Unizin RFP For LMS: An offering to appease the procurement gods?

Well this was interesting:

In a blog post from Monday, Unizin announced a public Request For Proposals (RFP) to solicit bids for an enterprise and multitenant LMS. The RFP states its purpose:

We seek to identify a qualified vendor (“vendor”) to make available an enterprise and multitenant learning management system and related services (collectively, the “LMS”) to Member Institutions.

Say what?

From the beginning, Unizin has chosen and contracted with Instructure to have Canvas as the central LMS platform for its member institutions. In our e-Literate post breaking the news of Unizin (from May 2014), we shared this slide that was used to help get the founding members to formally sign up to create Unizin:

Unizin Status

Every member institution of Unizin has already chosen to adopt Canvas or is actively piloting Canvas with the goal of making it the campus LMS. Carl Straumsheim at Inside Higher Ed wrote about the Unizin / Canvas decision right after the public announcement in mid 2014.

Unizin is “the Internet2 for digital education,” its founders say. It’s about “creating common gauge rails.” It will be a “goldmine for researchers.” And it begins with Canvas, Instructure’s learning management system.

Procurement Rules

So why would Unizin issue a public RFP for an LMS? Neither Unizin nor Instructure would agree to provide commentary on the subject due to the RFP rules, but I am quite certain that this move is all about the procurement processes at public universities and not about Unizin looking to change their common usage of Canvas as the LMS.

The first reason is that if Unizin changed away from Canvas at this stage, they might as well admit they are starting over. If a member institution thought that they would have to reverse course and not go to their active Canvas system (e.g. at Indiana University) or their planned system pending pilot results (e.g. Colorado State University), this would create chaos and could jeopardize the founding members’ funding (each pays $350k annually for the first three years). I cannot see this happening unless Unizin had discovered a show stopper flaw in Canvas and could not resolve the issue even with custom development. There have been no indications of such problems. The biggest challenge I have heard of is access to data, but even there Unizin has been actively working to with Instructure to make improvements.

The second reason is that there have been strong indications that some schools are having trouble justifying their Unizin membership and implied selection of Canvas based on procurement rules. Most states require public universities (and every member of Unizin is a public university) to have a formal procurement process, typically through an RFP, to use a vendor for enterprise services. Unizin is an organization within Internet2, where the latter has a Net+ program for cloud services that has allowed member institutions to use without the schools doing their own RFP. In other words, part of the value of Internet2 and Unizin is for schools to bypass their expensive and cumbersome RFP processes and rely on these non-profit organizations – based on the assumption that Internet2 did the procurement work of evaluating multiple proposals.

The problem is that Unizin was announced having already selected Canvas with no official procurement process of their own. I know of at least two campuses that have delayed their decision to join Unizin as their state or campus procurement rules will not allow them to contract for Canvas without some documentation of a public procurement process.

That is what I believe is happening. Somewhat after the fact (hence the engagement ring reference), Unizin is going through a formal and public RFP process to help current member institutions and to make it easier for future institutions to join.

Holding Instructure’s Feet To The Fire

There is an additional benefit to consider. When Unizin selected Canvas, there were no detailed requirements other than referencing those from Indiana University’s process. Go back to the data access challenges referenced in November, where I quoted Unizin CEO Amin Qazi:

Yes, Unizin had an agreement which allowed access to the daily Canvas Data files without our members paying any additional fees. My understanding of the new pricing model is all Instructure Canvas customers now have a similar arrangement.

Unizin is only beginning to explore the benefits of Live Events from Canvas. We are transporting the data from Instructure to our members via cloud-based infrastructure Unizin is building and maintaining, at no cost to our members. We have started developing some prototypes to take advantage of this data to meet our objective of increasing learner success.

Unizin has had, and plans to have, discussions with Instructure regarding the breadth of the data available (current:https://canvas.beta.instructure.com/doc/api/file.live_events.html), the continued conformity of that data to the IMS Global standards, and certain aspects of privacy and security. Unizin believes these topics are of interest to all Instructure Canvas customers.

We understand this is a beta product from Instructure and we appreciate their willingness to engage in these discussions, and potentially dedicate time and resources. We look forward to working with Instructure to mature Live Events.

Now look at the Data Warehouse section of the Functional requirements in the current RFP:


That reads to me like Unizin is putting the free access to data and daily feeds from Canvas Data and the upcoming API access and live feeds from Live Events into formal requirements. I suspect that Unizin is trying to make vendor management lemonade out of RFP lemons.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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