Senate Assembly discusses future of CTools

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Executive Director of Foundation Relations & Program Initiatives Maureen Martin speaks about seeking financial support from external foundations at the SACUA meeting in Forum Hall of Palmer Commons Monday. Buy this photo

By Andrew Almani, Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 15, 2014

The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs convened in Palmer Commons Monday afternoon to discuss the future of CTools and foundation funding for research initiatives.

Laura Patterson, University chief information officer and vice president for information and technology services joined James Hilton, dean of libraries and vice provost for digital education initiatives, and Sean Demonner, executive director for Teaching and Learning Technologies, to address the Senate and provide an update on the NextGen Michigan project.

NextGen Michigan is seeking to move the University’s investments in educational information technology forward on several fronts, including a proposed switch from CTools to an alternative program, Canvas.

The University is collaborating with several other schools in a digital learning consortium called Unizin. Patterson and Hilton first introduced the assembly to the idea last April.

Since then, the number of universities participating in Unizin has grown from several potential partners to multiple confirmed institutions, including Indiana University, the University of Florida, the University of Minnesota, the University of Madison, Wisconsin, Oregon State University and Colorado State University.

During the trio’s presentation, Patterson presented data on the current status of the proposed switch, including updates on the pilot programs conducted with Canvas in several University courses this fall. She told the Senate that the tests found that 75 percent of faculty and 58 percent of students preferred Canvas to CTools.

Expanded testing is scheduled for the upcoming winter term, with 200 instructors and upwards of 10,000 students, to further assess the functionality of Canvas.

In response to a question from the Senate, Patterson said the exact time period for a full transition from CTools to Canvas depends on the results of the of the pilots.

“I don’t think CTools could carry us forever,” Patterson said. “I think there are improvements, and the desire to work at scale and to have open standards and inter-operability… really suggests that there is something coming in the future.”

Unizin has nine groups in total working actively on the project and on advancements to learning technology, according to the presentation, and the consortium has recently hired an executive director, established a physical office in Austin, Tex. and started hiring staff.

Hilton told the Senate that the Unizin effort was an important step forward for the University.

“Increasingly, digital ecosystems are infrastructure – more like common gauge rails than differentiating features of a university,” he said.

The Digital Innovation Advisory Group, a faculty group, will consider the data received from the Canvas pilots and feedback from University staff. They reviewed the current results on Dec. 3 and are developing a report to share their findings.

Monday’s meeting also included a presentation from Maureen Martin, executive director of the Office of Foundation Relations and Program Initiatives and Joseph Sutkowi, assistant director of the Office of Foundation Relations and Program Initiatives.

The office, which is part of the University’s broader development and fundraising efforts, works to facilitate collaboration between foundations and University researchers.

“What we do is help you and your deans think strategically about foundation support,” Martin said. “Where in your work might there be a niche for foundations, whether it’s feasible for you to think about foundations, and we can help identify what foundations those might be.”

Foundations are legally divided into three categories: community, private, and operating foundations. The University collaborates primarily with private foundations, which number 81,000 in the United States in total with the top 25 providing 23.5 percent of all funding nationally, according to Martin.

Though Martin acknowledged that foundations are a niche funding source, providing 14 percent of private support to the University in 2014 and only 2 percent of research expenditures in 2013, she said there are key advantages to working with foundations as opposed to the federal government.

“You’re not going to change the foundation’s minds…they have what they’re trying to accomplish,” she said. “However, more than the federal government, they are looking for research that has outcomes on the ground… they fund things riskier than the federal process would ever allow.”

The Senate Assembly will meet next on Jan. 26, 2015.