In the 19th century, the standard gauge rail, which set the standard width of rail tracks in the United States and other countries, allowed an unparalleled level of cooperation between the railway companies, engineers and businesses. Before the implementation, trains could only travel as far as their company had laid track. Now, they had the opportunity to travel across the country on tracks operated by several companies — all working to standardize rail construction in the industry.
Currently, research universities face similar difficulties on a digital front. As data is produced at an incredible rate and discharged into databases, they face the challenge of making sure it is stored, protected and utilized in the best way possible.
To address that, the University announced last week it would join the Unizin consortium, a partnership between the University and three other institutions: Indiana University, Colorado State University and the University of Florida.
Unizin’s mission is “to support faculty and universities by ensuring that universities and their faculty stay in control of the content, data, relationships, and reputations that (they) create,” according to their website.
The consortium will allow greater connectivity between data at these institutions. Much like the standard gauge rail, it will set the rules by which data is collected and distributed among research scientists, professors, students and the general public.
Information Prof. James Hilton, dean of the University libraries, led the movement to get the University involved in the partnership.
“(Unizin) is about leveraging open standards to make sure content and data can flow between tools and systems, rather than remaining locked up inside a single tool,” Hilton said. “It’s about tilting the table in favor of interoperability and University control.”
For a practical example, Hilton said online practice quizzes, like those currently offered on CTools, could be adapted to better suit the needs of students and instructors. Rather than just simply having professors assign problems and receive scores, the data could be used to improve course curriculum.
“There’s data in there that would tell us — tell you — the kind of problems that you’re struggling with and the kind of problems that you’re not,” Hilton said. “Right now, all that stays very isolated.”
Potentially, platforms like Unizin could also protect intellectual property rights. The system ensures professors have control over who gains access to their research, and that they receive due credit for their work.
The partnership also paves the way for advancements in digital learning at the University, delivered via massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The University currently offers 12 of these courses on Coursera, an online platform that allows individuals from around the world to access University content and instruction for free.
While Unizin is not designed as a platform to host online courses, Business Prof. Gautam Kaul said it provides “the ecosystem needed for us to flourish in that environment.”
Kaul highlighted the importance of being on campus for students, so they could interact with faculty and gain hands on experience in their respective fields. However, he said the current methods of education should be carefully reconsidered to improve learning efficiency and to get students to campus with greater knowledge, prior to ever stepping in a classroom.
“A lot of the stuff that we do in residential education doesn’t need to happen (in residence), quality stuff needs to happen,” Kaul said.
In one of Kaul’s finance courses, students complete online content the summer prior to the start of the course. He said students come to campus with about 25 percent of the course material already covered, allowing the class to cover more topics, in greater detail, by the end of the semester.
It remains to be seen whether the implementation of online courses can add value to education while reducing costs, but Kaul said the advent of MOOCs signifies that price is an increasing concern on college campuses.
“Education shouldn’t be that expensive,” he said. “I think the public is saying, ‘Let’s take a break here and see if we can do a better job keeping costs under control.’ ”
While MOOCs could provide an alternative for U.S. students who can’t afford to come to campus, he added that they have major impacts abroad as well, especially in areas where they may be the only option available for individuals seeking an education.
“We are talking about choices here,” Kaul said. “(In other countries), they might not have choices, but digital education could provide them one.”