iTunes U: Disruptive education--in more ways than one

BlogHer Original Post

Online learning has been called many things, depending on its iteration: innovative, flexible, customizable, disruptive, siloed, and disappointing.  While people have been creating informal learning networks  since the days of BBS and crafting personal learning environments since the web went 2.0, Apple has made the process of online learning considerably more convenient, thanks first to iTunes U and later the iPhone.

Many commentators have hailed universities in particular for making "course content"—usually audio or video recordings of lectures—available to the public through iTunes U.  (Universities also may share internal, private networks for students who are officially enrolled in classes, but here I'm writing about iTunes U's publicly available content.)  These "open" lectures are incredibly popular; the UK's Open University alone recently marked its 10 millionth download and averages 375,000 downloads each week.  Certainly iTunes is making it easier for universities to fulfill the public-facing, community-service aspects of their missions.

The New York Times Bits blog recently shared an argument made by Open University Vice Chancellor Martin Bean:

Other universities say that limited resources, copyright concerns or the reluctance of old-fashioned professors are keeping them from recording and uploading lectures. But Mr. Bean challenges his peers around the world who are not participating in iTunes U at all, or who are making lectures available only to registered students who sign in with a password.

“There are still a lot of universities in the world that define the value of their experience as somehow locking up their content and only giving people access to the content when they enroll in the program,” Mr. Bean said. “The courage comes from taking the next leap of faith. Universities no longer define themselves by their content but the overall experience: the concept, the student support, the tutoring and mentoring, the teaching and learning they get and the quality of the assessment.”

But will iTunes U in the long run harm universities more than it helps them and their students?  Brian Phipps recently explained how, through an expansion of iTunes U's capabilities and the launch of Apple's anticipated tablet, Apple could disrupt the paradigm of higher education:

Here, then, is a hypothetical iTunes U disruption package, conceivably purchased from the iTunes U store for use on Apple’s “iTablet” (as speculated).

    1.    Digital textbooks (designed as multimedia/interactive books)
    2.    Digital lectures (designed as multimedia/interactive presentations)
    3.    Digital course materials (movies, music, art, etc.) outboard of online textbooks or lectures
    4.    Online student discussions, group exercises, team collaboration and uploads
    5.    Sign-ups, downloaded materials, fees and tuition paid via the iTunes U store.

As a student, you’d visit iTunes U, chose your course or courses, pay the fees, and download everything to your portable device. No lines. No waiting. No “semesters.” Order a logo sweatshirt, and you’re good to go. This may cost less, deliver more learning, and be far more convenient than attending a traditional university.

If, as Charles Murray has opined in The New York Times and others have elsewhere, the current generation of young people might need to completely rethink the necessity and value of a college degree, then yes, iTunes U might prove disruptive.  Users of iTunes U could patch together a college education, taking courses from different institutions as was convenient and affordable, but not in the end earning a degree.  Would employers accept from applicants such a hodgepodge approach to higher education?  Right now, I'm guessing most would not, but maybe the current bias against autodidacts (even though I have a Ph.D., I'm married to one) will lighten, depending on the industry and its needs.

iTunes U has its critics.  See, for example, higher ed agitator and all-around edupunk Jim Groom's recent post "5 Reasons I Don't Like iTunesU."  Among other reasons, Groom hesitates to embrace the platform because

ITunesU is not a place for community, context, or collaboration. What is interesting about the web is not that you can get something, but that you can participate and dialogue around something. We have built a community at UMW with web-based technologies that is not about simply getting something, but about discovering something and following a series of connections and exposing a community of ideas that would otherwise be locked behind a wall. ITunesU is just that kind of wall we are trying to avoid.

Groom also wonders why universities aren't uploading this content to the Internet Archive instead of to a for-profit platform.  And indeed, the mingling of freely available content from educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and government entities in what is essentially a commercial endeavor does make for a complex intersection.

I'm not ready to invest myself whole-heartedly in this critique—after all, I'm grateful that the Library of Congress, for example, is making its content more easily accessible via iTunes—but I do hesitate a bit when I hear about such partnerships.  Remember the Smithsonian Institution's (ultimately failed) decision to license its content almost exclusively to Showtime and the ensuing outrage by historians? Or the controversy over whether it's appropriate for the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration to partner with to charge for digital access to freely available print records?  As I said, partnerships like iTunes U are complicated and shouldn't be celebrated—as I see in blog posts and articles all over the web—as an unmitigated good.

I would like to see universities use iTunes to its fullest potential, making available resources in a variety of formats to meet the needs of all learners—by which I mean students with different learning styles (visual, aural, etc.) and students with learning or physical disabilities.  That said, Groom is correct—iTunes U currently doesn't offer sufficient capabilities for people to collaborate; for students to interact with one another; for learners to remix the materials into discussions, presentations, and other media as is done in the best collegiate learning environments; or for institutions to establish sufficient context for their materials.

I myself prefer the "small pieces loosely joined" approach to online learning rather than the packaged learning experiences that come in the guise of course management systems and, in some ways, iTunes U.  That said, content fed to me through iTunes—podcasts, primarily—does constitute a significant portion of my personal learning environment.

What about you?  Do you use iTunes or iTunes U?  Is it a significant part of your personal learning environment?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.


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