In a recent post on Kuali, I characterized Unizin as a community source initiative. Brad Wheeler, CIO at Indiana University and co-founder of Kuali and Unizin, responded via email (with permission to quote):
Unizin is not a Community Source effort in the way that I understand Community Source as we started applying the label 10+ years ago. Unizin is better understood, as you have reported, as a cloud-scale service operator somewhat like I2. It does not plan to do lots of software development other than as needed for integrations. No biggie, just a nuanced observation from the end of the story.
Brad is correct, and I note that Unizin document has been fairly consistent in the lack of plans for software development, as seen in Unizin FAQs:
Is Unizin another open- or community-source project like Sakai or Kuali?
No – those endeavors focus on building software as a community, for use by individual institutions. Unizin strives to foster a community more concerned with creating and sharing content and improving outcomes.
I have already revised the Kuali post to add a clarification on this point. I asked Brad whether this means that Unizin is ruling out software development. His reply:
Unizin is working on its roadmap for each area. If we do need to head down some development approach that is more than integration, we’ll give thought to the full range of options for best achieving that, but there is no plan to begin an open/community source effort at this time.
All public indications are that Unizin plans to source existing technologies (as they have done with Canvas as the LMS) for content repository and learning analytics functionality, focusing any software development on integrations.
Potential New Consortium Members
Based on two articles about the University of Iowa (D2L) exploration of Unizin1, the University of Illinois (Blackboard), University of Wisconsin (D2L), University of Minnesota (Moodle), and Ohio State University (D2L) are listed as schools that are “close to joining” Unizin, quoting the Iowa CIO and an internal Illinois email.
The original four consortium members are Indiana University, University of Michigan, University of Florida and Colorado State University. Unizin materials originally indicated the following set of potential partners:
- Colorado State University (Blackboard)
- Indiana University (Sakai)
- Oregon State University (Blackboard)
- Purdue University (Blackboard)
- University of Florida (Sakai, with some use of Canvas)
- University of Maryland (Canvas)
- University of Michigan (Sakai)
- University of Texas (Blackboard, with at least one campus in the process of moving to Canvas)
- University of Wisconsin (Desire2Learn)
- University of Utah (Canvas)
Of the new schools mentioned, only Wisconsin appears on the earlier list.
From the first article:
Lon Moeller, the associate provost for undergraduate education, will present the idea to the council. He said he is not yet sure whether the UI will commit to Unizin.
“We’re talking to faculty and administrators across campus to see if there’s interest in Unizin as a program,” he said. “We’re evaluating Unizin as a pilot project.”
From the second article:
“We are discussing doing a pilot project for next spring, but we need to decide if the project is worth our time,” Fleagle [CIO] said.
The articles make it sound like UI officials are pushing for the campus to join Unizin:
If the UI decided to join Unizin, it could have input into the new software as well as help to develop it.
“There is no software yet. The four partners [Colorado State, Indiana, Florida, and Michigan] are working on it,” Fleagle said. “They have groups working on it now. If we wanted to do it, we need to get in so that Iowa’s needs can get met … The disadvantage of waiting is that you don’t get access to those discussions right away. I think we have as good of people at Iowa as anyone else involved influencing it.”
I talked to Maggie Jesse, Senior IT Director for the Office of Teaching, Learning, & Technology, to get a better understanding of their decision process. The picture that emerges is a campus that has been invited to join Unizin, is potentially willing to do a pilot program, but is not in marketing mode.
To set the stage, Iowa recently performed an assessment to get campus feedback on ICON, their branded version of the LMS. The message coming back from the assessment was that faculty were not motivated to do a major change – they were not unhappy and did not need the burden of an LMS change. Furthermore, Iowa just completed an upgrade to ICON, changing the D2L version and reconfiguring the campus hosting and support structure.
In the article quote above, a faculty member had asked whether Iowa should just wait for others to join Unizin and let Iowa decide later. Steve Fleagle answered that the argument for deciding early was to influence Unizin direction. The pilot option allows Iowa to work within its usual culture of campus decision making- piloting a system and then taking the outcomes to the campus for a decision. Iowa has developed a communications plan to discuss a possible Unizin pilot with over 20 different campus groups to determine if there is interest in Unizin, and yesterday’s meeting was just one of these.
The first article quoted sections of an email at the University of Illinois that reflected a poor understanding of Unizin [emphasis added].
Charles Tucker, the vice provost for undergraduate education and innovation at the University of Illinois, wrote in an email that the benefits of many universities joining Unizin include being able to band together to “influence the companies that provide software for teaching and learning.” [snip]
Tucker said the system can streamline different technologies to make things simpler for professors and students.
“The Unizin approach is to promote a standards-based approach where the same digital course materials can work in any learning-management system,” he said. “Faculty spend less time making the technology work, and students get a better course.”
This statement is odds with the description at Inside Higher Ed from July:
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?” [snip]
“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 [ed. now CEO of Kuali’s for-profit arm]. 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 goal of Unizin includes promoting control over digital course materials and even various reuse of content. This goal is not based on LMS neutrality driven by standards, but it is based on having a common infrastructure that would sit on top of and benefit from standards. Note that these are goals and not realities yet. However, Illinois might benefit from making their decision based on a more accurate understanding of Unizin.
Update: See comment below from Rob Abel, CEO of the IMS Global Learning Consortium, below re. standards.