Unizin is good for students, faculty, and the private sector

There is an exciting new development in the teaching and learning space that you need to know about. It’s called Unizin. Simply put, Unizin is a consortium of universities formed around the idea that higher education—and not just private vendors—should own, direct and share a set of services that further teaching and learning.

My last blog post, about interdependent research support collaboration among research universities, is very similar in concept to the Unizin story. Our new reality is that we must pool our talents, public and private, to create scalable opportunities to move our primary teaching, learning and research missions forward. We have made remarkable progress in collaborative work and investments to support research among our peer institutions. Unizin holds promise to do the same for teaching and learning.

At the UW-Madison, we are now entering the fourth year of Educational Innovation (EI). Begun under the leadership of Interim Chancellor Ward and Provost Deluca, EI has continued under the leadership of Chancellor Blank and Provost DeLuca. From the very beginning, the EI Core team understood that we need IT infrastructure that supports the broad goals of EI. In addition, CIC Provosts have also identified that digital education needs infrastructure that supports dynamic changes and aligns to academic values and priorities as business models change. It is no coincidence that Unizin is purposely aligned to the academic vision that emerged from three years of EI planning and execution.

I have worked for over a year with senior leaders at like-minded institutions, including the founders and many others that (like the UW) are currently considering membership. We started with concepts, and after many discussions arrived at the vision embodied by Unizin. The UW-Madison has helped to shape this vision, which is critically important if we ultimately choose to join. We believe Unizin is consistent with many of our EI initiative goals. I have been talking about Unizin within the UW for several months. Since we have not yet involved all of our key stakeholders, we are not yet able to commit. We will continue discussion with our colleagues within Madison and in the University of Wisconsin System before we choose our path.

Unizin is a response to needs of our students, faculty and instructors. Unizin will support residential teaching and learning, flipped classrooms, the Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning (WisCEL), non-credit programs, badging, online education. In short, Unizin can serve residential and nonresidential students in both the credit and noncredit spaces. This is all about learning.

For the first time we have the possibility of one service to support our many teaching and learning needs. This is good for students and faculty not just for consistency in delivery, but more importantly, for capacity to discover and integrate content across all of our teaching and learning formats. The addition of open, standards-based learning analytics will enable us to grow and develop based on scalable rigorous research findings from many institutions to improve learning.

Unizin will also be a good vehicle for the private sector to innovate around open standards. Unizin is not about eliminating commercial development to support teaching and learning, but rather influencing and shaping the tools for Higher Education’s needs. We want to do so in ways that deliver on our EI objectives. We require infrastructure that will allow faculty to make decisions about how or even whether their content is shared.

Students will benefit from the collaborative, interoperable packaging of instruction. This infrastructure expects standards-based, loosely coupled components. It helps ensure that content is discoverable and portable, and that institutions are not beholden to single source solutions. Let’s face it; commercial solutions continuously leap past each other in terms of innovating their products. And few institutions can afford to regularly change commercial providers who offer an entire solution. The Unizin vision is for an infrastructure that allows more flexibility in delivering continual innovations that in many cases will remain the property of Unizin.

Companies that adapt to full standards-based approaches have the potential for new business. For example, IMS Global is already working with some of the Unizin institutions on new standards. This provides higher education and the private sector with the flexibility needed to allow for a much more competitive environment. Future private sector “winners” will be innovators in a highly competitive open standards-based world of teaching and learning.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that many private sector companies have indeed contributed significantly to IMS Global and the emerging standards for teaching and learning. But it is no longer sufficient to do this piecemeal, over many years. Higher education needs the freedom to couple systems as best fit our needs and institutional priorities and projects, based on common standards and our needs. And Unizin will be the catalyst.

I look forward to continuing engagement in this important effort. Let me know if you are interested in learning more. Internet2 changed the model for research. The opportunity exists for the same thing to happen with teaching and learning: fully aligned with the needs of the academy.