Amid Fast Change, Group Seems Slow to Enhance Colleges’ Control of Online Courses

Last spring a group of university leaders announced a bold, new project intended to help colleges gain more control of their online course platforms, as they increasingly turned to providers like Coursera or edX. A year later some observers are wondering what the group has actually accomplished, and where the consortium is headed.

In June 2014, amid growing concern that outside companies were exerting too much influence on the branding and shaping of universities’ online course offerings, four institutions — Colorado State University, Indiana University, the University of Florida, and the University of Michigan — teamed up to form a member-owned consortium they called Unizin. The goal was to help negotiate contracts jointly to secure better terms, to offer analytics services about students, and to help provide a framework so that campuses could get software products to work together more seamlessly.

The group has since attracted six new member colleges, with additional members slated to be announced this month, according to Bradley C. Wheeler, vice president for information technology at Indiana. The consortium has also agreed on a standard software framework, pledging to use the learning-management system Canvas, which is open source.

Some people involved in digital education say the group’s goal is timely and important. The idea that universities should be more fully in charge of shaping their online content has a lot of power to it, said Cynthia J. Cyrus, vice provost for learning and residential affairs at Vanderbilt University, which is not a member. But others say that tangible and publicized results remain to be seen.

“Nothing that seems too important seems to have happened, beyond their decision of pulling together to adopt a unified learning-management system,” said Lorena A. Barba, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at George Washington University, which is not a member of Unizin. Ms. Barba was part of the university’s planning committee for online education and has created her own online course.

Other observers say they aren’t clear on what exactly Unizin intends to do. Phil Hill, a blogger and an education consultant, said that he had received mixed messages from the people spearheading Unizin, whose university-based ownership aim he agrees with, and from some of the other institutions involved.

And compared with digital-courseware giants that have attracted millions of users, like Coursera and edX, said Ms. Cyrus, “Unizin is fairly invisible.”

Mr. Wheeler said that one of the biggest challenges in rolling out Unizin has been the pace at which the different member institutions operate, a problem he said is broadly true of universities.

“Indiana and Florida were ready to go right from the beginning to start our migration right into Canvas,” Mr. Wheeler said. “Some of the members needed to pilot it a little bit more.”

But a year is a long time in the digital-learning world, Ms. Barba observed, acknowledging the “unfortunate contradiction” between the rapidly changing pace of the digital-learning landscape and the often slow pace of universities to adopt different platforms.

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