Universities join to control destinies in digital learning environment


“A world of opportunities.”

That’s how James Hilton, vice provost for digital education and innovation, describes the possibilities of a consortium of universities, joined together by a desire to create and share digital tools and data, in effort to enhance the learning experience for students today.  

The organization is called Unizin, and to date 11 universities have signed on to work together toward three goals:

• To help faculty, students, and institutions manage the content they create.

• To foster interoperability among the various systems for teaching and learning, and break down the barriers that exist between platforms.

• To facilitate learning analytics in order to improve student outcomes.

The founding members are Colorado State University, Indiana University, University of Florida, University of Michigan, Oregon State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Minnesota, University of Iowa, Pennsylvania State University, Ohio State University and University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Each university has not only committed to the concept in principle, but has contributed financially to the organization.

U-M was one of the first to lead on this effort to reign in the wild west of digital education, with an overarching goal to make sure universities drive the innovation that will impact this form of learning.

As a founding member of the Unizin Consortium, U-M has the opportunity to build and influence the evolving digital learning landscape of higher education.

Laurel Thomas Gnagey of Michigan News posed some questions to Hilton about the project and where it stands since the campus first heard about it in June 2014.

What is the advantage of having multiple universities looking at how content is captured, delivered and analyzed?

With 11 large public research universities operating on the same set of services, we have the opportunity to create the world’s largest learning laboratory. On the data analytics front, Unizin will help us figure out how to personalize learning at scale. It gives us the opportunity to see what works best for whom, across an enormous range of students.

On the content front, Unizin is about developing tools that give faculty and students greater control over what they choose to use, re-use, share, and keep private. 

So, we’re approaching the end of our first year since Unizin came about. What has happened in that year?

Lots. At Unizin, the consortium has grown from four members to 11. That’s important both because it brings more capital to invest in the ecosystem and because it makes us the largest higher education group adopting Canvas, a learning management system. 

We have hired a CEO and staff located in Austin. In the next couple of months, Unizin will be releasing the Content Relay 1.0 and piloting the Analytics Relay — two key pieces of the Unizin ecosystem. The content relay will allow faculty to store, discover and manage digital resources including course materials, scholarly works, and curriculum-based learning objects. It will also provide access to a variety of diverse digital repositories (e.g., Deep Blue and, HathiTrust).  The analytics relay will help ensure that data from the various applications that come into the Unizin ecosystem will be available for analysis.

In addition, Unizin is in the process of launching a community forum for members and connecting with faculty on member campuses. As we look at the second half of 2015, we expect to see applications beyond the learning management system (i.e., Canvas) come into the Unizin set of services.

Locally, we are wrapping up the second round of Canvas pilots and looking at the evaluations of them. Over the summer and in the fall, the pilots will move from targeted experiments to an open call. That is, faculty members who want to run their class in Canvas are now able to do that.

Can you elaborate more on Canvas and its relationship to Unizin?

Unizin is focused on ensuring that the relationships between content, applications and data stay “loosely coupled.” It’s strategically focused on making sure that institutions and their faculty stay in control of our content, data and reputations. It’s about creating a digital ecosystem that enables analytics, content discovery and standards-based applications. It’s a long play aimed at shaping the digital bricks and mortar upon which both residential and online learning depend.

Canvas is the first major application that has been brought under the Unizin umbrella. Canvas is the fastest-growing learning management system. Unizin picked Canvas because Canvas has established a remarkable record in its use of open IMS (Open Source Implementation) Global standards and (mostly) open source software. Many faculty and student groups have developed innovative add-ons through the Canvas open APIs. By adopting Canvas at the launch of Unizin, we are able to provide a state-of-the-art learning management system that conforms to the core principles of Unizin.

Can you explain the reason we have led the charge, as one of the four founding universities, on this consortium?

Unizin supports the differing missions and strategies of universities, allows us to manage the best innovations from the market while managing its inherent stickiness, enhances our ability to store and share content and analytics, and promotes the use of standards to enable innovation at scale.

We want to support faculty and universities by ensuring that institutions and their faculty stay in control of the content, data, relationships and reputations that we create. As we look at the rapidly emerging infrastructure that enables digital learning, we want to bias things in the direction of open standards, interoperability and scale.

Unizin is about tilting the table in favor of the academy by collectively owning (buying, developing, and connecting) the essential infrastructure that enables digital learning on our campuses and beyond.

In many ways, these and other efforts to change the way we teach are seen as big departures from the tried-and-true way Michigan students have learned for generations. What can we say to those who may have a sense of unease about where all of this is going or who haven’t yet captured the vision?

Residential education will remain Michigan’s “north star.” The education that students get at U-M is fabulous. At the same time, digital technology offers a wealth of opportunity to improve teaching and learning.

The rich data that are generated by digital tools allow us to look in new ways at what works best for different kinds of learners. Similarly, new content delivery tools — whether it’s massive open online courses (MOOCs), eTexts, simulations, or online problem sets — allow us to rethink how best to take advantage of the gift of the physical classroom. How do we best spend the time we have with students when they are together in one place, surrounded by a community that is bound together by a common commitment to discovery?

Sometimes, the best way to spend that time will be in a lecture hall. But often it won’t be, and digital tools open up the possibility of creating more diverse learning experiences and helping us better connect our teaching and research missions.   

For those who may wonder about the difference between this endeavor and Sakai, what can we say that would clear up that confusion?

Both Sakai and Unizin share the fact that they seek to keep the academy in control of the digital learning infrastructure. Where they differ is in their methods. Sakai is a community-sourced software development program. Sakai builds open source tools that individual institutions can run and modify as they see fit. Unizin is more about integrating standards-based tools, whether open source or vendor provided, to ensure that the best innovations that come out of both communities are available to use and running those in a hosted environment that facilitates analytics and content use at scale.

If I am a faculty member who has an idea for a digital tool or method, or maybe I already have one I’ve been using in my own world, what can this consortium do for me?

Because Unizin is focused on using standards-based tools, and helping extend and develop open standards where they do not yet exist, the Unizin ecosystem is designed to evolve as new tools come along. The best way to explore connecting a new tool with Unizin is to talk with folks in Information and Technology Services, and Digital Education & Innovation about the tool you envision or are using so that we can begin to evaluate its fit with our local implementation of Unizin tools, and evaluate it for inclusion in the broader set of Unizin services.



  1. Mike Scheuermann
    on June 25, 2015 at 7:59 am

    I have written to the Unizin folks to learn how Drexel University can become a part of this consortium. Thanks for the insights that convinced me to reach out to them. As the Associate VP of Instructional Technology Support, in central IT, as well as an adjunct faculty member, I need to lead the charge here and get the Provost and faculty involved as well.

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