Brad Wheeler, Indiana University's CIO Brad Wheeler, Indiana University's CIO and vice president for IT, said that Unizin makes possible a canvas of innovation for faculty. Ann Schertz/Indiana University

Some of the same universities that a decade ago started work on the Sakai project, a community that's developing a common collaboration and learning environment, are taking their efforts to the next level with a new consortium in Internet2 that's designed to free digital content and data from their single cell prison.

The Unizin consortium launched on Tuesday, June 10, with four founding members: Indiana University, University of Michigan, University of Florida and Colorado State University. Their mission is to put the collective weight of like-minded universities behind the open standards movement so that universities can control their digital content and data, and make sure that technology doesn't get in the way of teaching and learning.

Digital content and analytics exist currently in isolated tools that don't talk to each other and don't easily allow the transfer of that content. Think about it like the old railway system where each company laid down a different set of rails with a different gauge, and trains from the other companies couldn't transfer between the tracks.

"It's about creating common gauge rails, its about leveraging open standards to make sure that content and data can flow between tools and systems rather than being locked up within a single tool," said James Hilton, University of Michigan dean of libraries and vice provost for digital education and innovation.

While previous efforts with Sakai allowed universities to create an open-source set of digital learning tools in the learning management system space, Unizin is not about the learning management system. It's about a digital ecosystem on a technology platform that favors scale and cloud-based services, and allows researchers to think about doing something they couldn't have done before.

"Unizin makes possible that canvas of innovation for the faculty, and we'll see where that goes," said Brad Wheeler, vice president for IT and CIO at Indiana University.

The consortium announced that the platform Canvas would provide a base for this digital learning effort, and other tools may be announced down the road. More than any other software platform, Canvas has been pushing IMS Learning Tools Interoperability standards, and that gives universities in the Unizin consortium an opportunity to accelerate the adoption of these standards throughout higher education, Hilton said.

These standards call for connections from Web-based tools, applications and content to the platforms that students and professors use. Universities can stitch tools together into an integrated-looking environment without creating custom integration points for each platform. And that means that when faculty members want to use an application, they can use it, and they can move data when and where they need to.

Each of the founding universities will pay $1 million over three years to collaborate in this consortium, and other universities that share this vision of open standards can join.

"We're convinced that together, we can learn better, faster and more efficiently and effectively," said Pat Burns, Colorado State University vice president for IT and dean of libraries.

University leaders see great potential for analytics through this effort. If 20 to 50 institutions join the consortium, faculty can see learning data across courses and fine-tune their instructional strategies to incorporate what's working well in other classes, such as a videos, experiential activities or 3-D objects, said Shel Waggener, senior vice president of Internet2.

It will take the better part of a decade to ramp up standards for data analytics, formats and interchanges, and in order to get there, smart people will need to put their heads together to learn from each other, Burns said. These universities intend to play educational moneyball so that predictive analytics can help students succeed.

And Unizin will help accelerate this analytics conversation with a common platform for analytics tools and collaboration among institutions that are currently doing analytics work on their own

"I think this is a great day for the University of Florida and in general for higher education," said Elias Eldayrie, University of Florida CIO and vice president. "It's a new era, a new way of looking at the way in which we solve and help improve the learning and teaching environment on our campuses."

This story was originally published by the Center for Digital Education

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.