Unizin Updates on Florida State System and Acquisition of Courseload

I’m not sure when e-Literate was awarded the exclusive rights for non-PR Unizin coverage, but there were two announcements this week to cover.

State University System of Florida Joins

The first announcement is an update and confirmation of my recent post about the new associate membership option. If a member institution (one of the 11 members paying $1.050 million) sponsors their statewide system, that system can join Unizin as “associate members” for $100 thousand per year but without retaining a board seat and vote on product direction. The week the State University System of Florida (SUSFL) announced they are joining Unizin.

Building on its growing record of collaboration, the State University System of Florida, comprised of Florida’s 12 public universities, has joined Unizin, a group with a mission to have more control and influence over the digital learning ecosystem.

The decision helps secure Florida’s leadership in the realm of digital learning and gives access to tools under development, including a Digital Objects Repository and Learning Analytics. Florida is the first State University System to join the collaborative organization, which is a consortium of major research universities. The University of Florida is a founding member, alongside other top universities such as Pennsylvania State University, Ohio State University and the University of Michigan.The organization is a not-for-profit service operation and its membership is by invitation only.

It is not clear which of the 12 public universities beyond the University of Florida are actually planning to participate in Unizin. If you want details on the SUSFL plans and what associate membership means, go read the earlier post.

Courseload Acquisition And Content Relay

The second update is that Unizin acquired the IP, trademark, and remains of Courseload, a provider of e-reader platform for digital textbooks. From the announcement:

Unizin announced the acquisition of the Courseload software today. Courseload includes an eText reader platform and collaborative learning tools for the delivery of digital learning materials including Open Educational Resources, faculty-authored course packs, and publisher content. The addition of Courseload is a vital component for connecting content to learners in Unizin’s digital learning ecosystem.

This move now determines the second component of Unizin, as the plan is for the acquired Courseload employees will modify and develop a portion of their software to become the basis for the Content Relay. Previously Unizin had been planning to license or contract another organization to provide the Content Relay.

This acquisition means that Unizin will now be in the software development business and not just to integrate various products. This approach changes what had previously been the plans to not develop product, as Unizin co-founder and co-chairman of the board Brad Wheeler shared with me last year.

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 [Internet2]. 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.

When I asked Brad if this means that Unizin is ruling out product development, he replied:

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.

Courseload is based in Indianapolis, IN while Unizin is based in Austin, TX. This creates an interesting situation where a new organization will be managing a remote development team that likely outnumbers the pre-existing Unizin employees.

Common Origins

The Chronicle described the origins of Courseload in 2010.

Courseload, the e-book broker, started in 2000, when a co-founder, Mickey Levitan, a former Apple employee inspired by the company’s transformative role in the music industry, devised the idea and teamed up with a professor at Indiana University at Bloomington to try it. But the company failed to find enough takers, and it all but shut down after a brief run.

Then last year an official at Indiana, Bradley C. Wheeler, called Mr. Levitan and talked him into trying again.

Update (7/23): The following paragraph has been revised based on private communication from source which pointed out that Crunchbase data is wrong in this case.

Based on that company revival, in 2012 Courseload raised $1.6 million from IU’s Innovate Indiana fund according to Crunchbase. In 2012 the Innovate Indiana Fund, an organization that represents Indiana University’s push for economic development, joined other investment groups in helping to fund the new Courseload. The IIF investment was in the lower single digit % of the total raised. The The tight relationship with IU was further described in the Innovate Indiana end-of-year 2012 report.

In 2000, Mickey Levitan and IU Professor Alan Dennis had an idea that was ahead of its time. Through Courseload, the start-up learning platform company they cofounded, the two endeavored to make college course materials accessible online.

A decade later, Indiana University became the first customer, implementing the Courseload platform across all its campuses. Now with 50 clients and 32 employees, Courseload is leading the online course text revolution—lowering costs for students and providing capabilities that can improve educational outcomes, while offering professors the discretion to use the platform on a course-by-course basis. [snip]

Levitan is grateful for the company’s broad-reaching partnership with IU. Early support from [VP of IT Brad] Wheeler was critical to the company’s success, Levitan says. “He’s a wonderful partner and an extraordinary leader—a visionary who is ready to go out and shape the
world rather than be shaped by it.”

Levitan is also grateful for the company’s early and ongoing relationship with the IU Research and Technology Corporation (IURTC). Tony Armstrong, president and CEO of the IURTC, identified an early funding opportunity for Courseload through the Innovate Indiana Fund. Kenneth Green, manager of the Innovate Indiana Fund, sits on Courseload’s board of directors.

This Inside Higher Ed article from 2012 highlights the common origins of both Unizin and Courseload – both in terms of founder, Internet2, and common justification. As a reminder, Unizin is technically operates as part of Internet2.

In a session at the 2011 Educause conference in October, Bradley Wheeler, the chief information officer at Indiana University, issued a challenge to his colleagues. Unless universities assert their power as customers, the vendors that sell them products and services will continue squeezing those institutions for cash while dictating the terms under which they go digital.

That conversation revolved around expensive, institution-level investments such as learning-management platforms and enterprise resource planning software. Now Wheeler and his colleagues are looking to apply the same principles of “aggregated demand” to help students save money on electronic textbooks.

Internet2, a consortium of 221 colleges and universities, which last year brokered landmark deals with Box.com and Hewlett-Packard that gave its members discounts on cloud computing services, announced today that it had entered into a contract with McGraw-Hill, a major textbook publisher, aimed at creating similar discounts for students on digital course materials.

Moving Ahead

Unizin is now up to 11 full member institutions and 1 state-wide system associate member. Despite or because of the tangled paths of Unizin and Courseload, we finally have some clarity on the second component (the Content Relay) of the consortium’s services. It’s not what I would have guessed ahead of time, but I have to admit that seems to be a willing list of schools ready to join.

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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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