Saturday, June 14, 2014

Should UT Austin Join Unizin?

Ultraman Max, stolen from Michael Feldstein
[Disclaimer: Nobody at UT System or UT Austin cares about my thoughts on this subject.  I am thinking aloud, being intentionally provocative. I might be persuaded to change my mind if someone can come up with arguments that I am missing.]

Back on the 16th of May, the intrepid ed tech consultants/private investigators Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill wrote about the existence of Unizin, a secret consortium of universities in talks to collaborate on the creation and maintenance of a new "learning ecosystem."   Imagine my shock when I discovered that my own institution, UT Austin, was one of the possible partners.  This news was especially surprising to me because it has never, to my knowledge, been raised as a possibility to the faculty--even though we had a semester-long series of "Campus Conversations" sponsored by the Provost's office which centered on  the role of the digital in teaching and learning.  Some staff at the Center for Teaching and Learning were aware that a partnership was being considered.  When Unizin finally made its existence public, UT Austin was not among the founding four institutions (see this IHE piece for a good analysis of Unizin's initial unveiling).  Still, I would not be surprised to learn that participation in Unizin remains on the table. 

The decision to join Unizin (or not) seems like precisely the sort of thing that should be discussed openly with the faculty who will be expected to contribute to the collection of digital assets and who would benefit (so goes the argument) from the learning analytics capacity as well as access to the collection of curricular resources (see Joshua Kim's blog post on some of the basic questions we should all be asking).  The absence of such a discussion in advance of such a major decision echoes the process that led to the University of Texas System spending $5 million and many more millions in course development, production, and implementation to join EdX.  Leaving aside the larger issue of shared governance, this failure to engage faculty in the conversation about a potential partnership with Unizin strikes me as a lost opportunity.  It is common to accuse faculty of lacking interest in anything not related to their research; in reality, many important conversations--conversations whose outcomes will shape our institutional future for many years to come--are taking place far away from the faculty.  Sure, faculty can be challenging to work with.  They have been trained to think critically and to analyze situations from every angle.  When we are talking about expensive and large-scale institutional commitments, however, it makes little sense not to take advantage of this collection of deep, engaged thinkers.  It may take longer to reach a decision, but those decisions are likely to be much more considered and to reflect the knowledge of individuals who are working in the trenches, day after day, to support student learning.  The best (i.e. most likely to be successful) decisions tend to come from consideration of all angles of an issue--if only to help one think through and formulate valid responses to the objections.

The pros of a partnership with Unizin largely depend on faith that the founders' vision of a single, cloud-based infrastructure for storing digital assets as well as user data will materialize in the not too distant future.  The mission statement from the Unizin blog is clearly intended to push all the right buttons with skeptical faculty: "Our goals and purpose in endorsing Unizin are simple: As professors and members of the academy, we want to support faculty and universities by ensuring that universities and their faculty stay in control of the content, data, relationships, and reputations that we create. As we look at the rapidly emerging infrastructure that enables digital learning, we want to bias things in the direction of open standards, interoperability, and scale. Unizin is about tipping the table in favor of the academy by collectively owning (buying, developing, and connecting) the essential infrastructure that enables digital learning on our campuses and beyond."  In other words, this is about not selling our souls to the VCs and other corporate interests looking to make a buck while institutions operate in a permanent state of austerity.

As Kirsten Wheeler notes in her post about Unizin, "Unizin won’t be an LMS or MOOC platform, but will focus on digital content development and data analytics to improve teaching and learning using the underlying technology."  In theory, it makes sense that the creation of expensive digital assets like animations be done once and shared by instructors across different universities.  At the introductory level and especially outside of the humanities, institutional curricula don't vary that much.  A benevolent interpretation of the motives behind the formation of Unizin would see it as an attempt to create a repository of digital teaching materials that faculty at partner institutions can draw on to enhance their courses.  It's a way of inventing the wheel once.  In addition, it's a way of controlling the means of producing the wheel rather than needing to purchase the materials and expertise from external sources.

 Less clear is whether the proponents of Unizin are imagining a scenario in which, say, each partner university provides a unique set of introductory courses that the other partners can then use on their campuses.  For this to be cost-effective, such courses would be run locally by some form of inexpensive labor (TA?  Adjunct?).  Currently, all institutions attempt to develop and staff courses across disciplines.  Even with the shift to grad student and adjunct instructors for many of these courses, public institutions are finding it very costly to maintain a permanent faculty that covers all disciplines.  I can imagine that it is very appealing to think that universities could abandon the goal of covering disciplines broadly--or even all disciplines; and instead focus on building particular strengths and outsourcing course development in other fields to institutions that have those strengths.  So, for instance, UT Austin could decide that it is no longer interested in maintaining a permanent faculty in Classics but, through partnership with Unizin, could continue to offer classics courses to students by using courses developed by Michigan faculty and hiring adjuncts to run those courses.  Well-developed, introductory-level online courses could easily be run by non-specialists; and, at least initially, some faculty would be relieved to outsource the burden of running such courses at the expense of offering more upper-division courses for majors.

The other major pro of a partnership is the potential for collecting and analyzing student-level data; and using the analyses of that data to improve teaching and learning.  The founders emphasize this point on the Unizin site and link it to better supporting institutions in carrying out their core teaching and research missions.  I am a big fan of evidence-based teaching, and I do hope that, some day, we will have the ability to use learner data in our teaching.  At present, however, we are very far from realizing this dream.  As well, it's a very expensive dream and will require an enormous financial investment in building sufficient infrastructure--human and otherwise--to collect and process this data.  Additionally, it will require that students and instructors are trained in using this data to change behaviors.  With enough of an investment, I am confident that we can build up organizations on campus to collect and analyze this data; I'm far less confident that any of this will be worth the significant investment and especially the opportunity costs.  Our LMSs and other digital tools already allow instructors to track student behaviors and make interventions.  Sure, the current system is clumsy and superficial--but it largely works and does not cost much.  It's not clear to me that more precise data is going to result in the sorts of individual and organizational change that proponents imagine.  This is especially true if, in order to build these new centers for data collection and analyses, we are reallocating resources away from instructional budgets.  Many faculty would argue (rightly, in my view) that the single best way to improve student learning outcomes, especially in introductory courses, is to spend more money on reducing class size.

Institutional consortia do not have a good track record of success (see Walsh, Unlocking the Gates).  The fundamental problem is the absence of a sustainable business model.    The second big problem is the lack of substantial faculty support/buy-in.  Teaching consortia rely on individuals contributing free content or otherwise producing content at low cost.  Faculty are inclined to participate in such an arrangement, but only if nobody is capitalizing on their free content.  I will happily share content with colleagues at other institutions when I know they are using it in their classes.  I would not share content with someone who was then going to use it to make money for himself.  Yet a consortium can't sustain itself independent of foundation funding if it is not capitalizing on its product.  For the time being, Unizin requires a $1 million buy in as well as a Canvas license (purchased separately).  There will undoubtedly be additional charges as the consortium makes deals with other private sector companies to support various aspects of its undertaking.  What do partner institutions get for their investment?  Will the consortium ever be able to sustain itself apart from seeking membership fees and other fees from its partners?

UT Austin is already making the move to Canvas; so the only sure cost is the $1 million membership fee.  But that's not quite the way to look at this.  The decision to join Unizin only makes sense if you intend to invest significantly in analytics; and, more than likely, if you intend to make substantial changes to the current model of lower-division course development (and the role of tenured/tenure-track faculty in this process).   The danger here is that, with no real input from campus faculty, important and hugely consequential decisions are being made about the allocation of resources.  At a public institution, this means that resources have to be shifted from elsewhere to pay for any new effort.  The question we have to ask is: will the payoff be big enough to justify this reallocation (which, more than likely, will involve shifting funds away from college instructional budgets)?  I can imagine a version of the future in which the answer is yes.  At what point is it worth the risk?  What factors need to be in place to maximize the chances that the partnership will help UT Austin fulfill its core teaching and research mission in a way that spending those resources on, say, hiring more faculty won't do?

Update (6/20/2014) Eric Stoller, "Unizin, Technology Tables, and the Trouble with Silos."  Arguing for the inclusion of Student Affairs issues in the consortium conversation.

Bruce Maas, VP for IT and CIO at UW-Madison on University of Wisconsin's considerations about partnering with Unizin: "Unizin is good for Students, Faculty, and the Private Sector"

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