What Does Unizin Mean for Digital Learning?

Speaking of underpants gnomes sales pitches, Phil and I spent a fair amount of time hearing about Unizin at the ELI conference. Much of that time was spent hearing friends that I know, trust, and respect talk about the project. At length, in some cases. On the one hand, it is remarkable that, after these long conversations, I am not much clearer on the purpose of Unizin than I was the week before. On the other hand, being reminded that some of my friends really believe in this thing helped me refill my reservoir of patience for the project, which had frankly run dry.

Alas, that reservoir was largely drained away again during a Unizin presentation with the same title as this blog post. I went there expecting the presenters to answer that question for the audience.


The main presentation was given by Anastasia Morrone of IUPUI, was probably the most straightforward and least hype-filled presentation about Unizin that I have heard so far. It was also short. Just when I was warming to it and figuring we’d get to the real meat, her last slide came up:

Split into groups of 5-7 people and discuss the following:

How can faculty, teaching center consultants, and learning technologists contribute to best practices with the evolving Unizin services?

Wait. What?

That’s right. They wanted us to tell them what Unizin means for digital learning. That might have been a good question to ask before they committed to spend a million dollars each on the initiative.

I joined one of the groups, resolving to try as hard as I could to keep my tongue in check and be constructive (or, at least, silent) for as long as I could. The very first comment in my group—not by me, I swear—was, “Before I can contribute, can somebody please explain to me what Unizin is?” It didn’t get any better from there. At the end of the breakout session, our group’s official answer was essentially, “Yeah, we don’t have any suggestions to contribute, so we’re hoping the other groups come up with something.” None of them did, really. The closest they came were a couple of vague comments on inclusive governance. I understand from a participant in one of the other groups that they simply refused to even try to answer the question. It was brutal.

Still, in the spirit of the good intentions behind their request for collaborative input, I will list here some possible ways in which Unizin could provide value, in descending order of credibility.

I’ll start with the moderately credible:

  • Provide a layer of support services on top of and around the LMS: This barely even gets mentioned by Unizin advocates but it is the one that makes the most sense to me. Increasingly, in addition to your LMS, you have a bunch of connected tools and services. It might be something basic like help desk support for the LMS itself. It might be figuring out how an external application like Voicethread works best with your LMS. As the LMS evolves into the hub of a larger ecosystem, it is putting increasing strain on IT department in everything from procurement to integration to ongoing support. Unizin could be a way of pooling resources across institutions to address those needs. If I were a CIO in a big university with lots of demands for LMS plug-in services, I would want this.
  • Provide a university-controlled environment for open courses: Back when Instructure announced Canvas Network, I commented that the company had cannily targeted the issue that MOOC providers seemed to be taking over the branding, not to mention substantial design and delivery decisions, from their university “partners.” Canvas Network is marketed as “open courses for the rest of us.” By adopting Canvas as their LMS, Unizin gets this for free. Again, if I were a CIO or Provost at a school that was either MOOCing or MOOC-curious, I would want this.
  • Providing buying power: What vendor would not want to sew up a sales deal with ten large universities or university systems (and counting) through one sales process? So far it is unclear how much Unizin has gained in reality through group negotiations, but it’s credible that they could be saving significant money through group contracting.
  • Provide a technology-assisted vehicle for sharing course materials and possibly even course cross-registrations: The institutions involved are large, and most or all probably have specialty strengths in some curricula area or other. I could see them wanting to trade, say, an Arabic degree program for a financial technology degree program. You don’t need a common learning technology infrastructure to make this work, but having one would make it easier.
  • Provide a home for a community researching topics like learning design and learning analytics: Again, you don’t need a common infrastructure for this, but it would help, as would having courses that are shared between institutions.

Would all of this amount to a significant contribution to digital learning, as the title of the ELI presentation seems to ask? Maybe! It depends on what happens in those last two bullet points. But the rollout of the program so far does not inspire confidence that the Unizin leadership knows how to facilitate the necessary kind of community-building. Quite the opposite, in fact. Furthermore, the software has only ancillary value in those areas, and yet it seems to be what Unizin leaders want to talk about 90%+ of the time.

Would these benefits justify a million-dollar price tag? That’s a different question. I’m skeptical, but a lot depends on specific inter-institutional intentions that are not public. A degree program has a monetary value to a university, and some universities can monetize the value better than others depending on which market they can access with significant degrees of penetration. Throw in the dollar savings on group contracting, and you can have a relatively hard number for the value of the coalition to a member. I know that a lot of university folk hate to think like that, but it seems to be the most credible way to add the value of these benefits up and get to a million dollars.

Let’s see if we can sweeten the pot by adding in the unclear or somewhat dubious but not entirely absurd benefits that some Unizin folk have claimed:

  • Unizin will enable universities to “own” the ecosystem: This claim is often immediately followed by the statement that their first step in building that ecosystem was to license Canvas. The Unizin folks seem to have at least some sense that it seems contradictory to claim you are owning the ecosystem by licensing a commercial product, so they immediately start talking about how Canvas is open source and Unizin could take it their own way if they wanted to. Yet this flies in the face of Unizin’s general stated direction of mostly licensing products and building connectors and such when they have to. Will all products they license be open source? Do they seriously commit to forking Canvas should particular circumstances arise? If not, what does “ownership” really mean? I buy it in relation to the MOOC providers, because there they are talking about owning brand and process. But beyond that, the message is pretty garbled. There could be something here, but I don’t know what it is yet.
  • Unizin could pressure vendors and standards groups to build better products: In the abstract, this sounds credible and similar to the buying power argument. The trouble is that it’s not clear either that pressure on these groups will solve our most significant problems or that Unizin will ask for the right things. I have argued that the biggest reason LMSs are…what they are is not vendor incompetence or recalcitrance but that faculty always ask for the same things. Would Unizin change this? Indiana University used what I would characterize as a relatively progressive evaluation framework when they chose Canvas, but there is no sign that they were using the framework to push their faculty to fundamentally rethink what they want to do with a virtual learning environment and therefore what it needs to be. I don’t doubt the intellectual capacity of the stakeholders in these institutions to ask the right questions. I doubt the will of the institutions themselves to push for better answers from their own constituents. As for the standards, as I have argued previously, the IMS is doing quite well at the moment. They could always move faster, and they could always use more university members who are willing to come to the table with concrete use cases and a commitment to put in the time necessary to work through a standards development process (including implementation). Unizin could do that, and it would be a good thing if they did. But it’s still pretty unclear to me how much their collective muscle would be useful to solve the hard problems.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe that both of the goals articulated above are laudable and potentially credible. But Unizin hasn’t really made the case yet.

Instead, at least some of the Unizin leaders have made claims that are either nonsensical (in that they don’t seem to actually mean anything in the real world) or absurd:

  • “We are building common gauge rails:” I love a good analogy, but it can only take you so far. What rides on those rails? And please don’t just say “content.” Are we talking about courses? Test banks? Individual test questions? Individual content pages? Each of these have very different reuse characteristics. Content isn’t just a set of widgets that can be loaded up in rail cars and used interchangeably wherever they are needed. If it were, then reuse would have been a solved problem ten years ago. What problem are you really trying to solve here, and why do you think that what you’re building will solve it (and is worth the price tag)?
  • “Unizin will make migrating to our next LMS easier because moving the content will be easy.” No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. This is the perfect illustration of why the “common gauge rails” statement is meaningless. All major LMSs today can import IMS Common Cartridge format, and most can export in that format. You could modestly enhance this capability by building some automation that takes the export from one system and imports it into the other. But that is not the hard part of migration. The hard part is that LMSs work differently, so you have to redesign your content to make best use of the design and features of the new platform. Furthermore, these differences are generally not one that you want to stamp out—at least, not if you care about these platforms evolving and innovating. Content migration in education is inherently hard because context makes a huge difference. (And content reuse is exponentially harder for the same reason.) There are no widgets that can be neatly stacked in train cars. Your rails will not help here.
  • “Unizin will be like educational moneyball.” Again with the analogies. What does this mean? Give me an example of a concrete goal, and I will probably be able to evaluate the probability that you can achieve it, it’s value to students and the university, and therefore whether it is worth a million-dollar institutional investment. Unizin doesn’t give us that. Instead, it gives us statements like, “Nobody ever said that your data is too big.” Seriously? The case for Unizin comes down to “my data is bigger than yours”? Is this a well-considered institutional investment or a midlife crisis? The MOOC providers have gobs and gobs of data, but as HarvardX researcher Justin Reich has pointed out, “Big data sets do not, by virtue of their size, inherently possess answers to interesting questions….We have terabytes of data about what students clicked and very little understanding of what changed in their heads.” Tell us what kinds of research questions you intend to ask and how your investment will make it possible to answer them. Please. And also, don’t just wave your hands at PAR and steal some terms from their slides. I like PAR. It’s a Good Thing. But what new thing are you going to do with it that justifies a million bucks per institution?

I want to believe that my friends, who I respect, believe in Unizin because they see a clear justification for it. I want to believe that these schools are going to collectively invest $10 million or more doing something that makes sense and will improve education. But I need more than what I’m getting to be convinced. It can’t be the case that the people not in the inner circle have to convince themselves of the benefit of Unizin. One of my friends inside the Unizin coalition said to me, “You know, a lot of big institutions are signing on. More and more.” I replied, “That means that either something very good is happening or something very bad is happening.” Given the utter disaster that was the ELI session, I’m afraid that I continue to lean in the direction of badness.


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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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