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'University' + 'Zinfandel' = Unizin


Unizin is “the Internet2 for digital education,” its founders say. It’s about “creating common gauge rails.” It will be a “goldmine for researchers.” And it begins with Canvas, Instructure’s learning management system.

The digital learning consortium, announced Wednesday morning, aims to simplify how universities share learning analytics, content and software platforms. But in order to do so, Unizin needs its members to use the same infrastructure. A common learning management system is the first part of that package.

“You don’t really have common infrastructure if you’re saying everything is heterogeneous,” said Brad Wheeler, the Unizin co-founder who serves as vice president for IT and chief information officer at Indiana University. “A lot of these different learning tools -- Sakai, Blackboard, Canvas -- they all do a bunch of really good stuff. But five universities picking five different ones -- what’s the end value in that if they want to do something together?”

To spur adoption of the learning management system, Unizin members gain access not only to the content other member institutions wish to share, but also to Canvas licenses. After pledging to invest $1 million over three years, some universities may find themselves asking why they should keeping paying to maintain two different systems. If Unizin proves a worthwhile investment, it may provide a powerful argument to pick Canvas over its competitors. 

“The presumption is if I join Unizin, I’m going to be using Canvas sooner or later,” said Joel Dehlin, Instructure’s chief technology officer. Joining Unizin without using Canvas, he added, is “like joining a country club and paying for the country club and not using the golf course.”

The partnership also gives Instructure a focus group of customers it can ping for feedback.

Unizin’s four founding universities -- Colorado State, Florida, Indiana and Michigan -- are all in different stages of moving to Canvas. Indiana has made the announcement. Florida will transition over the next two years. Michigan is in a pilot phase. Colorado State is “evolving” away from Blackboard Learn, said Patrick Burns, the institution’s vice president for IT.

“This is a hard decision,” Wheeler said about picking Canvas. “I think the key point is enabling Unizin to do what it’s meant to do.... The path for Unizin is creating a dependence on Unizin -- a university-owned entity -- but creating potential for greater interdependence among our institutions.”

Instead of differentiating themselves based on what software tools they individually pick, Wheeler said, Unizin’s member institutions will stand out based on what they do with the common platform -- in other words, the degrees they offer, the research they produce and the students they serve.

“It’s about leveraging open standards to make sure content and data can flow between tools and systems rather than remaining locked up inside a single tool,” said James L. Hilton, dean of libraries and vice provost for digital education and innovation at the University of Michigan. “We want to be able to enable innovation above the infrastructure level.”

That means Unizin won’t challenge massive open online course providers such as edX and Coursera or online “enablers” such as Academic Partnerships, Deltak, 2U and Pearson.

“You will never take a course from Unizin,” said Elias G. Eldayrie, chief information officer at Florida. “Unizin is not in the business of offering courses.”

Nor will Unizin build any software of its own with the help of a community of participants, similar to Kuali, Moodle or Sakai.

“Unizin strives to foster a community more concerned with creating and sharing content and improving outcomes,” the consortium’s website reads.

Yet in spirit, Unizin appears to be inspired by many of the same motivations that led to the foundation of the Sakai Project -- not to mention involving some of the same institutions.

“Sakai was actually very much motivated [by] making sure that, in the LMS space, the needs of the academy and the desire for openness and interoperability would play out,” Hilton said. “For us, the recognition has come that we need to move that a layer up, essentially.”

Blackboard, a staple in the learning management space, will be watching Unizin closely, said Mark Strassman, the company's senior vice president of product management. "We’ve noted with interest the fact that beyond the use of a single commercial LMS, the aspirational parts of this vision – content sharing and analytics – are ones we’ve invested in deeply," he said in a statement. 

While Sakai may be losing two of its founding members in Indiana and Michigan, the project is still “rockin’ and rollin’,” said Chuck Severance, incoming chair of the Sakai Project Management Committee. When it was founded in 2004, the project was meant to change the learning management system market, he said.

“We have never been aiming at market share,” Severance said. “We have been aiming at changing teaching and learning around the world.”

Gaining access to Canvas through Unizin doesn’t necessarily mean institutions will drop their old systems, Severance pointed out. Just as they invest in different kinds of software, he said, they may decide to run multiple learning management systems.

In a blog post to the Sakai community, Severance repeated those points, stressing "Sakai no longer depends on the founding schools to move the project forward."

Speaking as a clinical associate professor in Michigan’s School of Information, Severance said Unizin sounds like “a fine thing to try,” but added that “the jury is going to be out at a lot of schools as to whether or not this is all that it’s cracked up to be.”

For some institutions, Severance said, the investment may not be worth it. “Unizin is pretty clearly a U.S.-higher-education, top-schools kind of thing -- people who can just sit down and write a check without even knowing quite what they’re going to get,” he said. “A smaller school that just wants software to solve problems won’t contribute that much to Unizin or get that much from it.”

The founders did not mention a sliding fee scale that could make membership more attractive to institutions with smaller budgets.

As Wednesday’s announcement suggested, some of the core features of Unizin are still in the planning phase. During a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, a question about which kinds of metrics Unizin’s analytics tools will track was initially greeted with silence. Burns then suggested the consortium will try to “move the needle on student success -- retention, persistence and completion,” and Hilton said that just as universities will find different uses for Unizin, they will also have their own definitions of what constitutes success.

Connecting Unizin to his experience with working on Sakai, Severance recommended patience. “I think we should give Unizin a little time and not judge it too quickly,” he said.

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