Education Trends

Indiana CIO Brad Wheeler Provides Update on Unizin

Unizin's co-founder describes the consortium's focus on content, learner interaction platforms and analytics, and what it hopes to achieve this year.

By the end of July, real-time data will begin flowing from Indiana University's Canvas learning management system into a data warehouse hosted by Unizin, according to IU Vice President and CIO Brad Wheeler. Wheeler is also co-founder of Unizin, a nonprofit service provider created by IU and 10 other universities in 2014 to provide content, LMS and analytics services to its member institutions.

During a July 14 Future Trends Forum video chat hosted by consultant and futurist Bryan Alexander, Wheeler described Unizin's focus on giving institutions control over their own content and data.

"It is pretty exciting that we can go from faculty-authored content delivered through a platform owned by the academy to all the digital tracks coming off of it into repositories owned by the academy that are available for IRB-approved research," he said. "We don't have to ask for our data back. It is our data, and our students' data. That is an important thing for the future. We are hoping to enable the means of improving digital education through the institutions being able to assert a much greater degree of control around content, learner interaction platforms and analytics."

By the end of the calendar year, Wheeler added, Unizin anticipates that researchers from different institutions will be able to coordinate research efforts with cross-institutional data sets.

A few years ago, universities saw that instructors wanted to learn how to improve instruction — and that digital data was going to be central to those efforts, Wheeler said. Without a structure like Unizin, "IU would have to stand up an infrastructure — a data warehouse and policies around how we tag that data and make it discoverable and manage security around it. And Oregon State would have to do that, and the University of Florida would have to do it. That is kind of crazy. And you can be sure that if there were 13 of us doing it, we would do it 27 different ways. So why not do it together as a shared service?"

And the time is right for higher education consortia to work together successfully, Wheeler said. "I think we are coming out of our adolescent years in terms of learning how to make collaborations come together that actually work."

He stressed that Unizin is not trying to build all the tools as other efforts such as Sakai have. "We are trying to do as much as we can on common infrastructure and add to it where needed. We are more of an integrator." For some purposes it will use commercial or open source software. In other cases it will build things. Either way, "It was important for us to own data that came off the student interaction so it could be governed by the university's privacy policies for data," he said.

In response to a question about whether Unizin was interested in adding more members, Wheeler said the organization was not currently putting on a big push to try to get bigger. "We have the resources we need to build the things we are doing," he said. But he added that for institutions that didn't see themselves as having the risk profile to join earlier, this is a good time to look at Unizin membership. "The water is warm now because of the number of real things we have coming out of the staff, so if another institution aligned its values around what we are trying to achieve, we are interested in talking to additional institutions. At some point we will be ready to grow aggressively. Right now by being a member you get to exert a lot of institutional control. If it had just been two or three of us, we probably would have built something really weird or that didn't generalize well. But by the time you have 11 kinds of institutions, you get a lot of strong input and ideas and testing to build a much more extensible, generalizable case of integrated infrastructure."

Alexander asked if the members/investors were mandated to purchase everything Unizin arranges joint licenses for. Wheeler said no: "This is a key point. We want to enable shared infrastructure, but [members] can digest it at a pace that suits them. A business school may move fast; other parts of the university may not." The one thing they are all aligned around is Canvas, he noted.

Wheeler was asked about the constant tension in consortia between what is good for the group vs. what is good for the individual institution. In response, he mentioned his relationship with another co-founder of Unizin, James Hilton, who now serves as the University of Michigan's dean of libraries and vice provost for digital education and innovation. "He and I have battle scars of going through many consortia together, including Internet2, Duraspace, Sakai and Kuali. We have tried to aggregate what we learned in each of those in terms of balancing that tension. It has to be awesome for the institution back home or the resources and engagement dry up; it has to be more than the institution could do by itself to keep it making compromises."

Wheeler cited Internet2, HathiTrust and Moodle as among the most successful multi-institution collaborations. "I care passionately about building institutions that can last," he said. One of the reasons earlier collaborations failed is that the aspirations were high but the resources contributed were low, he said, "and then nature took its course."

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.

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