My thoughts on education, technology, and other random things

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Some thoughts on iTunesU

Last week I attended a one day event hosted by Apple, looking at all the great things you can do with iTunesU. The statistics presented by some of the universities present, including the Open University, Duke and UCL, were impressive to the point of being almost intimidating - it's clear that some of the content being out out there by these institutions is massively popular, globally and way beyond their respective student populations. Brian Kelly's recent post gives a good sense of the scale of uptake in the UK.

The presentations I saw did challenge some of my assumptions about iTunesU, never having been a heavy user of the service in the past, and I was pleased to see that it had much more potential than simply a service for hosting recorded lectures. Here are some of the uses that I found inspirational (please note most of the links go to the relevant web pages rather than directly into iTunes U):
  • Recorded interactive whiteboard sessions. The KhanAcademy produces these for maths support, and they are all freely available to users around the world
  • Publishing of rare/inaccessible archive material, e.g. Duke's digitisation of rare TV advertising footage from the 60s, which was previously stored on 16mm film and so very difficult to access.
  • Extracurricular student use, such as uploading and peer review of produced videos/tracks by student bands (Duke again)
  • News-style materials produced around important events, such as the Open University's pieces on Darwin's anniversary and the launch of the Large Hadron Collider (iTunesU link)
  • Digitised documents, e.g. LMU digitising all their theses, in ePub format (which, if I have understood it right, allows simple pdfs but also embedding of animation/video)
  • New ways of presentation/improving the 'findability' of content. Tagging and categorising lets you present resources in topical ways (e.g. Nottingham have a page specifically for new students coming into the University, the Open University site currently has a list of resources for World Food Day), and resources from across all institutions are gathered together by subject.
The presenters also shared some useful tips about going through the application and set-up process, including ideas on project management, supporting staff to move from content providers to creators/producers, addressing copyright, focusing on what's special about your institution, and embedding support for production of high-quality resources using open standards.

There were two main things that I took away from this event. The first was the inevitable focus on content ('content is king' was repeated like a mantra at several points during the day). Much as I am a fan of the OER philosophy and the permeability of HE boundaries, publishing content as a meaningful standalone product outside the context of teaching has implications for staff development, resource design, and the repurposing of existing materials. And perhaps inevitably, there were few conversations about interaction and active engagement.

The second thing was a little more difficult to pin down, but I can best describe it as a feeling that I had missed the start of a conversation - the part where everyone in the room had already agreed that iTunesU was the tool they needed for aggregation and dissemination of their digital learning resources. Perhaps partly due to my cynicism over Apple's increasingly proprietary ethos, I found myself asking, what is the added value of this tool? Is it simply promotion and visibility? And if so, if my institution already has a streaming server, and a repository for digitised resources, do we simply need to present these more effectively to users outside the institution? I also have questions about inclusivity (I have no clue how I would attempt to access iTunes U on my Android phone, for example), and about granting Apple 'distribution rights' (what happens if you need to take something down?)

At the event, I got a sense of the 'everybody's doing it so we mustn't get left behind'. And while I do think that it has its advantages - the application process would be a great vehicle for starting important conversations about the resources, training and support required to produce quality learning resources for the web, and there is no denying the impact in sheer weight of download numbers - I still think that the tools we choose should have a pedagogic value for our students, rather than simply a marketing one. Or perhaps that makes me already a dinosaur in the post-Browne age?

I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on this...

Headphone image source

Apple image source

Creative Commons Licence
This work by Julie Usher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Hi,

    Pat Xpert here - I'd agree it's a closed system, but a useful system. Given the content coming into it is almost all in RSS feeds it's likely that they could easily be made open and used elsewhere. I think it's important for educational resources to be as open as possible.

    Itunes U is very shiny and cool. So it wins a lot of points because it has a nice interface and kudos. No other repository bar Youtube can compete. But that's not a reason to try.

    Good blog though - this came up on twitter this week.

  2. Thanks a lot Pat. That's a good point about the RSS, I know that technically the producers of the content (the institution) can still control the hosting, which I guess also answers questions about removing content - as I said, I think it was my own cynicism that made me wary of signing over any rights to Apple, even if it's only for distribution!
    I also think you're right about scoring 'kudos' points, although I disagree about the interface, personally I find iTunes a really awkward application to use, for a range of reasons...
    I do think though that there is an interesting balance that needs to be negotiated by institutions, particularly in the current climate, in terms of how much effort/resources we put into the development of marketing tools (both for potential students and as part of our wider social obligations), as opposed to those that directly benefit our current students/'customers'. I'd love to hear other thoughts on this.
    Also if you know of any comparisons between Youtube and iTunesU in this context, pointers would be much appreciated!