The Future of Learning Begins and Ends with Learning Data: An Interview with Cathy O'Bryan

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The new CEO of Unizin discusses the offerings, advantages, partnerships, and future of the higher education consortium.

An Interview with Cathy O’Bryan
Credit: honglouwawa / © 2021

In October 2020, Cathy O'Bryan was named CEO of Unizin. A consortium of higher education institutions, Unizin enables its members to meet the moment of digital transformation by developing and delivering solutions that address the pressing and complex challenges of data, analytics, and digital content. Through its consortium model and partnerships, Unizin builds technology solutions, establishes relationships, and pursues research that no single institution could achieve cost-effectively on its own.

Personally and professionally, O'Bryan is committed to education. As a lifelong learner, experienced educator, and technology leader, she supports the continuous challenge of leveraging technology to advance the mission of higher education. Recently, EDUCAUSE President and CEO John O'Brien asked O'Bryan about the offerings, advantages, partnerships, and future of the higher education consortium.

John O'Brien: Now that you've been CEO for six months, what are some of your first impressions?

Cathy O'Bryan: This is an amazing time to have joined Unizin. As a consortium, Unizin has built incredibly timely tools and data services and provides insights perfectly aligned to the all-in digital learning environments of today. The pandemic-driven digital transformation of teaching and learning requires that higher education institutions collect, analyze, and gain actionable insights into their business, pedagogical, and research practices at scale. Unizin has been building that solution and curating that data for years.

O'Brien: What does Unizin offer that is unique to the digital learning ecosystem?

O'Bryan: Unizin has grown in breadth and depth since its founding six years ago. Supported by our consortium members, Unizin has built an excellent data platform: the Unizin Data Platform (UDP). The UDP uses data standards to aggregate and combine LMS data, learning tool data, SIS data, and publisher data to enable institutional or academic researchers to explore and test their assumptions. The UDP has a fantastic wealth of learning data that directly empowers unique academic research opportunities, provides business intelligence, supports advising, and influences student success.

Unizin's mission has also been empowered by our vendor partners. Unizin has a long-standing partnership with Instructure built around our tightly aligned missions to advance learning innovation and data sharing. Unizin also has partnerships with a dozen learning tool vendors—such as TopHat and Kaltura—that have strong commitments to standards and data integration. And we continue to strive to establish similar relationships with our twenty-plus publisher partners.

Unizin provides researchers with access and support. By banding together to protect the academy's right to own its learning data, the Unizin community members enable academic research, student success, and applied learning analytics while ensuring that higher education has control over the ethical use of this data and a complete understanding of how the results are attained. In short, Unizin offers standards-based enterprise solutions to scale the use of data, analytics, content, and learning tools across an institution's academic mission. Elias Eldayrie, vice president and CIO at the University of Florida and chair of the Unizin Board, said it best: "The development of the Unizin Data Platform has been instrumental in helping the University of Florida develop and implement new analytics tools for faculty, students, and academic advisors. We expect the UDP to propel the next generation of educational research forward and provide new insights into student learning and success."

O'Brien: Can you provide an example of a recent research project?

O'Bryan: At the University of Nebraska–Omaha, researchers led by Tracie Reding are studying undergraduate STEM learning and retention utilizing social network analysis and the Community of Inquiry (CoA) framework. They aim to identify the core "influencers" on students' continued success. Researchers are using UDP data to investigate several key outcomes. These digital markers will be triangulated with peer interaction from surveys and journals. Ultimately the data will be used to compare years before and after the COVID-19 pandemic to understand the pandemic's influence on learning via social networks for both faculty and students.

O'Brien: What partnerships has Unizin added to its portfolio lately?

O'Bryan: Unizin has two exciting new partnerships: with D2L (formerly Desire2Learn) and Google.

D2L is a leader in the area of providing learning data to its institutional customers. This partnership enables institutions that utilize other LMSs to participate in the Unizin consortium, thus diversifying and enriching our data lake large-scale research and collaboration. As an organization, D2L is focusing on and incentivizing research through the Unizin agreement, which informs and delivers on D2L commitment to an equitable, adaptive, and easy-to-use LMS. We are mutually excited about the exchange of ideas, constructs, and insights with our membership-based consortium. Together, Unizin and D2L can further student success while enforcing and realizing the promise of edtech standards to promote data sharing and accessibility. We can expand the impact of Unizin's member-based research and abilities.

Unizin has also partnered with Google to offer the Unizin Data Platform as a standalone product on the Google Marketplace. In addition to the UDP capabilities to integrate and standardize learning data, our Google partnership advances a business and technology model that promotes institutional ownership, control, and use of learning data in a cloud environment. Unizin and Google Cloud believe that all higher education institutions should have access to a standards-based, enterprise-scale learning data platform like the UDP. Using the UDP in Google Cloud, institutions can integrate learning data and analytics into existing practices to measure course effectiveness, support student coaching/advising, monitor learning tool use, raise graduation rates, and more. And because the UDP runs on Google Cloud and uses standard data storage services, leaders will direct and govern access to learning data across the institution and, potentially, third parties.

O'Brien: What are the other advantages of being a member institution of the Unizin consortium?

O'Bryan: The Unizin Engage and Unizin Marketplace products enable higher education institutions to accelerate their digital transformation with solutions that aggregate demand for content and learning tools and automate the business processes behind the adoption of digital course materials. These products are bolstered by the consortium's combined purchasing power and comprehensive portfolio of vendor and publisher partnerships. As a result, Unizin provides digital content and courseware at tremendous discounts, improves affordability, enforces the adoption of standards, and, hence, provides access to many students. Most notably, it enables higher education institutions to capture, analyze, and benefit from their learning data through the UDP. This data is theirs and need not be processed in a black box by an unknown algorithm sold back to the institutions.

The UDP is informed tremendously by the partnership with institutional members. Because of that sifting, winnowing, and honing of ideas, Unizin members also use the UDP to develop learning applications. The University of Michigan created My Learning Analytics (MyLA) to support students' reflections on their learning habits as a way to promote self-awareness and improve study habits. MyLA is a set of visualizations designed to encourage metacognition, facilitate self-regulated learning, and provide students with more profound insights into their course performance. Hosted by Unizin, it has been adopted by six Unizin member institutions. The University of Michigan does the hard work of developing, maintaining, and updating MyLA.

Two other learning applications developed by member institutions could end up being hosted and shared across the consortium. U-Behavior, by James Folkestad at Colorado State University, is in pilot now. Elements of Success, at the University of Iowa, is used in 26 courses to provide learning analytics that have changed the conversations between faculty and students. Interactions in those courses focus on how best to achieve content mastery and learning.

On April 21–22, 2021, Unizin is offering its first entirely virtual summit. Our members will be presenting on their experiences with the UDP, Engage, and Marketplace platforms, and we'll be inviting discussion around student success, learning analytics, and digital transformation within the learning environment. The 2021 Unizin Virtual Summit [] is open to all and free of charge.

O'Brien: How do you think Unizin is changing the broader landscape for higher education?

O'Bryan: Unizin was created to ensure and demonstrate that the digital transformation of learning data can scale. We've done that with a technology ecosystem that empowers institutions to freely, effectively, and confidently advance their academic mission. Unizin achieves that goal by working on several complementary fronts at once. First, we build technology solutions that enable leaders to aggregate the demand, adoption, and use of data, analytics, and digital content across their institution. These technology solutions are standards-based and cloud-scale and deliver infrastructure services that every institution needs but can't build on its own. Second, we've advanced a vendor partnership model premised on a shared belief that a standards-based, plug-and-play technology ecosystem is good for everyone. Third, we've developed a communities-of-practice model that, intimately tied to our technology and vendor work, catalyzes the change transformation necessary to integrate our technology solutions into everyday practice.

We believe all of higher education can and should benefit from the technology products that Unizin builds to the scalable ecosystem model it envisions. That's why we've elected to partner with Google to bring our UDP to all of higher education. Unizin now represents almost one million FTE students. That leverage is considerable, but equally important is the proven power of the Unizin Common Data Model (UCDM) and our involvement with IMS Global. Unizin has the influence to communicate our beliefs in data interoperability standards, and Unizin can demonstrate the value of those beliefs for the academic community. Unizin asks all our vendor partners to conform with data standards, thus improving the landscape of learning tools across the educational learning ecosystem.

And as noted above, expanding LMS vendor partnerships to include D2L's Brightspace opens the Unizin membership door to more institutions than ever. Concurrently, we've established a new tiered-pricing model based on FTE student enrollment to help reduce membership costs for smaller and midsized institutions by as much as 40 percent.

O'Brien: What is Unizin's value at this stage in its maturity?

O'Bryan: Unizin's UDP is at an inflection point. I'm privileged to have "inherited" it at this stage. Unizin's initial, hard-won data platform architecture is designed, developed, and implemented to serve the diverse stakeholders in learning data at colleges and universities: researchers, provost offices, institutional research offices, the advising community, and of course, the central IT organization. Over the last six to eight months, the architecture has evolved to support data services and the development and delivery of data marts. These are purposeful and intentional and are designed to solve concrete problems and answer specific questions such as the following: What learning tools are used by a particular curriculum or program? Which courses use them? Which learning tools does the institution use most frequently? Who uses the tools? Where do they use the tools? When do they use the tools? Can we identify students who are not interacting with their courses? These data marts are developed in partnership with our members. We see these data services integrating into the everyday work of provosts' offices, institutional research, advisory, student success staff, faculty, and even students to further the ethical use of learning analytics in the service of the academic mission. We can help leaders make informed, actionable decisions.

O'Brien: When we chat in five years, how do you think Unizin will have evolved further?

O'Bryan: Unizin will have grown to address a broader range of the strategic technology challenges to scaling digital education and empowering institutions to improve outcomes. We will have done so with standards, business models, and technology models that embody the values of higher education and enable the institution to maintain control over the quality and direction of its academic mission. Our focus on data and analytics today will have almost certainly evolved further into areas of machine learning. Our focus on content and learning tools will have pushed us even further into enabling institutions to centralize, aggregate, govern, and achieve efficiency in their learning tool ecosystem. And I suspect that we'll have broadened the scope of our services to support higher education institutions in personalizing their educational services to a greater diversity of students and education needs in college and beyond.

Within the ever-growing Unizin consortium, we will look back at these early days as foundational to our successes in applying learning analytics to the evolving digital learning landscape to enable students to be successful in their academic endeavors. That goal is deceptively simple to say and remarkably difficult to attain. In the future, Unizin will have more service and product offerings developed within the consortium. These will have been tried, tested, researched, and ultimately hosted by Unizin for broader adoption. On the business side, I believe that our product and service offerings will not only expand but also be available to a broader audience through software-as-a-service and packaged options.

I started my career as a teacher. I believe there is simply nothing more important than helping people realize their dreams through knowledge. This is also the desire of many dedicated Unizin members, and I get to share in its realization. What could be better?

Cathy O'Bryan is CEO of Unizin.

John O'Brien is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

© 2021 Cathy O'Bryan and John O'Brien. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.