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4 Universities Band Together to Share and Protect Digital Resources

The online-education boom has made technology vendors powerful. So powerful, in fact, that some university officials say it’s getting harder and harder to update their technology without placing themselves under the sway of outside companies.

Now four major research universities are trying to promote strength in numbers. They are creating a consortium, called Unizin, that they hope will help member institutions innovate on their own terms.

“Unizin is a strategic move by universities to assert greater control and influence over the digital-learning landscape than would otherwise be possible by any single institution,” the founders write in a news release. The four institutions are Colorado State University, Indiana University, the University of Florida, and the University of Michigan.

Unizin will negotiate contracts with technology vendors for products and services that many universities already buy individually. But instead of implementing the technologies locally, member institutions will get a set of “sewn-together services” from Unizin in exchange for dues, says Bradley C. Wheeler, vice president for information technology at Indiana.

The aim is to create a “common infrastructure” that will allow member institutions and their instructors to share data, software, and learning materials without worrying about losing control of student data or intellectual property.

Universities differentiate themselves by their programs, not their infrastructure, says Mr. Wheeler, and yet Indiana and its peers have spent millions building and buying their own systems for storing and managing digital materials. “Right now that stuff is going into digital shoe boxes, one campus at a time,” he says, but a common infrastructure would make it easier to share course materials and data across university borders.

Lately universities have been particularly concerned with reclaiming control of their digital futures. In 2013 an influential group of university provosts published a position paper outlining the need for a framework that would help institutions make smart decisions about technology. The upshot of that paper was not that vendors should be shunned but that universities should make sure their interests and obligations were driving technology investments on their campuses, not the other way around.

The Unizin consortium is not directly related to that paper, but the spirit is the same, says Mr. Wheeler.

“It’s not about owning everything,” he says. “It’s about owning the rights to make choices that are in the interest of universities.”

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