Thinking about iTunes U

Thursday in New York, Apple gave a presentation which announced three new products and services for education, iBooks 2, iBooks Author and an iTunes U app. I’ve already written about iBooks 2 and iBooks Author, so what about iTunes U.

Before today, iTunes U was in the main a marketing tool for universities and colleges. It was a way of showing prospective students great content and give them an idea of what they may expect to experience if they went to that institution. There were some institutions which used iTunes U as a delivery mechanism for their learners, it was even possible to “close” or “lock” down iTunes U so that only authorised users could access the content.

The key though was that iTunes U was a content delivery system and was not about interactive content, communication or collaboration. It also wasn’t a total content delivery system, as iTunes U was in the main focused on delivering audio and video content (and in some cases PDFs).

Most of the main UK Universities and Colleges were not using iTunes U to deliver all their content to their learners and certainly though there was some excellent content, it was just one delivery mechanism for learners. I would hazard a guess that in most institutions, once the learners are there, most of the content would be provided through the institutional virtual learning environment, a tool such as Blackboard or Moodle. These tools do allow for communication and collaboration and interaction. What was always lacking, until very recently, were usable and decent mobile access to the institutional virtual learning environment. Both Blackboard and Moodle now have either a mobile app, or a mobile optimised stylesheet, however these really don’t “work” as well as they could, as both products were designed to work in a standard web browser on a computer.

Apple have “upgraded” iTunes U to allow much more diverse content to be delivered to learners through iTunes and a new iTunes U app for the iPad. With iBooks 2, interactive textbooks can be “purchased” alongside the planned delivery of video and audio. iBooks Author allows teachers and lecturers to create their own “books” that either can be given or sold to learners (through the iBookstore). This means that much more varied content can be delivered through iTunes U.

What Apple have done with iTunes U for the iPad is design an app for the delivery of curriculum from a mobile perspective. The learner will be “given” a complete course that they can then use on their iPad complete with textbooks, video, audio and other content.

What iTunes U lacks is the social interaction, communication and collaboration tools that an institutional virtual learning environment can provide. Learners would probably say, “so what” as we interact and communicate using Facebook and Twitter. So though iTunes U fails from a two way student engagement perspective, there are other ways in which learners will talk, discuss and communicate, whether that includes the practitioner, that remains to be seen.

Will iTunes U replace Blackboard or Moodle? A lot depends on what we as consumers do. It’s true that iTunes has had a huge effect on the music industry and digital downloads. So there is a precedent for Apple changing an industry, the same can be said about the iPod or the iPhone. However we also need to consider Ping and iWeb, not everything Apple does has that golden touch.

Of course you can’t just use iTunes U, firstly your institution needs to apply to be on iTunes U and that isn’t a simple process, and it isn’t something an individual does, you will need to get management in your organisation on board. However I suspect this will be easier once more institutions get enrolled and you could argue about it from a competitive perspective.

Though a lot of stuff on iTunes U can be viewed on a computer, to take advantage of the real potential of the new iTunes U, the learner is going to need an iPad. You can’t read the new textbooks or books created with iBooks Author on a Mac or a PC, only on an iPad. So if you do put content on iTunes U for use with the iTunes U app then you will need to be sure that either a) all your learners have an iPad, or b) you provide the content in a different format. The latter will be challenging as the export functionality in iBooks Author leaves a lot be desired, the alternatives to the iBook format are PDF and text which don’t utilise the use of media or interactivity.

If every learner in your institution has an iPad, then iTunes U is a great way of delivering content to your learners, if every learner doesn’t… well I wouldn’t bother with iTunes U.

Get iTunes U in the iTunes App Store.

4 thoughts on “Thinking about iTunes U”

  1. itunes U is a great option for the free courses that the major universities have been offering. Now all of the course resources are in one place. As the badge infrastructure being championed by Mozilla takes off, I can see it being integrate into the new iTunesU to provide some verification that a student has finished a course.

    For traditional students, I dont see the new iTunesU as a very disruptive tool. There are too many features that are missing when compared to a true LMS. There is no way to facilitate a two-way flow of information. Like you said, Its a nice way for students to feel like they have taken a college course, but for those who are payinqg for it, I dont see it being a significant disruptor.

  2. iTunes U seems to be a slight ‘botch’ add-on to iTunes, Apple’s main sources of revenue after iPhones. It doesn’t have most of the facilities of VLEs even as they were ten years ago and there has really been next to no indication of interest in adding them, though several years of opportunity. Apple’s heart really isn’t in the education world, despite of the publicity.

    Tablet computers have been a long-standing wish eventually enabled by progress in screen / battery / processor technology. (An iPad looks very much like the news-reading device used in 2001, A Space Odyssey, back in the 1960s). They are long-expected computer format, rather than a novel development. They initially caught a lot of attention, because they were eventually ‘new’, though growth in sales is now in quite a rapid decline. Probably this is because they are not locked into the contract / replacement cycle that still holds sway on smartphones. A tablet is a device suited to media consumption / web surfing and low-level tasks such as email. It still does that job as well a few years after purchase, so why throw it away and buy a new one once they are ‘good enough’? Also, being less public than smartphones, the fashion element is much less.

    It’s interesting to see the recent high profile, expensive iPad disaster in the LA education district (Google: ipad la school district). Once the novelty wears off, students know just what tablets are best for and it’s not primarily learning.

    Throwing a digitised version of a book on an iDevice – what iTunes U effectively does, albeit with sound / video if the author has the spare time – is not exactly leading edge, though it might have been 10-20 years ago. It has more of the feel of another conduit to direct future potential purchasers towards Apple lock-in, which is always a high-risk strategy with any vendor. Open standards protect investment of time. Proprietary lock-in inevitably ends up, one day, with having to write off such effort and start again, probably with less enthusiasm or more wisdom next time.

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