Published June 11, 2014
The creators of Unizin explain the consortium’s functions.

After weeks of rumors, Colorado State University, Indiana University, the University of Florida and the University of Michigan on Wednesday unveiled Unizin, a consortium aimed at “tipping the table in favor of the academy” on digital education.

On a website that went live just after midnight this morning, organizers described Unizin as a sort of one-stop shop for digital education, supporting “flipped classroom[s], online courses/degrees, badged experiences for alumni, or even MOOCs if desired.”

The website lists James L. Hilton, dean of libraries and vice provost for digital education and innovation at the University of Michigan, and Brad Wheeler, vice president for IT and CIO at Indiana University, as Unizin’s co-founders. Ahead of Unizin’s launch, the two penned an almost 2,000-word blog post that reads as a manifesto for faculty- and university-led efforts into digital education.

“Unizin is a means to ensure that members of the academy shape the future in ways that best serve the noble mission that is higher education,” Hilton and Wheeler write. “It is a beginning. Over the coming months and years, we look forward to working with faculty, students, staff, foundations, other universities, and all who treasure the power that education, in its many forms, has to transform lives.”

By outsourcing digital education services — by partnering with a massive open online course provider, for example — Hilton and Wheeler argue that universities “shift control and economic power to entities outside of academia that develop and own technologies and services at scale.” As a result, “long held faculty and student rights regarding control of intellectual property and privacy might no longer be decided in the academy.”

To explain why the universities are going with this strategy, Hilton and Wheeler contrast how institutions chose to outsource scholarly publishing duties with their decision to form the Internet2 consortium.

“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 write. “Unizin is about learning from the past to create a member-owned Internet2 of Digital Education.”

The much-rumored initiative was first dissected on the higher education blog e-Literate last month, when higher education consultants Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill obtained documents from Colorado State along with a recording of faculty members there being briefed on the initiative.

Those documents suggested universities were asked to pay $1 million over three years in return for “about a seven-year payback.”

That million-dollar investment doesn’t buy any Unizin-created content, but rather access. “Unizin will contract for, integrate and operate shared services for its members,” according to the plans, providing “common infrastructure” that simplifies collaboration between colleges and universities.

Hilton and Wheeler use two comparisons to drive the point home: Unizin is “establishing ‘common gauge rails’ that enabled trains to go farther than when each train company had differing gauge rails,” and also the “‘Intel Inside’ behind the great brands of its members.”

According to the documents, the Canvas learning management system, developed by Instructure, will be used as a delivery platform, and the consortium also intends to build a learning analytics platform. Internet2 will serve as the consortium’s “fiscal agent.”

Although four universities are now on board, the lineup still falls short of a list of potential participants that, according to those early documents, also included the University of Maryland, Oregon State University, Purdue University, the University of Texas, the University of Utah and the University of Wisconsin.

Should the consortium attract a large number of university partners, however, it could pose a risk to learning management systems and MOOC consortiums, some experts argue.

“Assuming that Unizin could succeed in making a big media splash and attract students to their course catalog, I don’t see what edX offers that Unizin on Canvas couldn’t do better, and the value to administrators of getting all MOOC and non-MOOC courses on the same supported platform shouldn’t be underestimated,” Feldstein wrote, adding that the MOOC provider out of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute for Technology “should be very worried about Unizin poaching [its] customers.”

Two Unizin founders — Florida and Michigan — are members of Coursera, a MOOC-provider.

In a blog post for Inside Higher Ed last month, Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, wrote the Unizin rumors could also “create some significant discomfort among many in the Sakai world.” Indiana and Michigan are also founding members of the project that collaborated on the open-source learning management system.

Given the timing of the release, none of Unizin’s hypothetical competitors were able to respond to a request for comment.

By Carl Straumsheim

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