University of Iowa joins Unizin Consortium

BY BEN MARKS | DECEMBER 19, 2014 5:00 AM

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In the future, students may be able to take classes simultaneously at the University of Iowa and the University of Florida, or professors might be able to share classroom information between Colorado State University and Indiana University.

This week, the University of Iowa joined 9 other universities — including the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota — to found the Unizin Consortium.

The consortium will allow the ten universities to collaborate on contracting a new, common technological educational platform.

“Nobody has created a system yet that allows Iowa to share a course with Ohio State without a whole bunch of technical stuff to allow the students to share content,” said Margaret Jesse, senior director of the Office of Teaching, Learning and Technology in Information Technology Services.

“The stuff we think should be happening just isn’t,” she said. “But as ten voices we can say, look, this is what we want to have happen. Company ‘B’ will you make this work for us, and if you will, how much will you charge all of us?”

Steven Fleagle, director of Information Technology Services, said being a part of the consortium allows Iowa to work with peer institutions facing similar challenges.

“We can learn from their experience and expertise and be able to share ours in return,” he said. “It benefits the university to be able to provide direct input and we want to make sure the capabilities our faculty need are included in the design of this important platform.”

That important platform is what supports websites such as ICON, Jesse said.

ICON belongs to the UI, but the company Desire2Learn runs the platform.

With Unizin, the university will be able to influence the kinds of systems Unizin would look at, or help contract.

Right now, Jesse said, the two biggest goals Iowa is hoping to meet are developing both learning data analytics and a cross-university sharing platform.

“It’s very exciting to be able to be able to think about co-teaching classes across universities,” Shelly Campo, UI Council on Teaching chair, said. “If you think about classes with smaller enrollments that maybe would get cancelled at the University of Iowa because there’s not enough interest, but might still be very important topics, to get more students you might have to combine several institutions.”

Jesse said there has already been software identified meeting those goals, called Canvass.

By joining the consortium, she said, the UI can participate in a low-level pilot of the program — up to 2,500 students per semester — which will begin this summer and run over the next two or three semesters.

Unizin doesn’t force universities to adopt programs they don’t want to, and the university retains the ability to keep or reject whatever works for them, Jesse said.

Unizin will cost the UI $350,000 a year for the first three years, which is around the same it would cost to do its own analytics or create its own content sharing, Jesse said.

“We certainly don’t want to build software ourselves here,” she said. “We have smart enough people here to start doing that, but it takes a lot of people to build a support software like that.”

After software has actually been developed, Jesse said, Unizin will eventually expand from the original 10 members.

As a founding member and the eighth school to join, UI and the other nine schools will retain the strongest voice out of any future members, and have the greatest impact on the developing software.

Along with UI, other Unizin members are Colorado State University, the University of Florida, Indiana University, the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Oregon State University.

“We know what we need to do and what we want,” Jesse said. “We get a lot of influence [now] over the types of systems Unizin would look at or contract. We can say, no, you’re not thinking about this right and this is what we need, and this is why it’s important for Iowa and we believe important to everyone in the country.”

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