has over 900,000 students. Through Unizin, we have a strategic vision and bring perspectives from many different campuses to benefit the Consortium as a whole.

Several motivations might lead an institution to adopt a digital content program. What is motivating Iowa to pursue this program?

At Iowa, it is important to offer affordable alternatives for our students and, at the same time, give students the opportunity to use resources that best help them learn. This may include affordable content through Unizin’s membership, open educational resources through University Libraries, or faculty-created content directly in the LMS or other teaching tools. Unizin and its members work to provide high-quality, affordable learning materials and promote low-cost alternatives to printed texts.

Seeking out sound pedagogical teaching tools is important as well. Unizin offers both and that is why Iowa is one of the founding members. We want to help inform and influence vendors as a consortium to help our students. Cost savings is important, but so are the pedagogical benefits from using online course materials and other teaching tools. If students have easy access to course materials the first day of class, they are more likely to be successful.

We are building our learning ecosystem using Unizin tools as well as benefiting from some of the contracts with vendors. It is critical for our instructors and students to have consistency in their learning environment.

Does the Iowa affordable content program utilize eText, digital courseware, or both?

ICON Direct is just one of Iowa’s affordable content opportunities for students through the learning management system, ICON/Canvas. It provides students with a way to save money on textbooks while still providing them with all of the materials they need for class. Digital content, particularly eTexts, is becoming more popular across the country, and not just because of the cost savings. Students can search, annotate, and mark digital course materials, pose questions to their instructors within the text, and instructors can see which passages students highlight or content that may need more review. It opens up many new possibilities.

We have seen the most growth in online homework solutions in our first year. This means instructors who are already using these systems from publishers such as Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill do not necessarily have to change the way they teach, but students are able to attain course materials at a reduced cost. This has saved much faculty time in working directly with publishers, no longer having to figure out email, codes, payment, etc. as it works seamlessly through Unizin’s LTI platform in Canvas.

Unizin’s Engage eText platform allows students to use an online textbook, which allows them extra tools for searching, annotating, and marking digital course materials to review later. We have seen slower growth in this area, but momentum is starting to build. Instructors are starting to communicate more widely through this tool instead of saying the same thing in email after email to students who have the same questions.

Is OER available in your digital content program?

Other affordable content initiatives at Iowa are highlighted on the Office of the Provost website. University Libraries is leading our OER program on campus. Our hope is that we will be able to use Unizin’s Engage platform to eventually include OER, library resources, etc. so instructors have a “one-stop shop” for finding teaching materials.

Are there any early successes you can share?

After a two-semester pilot beginning fall 2017, Iowa has seen a large increase in participation for ICON Direct. In its first year, students have saved over $1 million on their course materials. ICON Direct is about finding new and creative ways to help students save money on course materials but also about providing materials at the right time.

These types of initiatives do not work in a vacuum, meaning there are important partners across campus who helped make this successful. My team has worked with application developers, the university bookstore, the financial aid office, and others to help offer this opportunity to our students.

Another important partner is our University of Iowa Student Government (UISG). This group is highly involved on our campus and their partnership, communication to students, and general support has been critical to the success. In fall 2017, they wrote a resolution stating that UISG supported ICON Direct. Students make a difference and having them publicly support this initiative helped jump-start the growth.

What are some unexpected roadblocks you have encountered along the way?

As with any new project or service, there are roadblocks along the way. I like to call them “challenges with opportunities.” Change is hard. I always try to anticipate what is going to cause pain with change.

Communicating to campus about the program and its benefits really helped. We tried not to do too much too soon. In other words, tackle one thing at a time. We wanted to concentrate on the pedagogical benefits, but all the momentum was about saving money for students so we started with that in mind and are now concentrating on the other benefits more.

We really had to consider how students pay for their course materials and figuring that all out, along with which students were going to most likely opt-out of the program, was a bit challenging. For example, we have special programs for high school students taking classes at Iowa, the GI bill, etc. That is something my team does not usually need to think about, but found ourselves knee-deep in learning about other areas of student activity. Having established relationships with the Registrar and Financial Aid Office early on was important to learning about and solving this quickly.

Students do not necessarily read email from IT departments, so we had to think of different ways to reach them. To accomplish this, we created talking points, pre-made modules in the LMS, etc. to make it easier and timely for instructors to explain to students how they could use and benefit from ICON Direct. The University Hawk Shop bookstore was also an early partner so they were able to talk with students who went to purchase books, but really needed to do it through ICON Direct.

We learned that that same thing goes for instructors. Give instructors the right amount of information, as they need it. Just in time. One thing we do now is send a quick email to instructors reminding them to input their orders in Unizin’s Order Tool. We also send them a quick email with easy to follow links to the ICON Direct program, sample verbiage for their syllabus, and when we will send reminders to students about opting out.

I would not consider these “roadblocks” per se, but things we did not anticipate.

What advice do you have for an institution that is interested in running a digital content program on their campus?

Plan, communicate, review, plan again, communicate again, and review again. You can sense a theme there, but also bringing the right stakeholders in at the beginning is crucial. No matter what project I work on, I try to think of all the possibilities of who might need to be involved. I would rather do that up front instead of in the middle of the project.

Build relationships with campus key stakeholders before you have to. Information technology, libraries, finance, bookstores, students, etc. are all important people. This is my “mantra” for everything. Do not just ask for help when you need it, but build those relationships so when you “need one another” you have already established those communication lines.

More importantly, it signals that you understand the value and importance of providing data to institutions in a way that is useful, interoperable, and immediate. As the Caliper standard is quite early in its adoption, you are also positioned as a thought leader in learning analytics: one who buys into a data-informed learning ecosystem vision and is willing to put the time and energy into realizing it.

IMS Global Caliper: What It Means for the Unizin Data Platform and the Higher Ed Community

People talking about documentation

Leading up to the Unizin Summit 2019, we will feature a monthly Summit-centric blog post and webcast.  First up in the series is a Q&A with Kara Armstrong, Unizin’s Product Manager for data, in which Kara will share her knowledge on Caliper.  Then join us on January 31st at 1pm for a panel webinar with experts from Unizin, IMS Global, and the University of Michigan.

Kara, can you tell us about your role at Unizin?

Sure! I am the product manager for Unizin’s data portfolio, which right now is comprised of the Unizin Data Platform (UDP), but will also include any products or services built on top of the UDP in the future as it matures.

What this means practically is that I act as the voice of our members, ensuring that their needs are appropriately understood and prioritized both internally (as part of the development of our data products) and externally (such as working with vendors to integrate them to the UDP).

In the latter capacity, I also participate in the working group for the IMS Global Caliper standard, which helps shape the exchange of teaching & learning data. My participation ensures that our members’ needs are appropriately addressed in the standard’s ongoing development.

So, you are definitely an expert on Caliper!  Can you explain what Caliper is and why it is important?

In short: Caliper is a technical standard for event data that is captured in an educational context. But let’s unpack that a bit:

When thinking about data in education, especially teaching & learning, you can think of it as having two parts: behavioral and contextual. Behavioral (or event) data is information about an action a person or system took — “Kara read a book”; “Jill created an assignment.” Contextual data is the context, or the scaffolding, in which that behavioral data took place: the course in which I was assigned the book or the cohort for whom you created the assignment, or the institutions at which we are both enrolled. Both pieces inform the other; you can think of behavioral as the “what” and contextual as the “why” or “how.”

Zooming in a bit on behavioral data, “Kara read a book” is understandable to us because English has syntactical rules that this sentence follows: it has a subject, a verb, and an object, and it’s ordered in a legible way. Similarly, Caliper defines the grammar of event data: what concepts should it capture?, and (equally as important) what concepts should it not capture?, and how should those concepts relate to each other?, and what structure should they be presented in?

Caliper, in contrast to other event standards like xAPI, constructs its grammar from an explicit dictionary of verbs and nouns. This strictness allows for a high level of semantic interoperability, which is important for two reasons: technically, systems are able to understand each others’ data; and conceptually, different participants in the data community (institutions, vendors, consortia, etc.) are able to understand each others’ use of data, because adoption of the standard acts as a lingua franca. That is, it makes it easier to both integrate data across a variety of systems and disseminate your opinions on how that data should be leveraged to drive data-informed processes to the larger learning analytics market when everyone is using the same standard.

What does it mean to be Caliper 1.1 certified by IMS Global?

As learning analytics grows, so too does the need for different vocabularies and concepts to be captured as a part of the Caliper specification. It is a document under active development, with new versions being released on a yearly basis. (Version 1.2 is slated for release in mid-2019.)

Caliper certification is IMS Global’s official seal of approval to confirm that your product emits events in a manner that aligns with a given version of the Caliper standard.

More importantly, it signals that you understand the value and importance of providing data to institutions in a way that is useful, interoperable, and immediate. As the Caliper standard is quite early in its adoption, you are also positioned as a thought leader in learning analytics: one who buys into a data-informed learning ecosystem vision and is willing to put the time and energy into realizing it.

In regard to the Unizin Data Platform (UDP), what are the benefits of being Caliper certified?

Unizin’s members deserve to own their data, but they also deserve to own it in a way that is usable, clean, actionable, and valuable. To make those requirements a reality, the UDP has a strong opinion on the types of data that it allows in, requiring that incoming data align with market-leading standards, like Caliper, that benefits our institutions as data users.

As part of enforcing this strong opinion, the UDP will reject incoming events that do not meet the Caliper 1.1 standard (including Caliper 1.0 events and xAPI statements). Caliper certification from IMS Global will ensure that your event data is able to safely make it into the UDP and immediately begin providing value for consumers of that data.

As the standard matures, the UDP will grow alongside it and allow for those newer versions to be brought in as well. Aside from the need to re-certify every year, keeping your products on the latest version allows you to provide richer, more descriptive, and thus more useful data to those end users and remain on the leading edge of the learning analytics market.

I’m from the teaching & learning side of the house in academia.  What does Caliper mean for me?

Academics should not have to be data wranglers, but oftentimes they have to be: different systems define similar data in different ways, and understanding how each system wants you to interpret that data is cumbersome. Caliper removes these idiosyncrasies, freeing academics up to actually focus on what they wanted to do with the data in the first place: generating actionable insights that improve T&L processes.

Thanks for joining us Kara!  If anyone is interested in meeting Kara in person to talk about Caliper, the UDP, or a variety of other topics, look for her at Educause ELI in February, the LAK Conference in March, and the Unizin Summit in April.

Major Milestones

Aaron Neal

Today’s announcement that the Unizin Data Platform (UDP) is now in General availability marks a strategic milestone for Unizin member universities.  We came together to ensure that we could shape our own future for digital education, stay in control of our own data, and push for open standards with interoperability at scale.  These words are often said, but it took the hard work of the committed member universities and the Unizin team to make this today’s reality.  With today’s announcement of the UDP and our first five members synching their campus and learner data, the Unizin Consortium is making a big step forward as the world’s largest learning laboratory with goals to improve the craft of education.

I am also delighted that Aaron Neal has joined Unizin as CEO and Dr. Jill Buban as Chief Academic Officer.  With Unizin’s great progress in reducing the costs of course materials, highly favorable agreements with many cloud services, integration of this work and now UDP, Unizin’s additional leadership is poised to continue to achieve the vision for Unizin’s members.

Michael Hoffher, Chair
Unizin Board of Directors

Vice President for IT & CIO
The Ohio State University

An Interview with Jennifer Sparrow, Unizin Teaching & Learning Chair

Jennifer Sparrow

How and why did you decide to take the lead on the Unizin Teaching & Learning committee?

Stacy Morrone of Indiana University took the lead in ensuring that this group was formed, and that the conversations were helping to advance the Unizin work on each of our own campuses.  It was clear that the group that came together was passionate about and dedicated to student success and affordability measures.  Stacy had a great vision for the forming and norming of the group, as well as the subcommittees that formed out of the first meetings.  Taking the lead after such a strong start was an easy decision.  It was imperative to continue the great work that had been started, and to get to do so with such incredible people makes for a good day’s work.

What has been your top priority as chair?

There are several priorities as chair, the first of which is tackling the ever-challenging issue of communications across a really diverse audience.  Answering questions such as, “How do we get faculty buy-in on the Unizin initiatives?” “How are we communicating the value of Unizin to our university administrators?” “How do we share the great work that’s being done with the larger higher ed community?”

Additionally, ensuring that the sheer girth of Unizin allows for insights and inputs into Canvas and the Canvas Roadmap.  An ongoing challenge with our vendor partners is to have a single, but large voice that can have a say into the priorities of these business teams that sit outside of our institutions, but daily impact our work.

Another area of interest that we are trying to evolve is the Unizin Data Platform and the related analytics capabilities.  This area is a rapidly evolving, and highly complex, environment.  Bringing the right people to the table around this discussion looks different at each of our institutions.

Would you say that the T & L committee has evolved much since you first stepped on as chair? If so, how?

The committee has evolved in several ways.  I think that the subcommittees have hit a stride in terms of meetings and work to be done.  The format of the meetings includes pre-meetings with the subcommittees to allow for a face-to-face deep dive into the work that needs to be done.

Additionally, we’re looking at some new subcommittees that will evolve over the summer months to be more inclusive of our campuses. These new subcommittees include librarians, the centers for teaching and learning, and application development.  Again, by bringing the best minds at each of our institutions together, we are far smarter than when we work alone.  That is the beauty of any consortium.

Are there any particular victories or challenges in this role that you’d care to share?

As with everyone (I think) on this committee, this is not my full-time job.  The work is incredibly important, but sometimes gets lower priority than the issues at our campuses.  Carving out the time to ensure that the valuable work is getting done is sometimes difficult.  One victory I would state is that we think for our next meeting, we will need all three rooms at the Big10 Center opened-up. This shows the willingness of people on our campuses to give time to this important work.


T&L Meeting in Chicago

Teaching & Learning meeting 2018

The bi-annual Unizin Teaching and Learning (T&L) Meeting was held in April at the Big Ten Center in Chicago. Preliminary subcommittee meetings were held on the afternoon of April 4th, and flurry of excitement could be felt as the general session convened the following day.

Subcommittee groups met to advance initiatives around affordable content, communications, analytics, Canvas and Instructure. Dinner groups formed that evening, enabling Unizin Consortium members to continue discussions on exciting developments well into the evening.

Numerous topics relevant to teaching and learning were discussed at the general session the following day. A few of these included:  the Unizin Data Platform, Unizin Engage, Pressbooks, OER content, the role of libraries in the digital learning ecosystem, Unizin Summit 2019, potential new subgroups, and much more.

Over 50 people attended the T&L meeting this April, doubling the committee’s original size since its inception just a few short years ago. At present, there are 120+ individuals on the T&L listserv.

“The Unizin T&L meeting brings together a unique group of learning technologists, librarians, and higher education leaders who share common goals of furthering student success through the best use of our existing digital education cyberinfrastructure. I have found this meeting to be a great way to make connections across the Unizin community of higher education institutions – it’s one of the most worthwhile meetings I attend,” says Robert H. McDonald, Associate Dean for Research & Technology Strategies at Indiana University.

T&L meetings present a unique opportunity for cross-institutional collaboration on the latest products and services available through Unizin. The next meeting will be held at the Big Ten Center in Chicago this September. We hope to see you there!

Iowa Insights from 2018 ELI Conference

Hosted in New Orleans, the 2018 EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) conference brought together instructors and staff from across the country to discuss “Achieving Student Success Through New Models of Learning.”

The University of Iowa Office of Teaching, Learning & Technology (OTLT) presented on a variety of topics ranging from “The Impact of Learning Environments on Student Success in an Engineering Course,” to “(Re)filling the Talent Pool: Programming, Practice, and Talent Development in Higher Ed.”

UI staff also collaborated with colleagues from across the Unizin Consortium to share insights on how Unizin tools and activities are advancing our vision for student success.

OTLT Senior Director Maggie Jesse presented alongside colleagues from Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin-Madison. Their presentation, “Collaborating Across Consortia” explored outcomes and opportunities that come from working with groups that have a similar mission. In this case, Unizin, the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA), and the University Innovation Alliance discussed their shared goal to enhance student success.

“Content Camp, which supports faculty in adopting OER in large courses (sponsored by Unizin and the BTAA), is a great example of an initiative that has emerged through our partnerships across the Consortia, “Jesse says.

ELI also provided Jesse and UI Enterprise Instructional Technology Director Annette Beck an opportunity to meet with their Unizin colleagues at the Unizin Teaching and Learning Community Meeting. The meeting provided Unizin Members an opportunity to connect face-to-face and further discuss their Unizin efforts including eTextbook initiatives and learning analytics.

“Meeting face-to-face offers an opportunity to network, collaborate and work strategically on Unizin’s common vision for sharing content, learning analytics and planning efficient use of vended solutions in our digital learning ecosystems,” Beck explains.

ELI has always been an extremely important community resource for OTLT. This year’s conference, in particular, was especially useful in re-emphasizing the abundant resources available through our Unizin Membership.

How Video Content Improves Learner Experiences

Close-up photograph of student viewing Canvas LMS interface on laptop

Written by Unizin’s Fall 2017 video production intern Sarah Nouri.

The creation and distribution of video content plays a key role in expanding and improving the way learners can access information. As a senior in college, I have witnessed a shift in the way the overall learning ecosystem operates, mainly with a growing reliance upon diverse types of video content to serve digital learners. Read More

Solving the Learning Data Puzzle: The Unizin Common Data Model

Lecture hall full of students on their laptops

If you’re thinking about how to improve student success – and who isn’t in higher ed? – then data and analytics about teaching and learning are probably on your mind. It can be a daunting subject.

There is so much data all around us – about students and courses; the planning, design, and delivery of instruction; and learning behaviors and results – that it may feel overwhelming. How can all of this data be brought together and made useful for faculty, instructional designers, researchers, other staff, and even students?

The Unizin Common Data Model (UCDM) is the Unizin Consortium’s approach to solving the teaching and learning data proliferation puzzle. We will explore why this puzzle is so hard to solve, why the UCDM is a sound consortium solution, and how the UCDM will work. Read More

Two Unizin Members Complete Migration to Canvas

two female students studying together with laptop and books in a library

Unizin recognizes Instructure’s Canvas as the top learning management system on the current market because of its incomparable interoperability, innovative content and analytics capabilities, and open standards. Currently, all of Unizin’s Founding Members have Canvas either fully implemented on their campus or are piloting the LMS. This summer, the University of Iowa and The Ohio State University, two Unizin Founding Members, completed their migrations from the D2L learning management system and are in full production with Canvas.

“We were looking to expand our learning ecosystem,” says Annette Beck, Director of Enterprise Instructional Technology at the University of Iowa, as she reflects on the university’s journey to Canvas. “Most LMS systems have very similar core capabilities, but we wanted to go beyond the basics to provide something more for our instructors, our students, and our institution. Doing that without Unizin seemed daunting, and even unattainable, at times.” Read More

Data Management: The Fundamentals

close up photograph of a laptop


Data is becoming the most valuable digital asset, and getting data management right is as critical an issue for universities as other businesses. For Unizin, this is non-negotiable: Data belongs to the universities and needs to be accessible and standardized to enable institutions to use that information as they see fit. A common data model and architecture can accelerate management of this data for all of higher education, while allowing universities to focus on innovating above the data architecture.
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