iTunes U has been around for a long time, but its expansion last week onto iPhones and iPads, as well as into new content like K-12 curriculum, has truly made this a 2.0 release. And it's very, very good.
The iTunes U website carries the bold title "Learn anything, anywhere, anytime." That's an overstatement for sure, with 500,000 assets it's more like learn something about many things. But it's great either way. I spent the weekend neglecting other duties to play with iTunes U and below are some thoughts, positive and negative. It's not perfect, but I am really excited about it and I know I'm not alone in that. I'd love to know your thoughts about it too.
"Algorithms are at the cutting edge of innovation, because they help move the line between the feasible & infeasible," says the Prof on the first day's lecture in MIT's Introduction to Algorithms. That's a tasty nugget to ponder, served up in the middle of a lecture which started with 15 minutes of "no cheating on tests" and other administrative advice. Most of the lecture was over my head, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about algorithms so I was very thankful for the opportunity to hear it. Thankful enough that I listened to it once on my phone while walking my dogs and once again on the iPad with the whiteboard visible, propped up in my cupboard while I put away the dishes in my kitchen.
Learn anything, anywhere, anytime? It was certainly feeling that way in the first few hours I was glued to iTunes U.
Awesome, With Limits"At first, I was excited by this, because it appeared that this was iVLE, aka VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) in the cloud. And the iPad app is very nice. But sadly, the app functionality is not replicated well in iTunes, thus cutting out students who do not own iPads, and all Windows users. iPhones/Pods are OK for listening to a couple of podcasts, but no-one in their right minds is going to attempt a full-blown statistics course on an iPhone. And the content on iTunesU is still as variable in quality as it ever was.
"Presumably Apple could not see a revenue angle in iVLE. Oh, what might have been."
- Dr Alan Cann, Science of the Invisible
I found that in the business management section, much of the content isn't classroom lectures. Much of it is short-form video content made by non-traditional educational institutions. I listened to all of Jill Geisler's What Great Bosses Know segments, each about 5 minutes long, some I listened to twice. I'll probably go back and listen again. It's really just a podcast though, from Geisler who is associated with the Poynter Institute.
Geisler's content is heavily book-ended by promotions for her forthcoming book with the same title. I hope to buy the book. That experience was not like transporting into a college classroom though.
The Cranfield University collection on Leadership is similar, but in video with black backdrop and awesome, knowledgable, 50-year olds with British accents. It's great, but it's more like curated video podcasting than traditional educational content.
There are full, traditional classroom courses available though and I've subscribed to a few. I haven't worked through a full one yet and I haven't tried interacting with any of the worksheets or PDFs. I did jailbreak my iPad this weekend and turn the bottom right of my screen into a hot corner I can swipe from and pop up iTunes U immediately whenever I want. (Top right is Al Jazeera, if you were wondering, bottom left Twitter, swipe the title bar to launch the Sonos controller. It's a lot of fun.)
There's a lot of science and a good amount of humanities on iTunes U. Can you learn about anything? I watched an interesting video about a pizza place and there's plenty of content about beans, but search for Oregon and it's a real stretch. Transgender history (something my university in Oregon was great at teaching) is not a search query that brings much in the way of results.
Existentialism looks OK, psychedelics are a wasteland, rodentia is touched upon but birthday parties as a query is a bust. So it's a mixed bag! That was my whirlwind tour through brick and mortar university and I don't know that iTunes U can compete, but now that I'm a boring old 35 year old with a job, I love what Apple's put together so far.
Former RWW writer and leading education technology blogger Audrey Watters has criticized iTunes U for lacking in the social interactivity that so characterizes the rest of the web today and that delivers so much value elsewhere. At first I thought she was looking a gift horse in the mouth, but in time I've grown annoyed by that as well. Please, Apple, would you at least let people post comments on the videos, let other people vote comments up and down, and let us view either all comments or just those from our friends on Facebook, Twitter or...Ping? OK, so maybe it's not so hard to imagine why Apple skipped the social this time around. It sure would be nice if I could post a link to iTunes U content out to the web, though.
It is a walled garden, it's part of the iTunes Empire of Blah and there are other problems with it, but great content overcomes many things.
"Maybe you don't become an expert," Mr. Gleick says, "but you can get really good at something."
"What iTunes U is missing," argues web commenter Brian Crumley, "is a way to show you the steps needed to master a subject. We can all learn physics 101 but without a simple and easy way to find 102 and beyond it can get frustrating. Also the quality of many of the recorded lectures is not all that good."
Indeed, some of the lecture series aren't even in the right order in the app.
"Even though I am complaining here I still think it's an awesome service and hope it expands to anyone, not just schools," says Crumley. "If I have knowledge let me teach it to anyone in the world."
That sounds great, and it is in fact the world that is consuming the content that's here already. Estimates before the release of iTunes U on mobile were that 60% of the service's traffic comes from outside the United States.
The courses and content available on iTunes U are expanding the minds and lives of people all over the world, for only the price of an expensive machine to consume the free content. It's the only thing I've been interested in listening to when taking my dogs out lately (sorry HuffDuffer) and I'll be interested to see if I can take the time to work through some of the full courses it makes available.
Anybody that even claims to help me learn anything, any time, anywhere starts out in my good favor.