By Claire Stewart

Interesting things are happening over at the Unizin project. In early February the Unizin board shared some of its thinking about course content in a post, An Evolutionary Unizin Approach for Commercial and OER Content. Outside of project teams & meetings directly related to Unizin activity (disclosure and disclaimer: my institution is a Unizin member, so although I’m partly drawing on some of our experiences, this post only reflects my personal views) I’ve not heard a lot of chatter about the strategy or Unizin in general, so I don’t know how many eyeballs it’s attracted. It may be that, on balance, not a huge number of us know what Unizin is, but assuming the strategy was posted to stimulate response and conversation, here are a few thoughts.

Unizin is a consortium of universities collectively investing in technologies and collaborations around teaching and course content. One of the (many) taglines is “Unizin is a university-owned service for universities with the goal to improve learner success.” To date, the project has done things like secure a Canvas contract for its members, purchase the Courseload Engage digital content delivery platform, and begin to work in a number of ways on learning analytics issues. Unizin member institutions have the option to participate in initiatives around any of these activities, or none.

There is a lot to like about the board’s content strategy, starting with the strong statement that Open Educational Resources (OER) will be by far the best option, over time, for students and faculty. Recognizing that it will take time and significant resources to advance OER scale and adoption, however, and that a significant existing corpus of commercial material is heavily used in teaching, pushing ahead on multiple fronts simultaneously is imperative (the evolutionary approach). As part of this, the strategy statement confirms that leveraging access to library-licensed content will be an important means to achieve the overall goal of reducing costs for students. And it puts course content in its full context, noting that it will not be sufficient merely to reduce textbook costs if the status quo is maintained through increased costs for ancillary materials, or if universities lose access to learning analytics and other user data. As we know from the world of scholarly publishing, there are huge and growing markets for secondary products built on journal content and usage data: from abstracting and indexing databases to citation databases to recommender services to research networking, productivity tracking and other bibliometrics-based tools. It only makes sense for universities to try to keep all of their needs and potential developments in view from the start. It also, hopefully, will better position universities to assert our values in the areas of student privacy and data control. Brigham Young University is engaging in an interesting project to give students control of their own data. There are vigorous conversations taking place in multiple settings (at CNI and its fora, and NISO, among many others) about analytics and privacy that are well worth following.

Some things about the strategy and related comments from Unizin are a little more confusing, and one or two create a rather unpleasant feeling of déjà vu for libraries that have grappled, sometimes quite painfully, to promote access and to work with bundling and big deals.

The first of these is a few words in the section on OER: “Pushing on all things that enable the creation, discovery, and adoption of Open Educational Resources (OER) whether without fee or partially subsidized” [emphasis added]. I assume, or at least hope, that what the board is talking about here is content that is actually free to use, reuse and remix (and all of the other R’s), but that either its production has been financially supported by some entity, or that some version of the content, like a print copy, is available for a small fee. I think those are both reasonable and acceptable, but precision around the meaning of open is important, particularly at this early stage in the Unizin project’s life. See David Wiley’s recent ‘The Consensus Around Open’ for a discussion of some of the issues here.

Another stated goal is “Enabling academy ownership and/or access to the data and technologies that generate and track student engagement and analytics.” It’s not clear whether “ownership” and “access” are both meant to modify both “data” and “technologies,” but having access to data instead of owning data (whatever that would mean) are two very different things. And there are two sides to the data question: whether the faculty and other teaching partners at the university have a full and unfettered right and ability to use the data to further educational goals, and whether the members of the university have control over what other uses are made of this data. Both are important in this context. Later in the document, there’s a mention of needing at least non-exclusive, perpetual rights to these data, which is a good start. I hope over time the board will develop some ideas around appropriate and ethical uses of these data by others.

By far the most interesting questions that arise, for me, from Unizin’s large scale engagement are around the wisdom and likely success of collective commercial electronic textbook licensing. For libraries, with our decades (or centuries, if you count up the efforts of all of the librarians who have worked on this problem) of experience licensing electronic content from publishers, we may well ask whether there is something so fundamentally different about textbook licensing that the experience will be different from the one we’ve had with journals? Publishers* charge what they charge because they can, and the market has been relatively captive as long as students were required to buy the books assigned by their faculty. Open textbook and other OER projects are experimenting quite vigorously with substitution, and it may very well be that an open statistics textbook will work just as well as that one that sells for $200 a copy and creates huge profits for its publisher. That could shift the power balance enough to keep publishers eager to engage in volume discounts with universities. But again, it might not, and if success depends on open substitutions being available, and they don’t emerge in sufficient numbers or meet faculty needs, it’s possible that initial discounted pricing may not hold. The low prices we’re seeing might be the equivalent of introductory offers, until enough of us are captivated by this method and mode for prices to rise again. This makes the board’s multi-faceted strategy all the more important: don’t forget about the ancillary materials, keep pushing on OER, and look out for the data.

I’ve only selected a few points to discuss in my comments here, and there’s a lot more to dig in to in the rest of the content strategy statement. I hope others will.

*A caveat about publishers and about bookstores. Not all publishers charge outrageously for their textbooks, and, if you believe the bookstores are contributing to this pain for our students (read some of Unizin’s thoughts about bookstore markups in Everyone wins with the institutional model), not all bookstores are problematic. As with anything, there are good actors and less good actors. A shout out to the University of Minnesota Bookstore, who has been a great partner with the Libraries on our Digital Course Pack and Student Savings projects.




Claire Stewart

Associate University Librarian for Research & Learning, University of Minnesota

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