Do you iTunesU?

I’ve spent all morning re-writing a grant proposal for the umpteenth time, so I thought I’d take a short break for a sandwich and take the opportunity to dash off a quick blogette on a topic of topical topicality.

An interesting Twitter discussion took place on Friday, instigated by Leighton Andrews who asked the apparently innocuous question why so few Welsh universities have put content on iTunes U? I suppose what sparked this off was that a new version of the relevant app had just been released last week. In fact I think there’s only one Welsh university that has any material on iTunesU at all (the University of Glamorgan).

My response to the question was basically that, at least here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University,  we don’t have the resources to put a significant quantity of the more interesting content (e.g. video lectures and podcasts) on this resource. For one thing, although iTunesU is available for both Mac and PC platforms from what I understand you need to buy Apple software in order to create content to upload, which means having to buy Apple products in order to do so. Some of my colleagues have Macs and/or iPads, but I don’t. I think Apple kit is overpriced and gimmicky, but some of my colleagues go even further and consider Apple corp to be an intrinsically evil outfit that we shouldn’t have anything to do with, on principle.

However, those opinions don’t really matter because it would only take a few people with (possibly) dirty Macintoshes in the whole university to set it all up and there are undoubtedly many, especially younger, people out there who would want to see content there.  See, for example, this blog post which shows that having appropriate stuff on iTunesU could have a significant impact on undergraduate admissions. Perhaps we should put our open-day talks etc there and use it as a kind of shop window for the School?

We do have quite a lot of online material already – deposited on a system formerly known as Blackboard but now called Learning Central. Most of us distribute written notes, problem sets and the like on there and I think the students find it quite useful. I don’t know for sure how easy it would be to transfer such material to iTunes, but it can’t be that difficult, can it?

The problem is with the more complicated content such as videos. I’ve experimented with video lectures in the past and quickly came to the conclusion that you have to spend an awful lot of time and money to do them properly, otherwise they are excruciating.  A single fixed camera recording a traditional 50-minute lecture is as dull as ditchwater to watch, and we don’t have the resources to do anything more sophisticated. I think 5 or 10 minute supplementary videos is the way to go with this.

There isn’t much specifically physics content on iTunesU from the UK, apart of course from the Open University which has posted a large amount of material.  Oxford University has also made some very nice things freely available, including lectures on Quantum Mechanics from James Binney.

But then the basic question is who benefits from doing this? Our own (fee-paying) students already get material online for free from Learning Central. Should we make this available for free on a worldwide basis? Contributing to the general education of the world’s population is surely a good thing for a University to be doing, but is it consistent with the New World Order in which universities are merely businesses and students merely customers?

Anyway, I’d be interested to hear any comments on the usefulness (or otherwise) of iTunesU from teaching staff, students and interested parties here or elsewhere. The comments box awaits…

18 Responses to “Do you iTunesU?”

  1. The main benefit to iTunes U is marketing within the (limited) iTunes ecosystem. A university would still have to host its content and provide bandwidth just as they would if they made the course materials available via their website. As more universities join iTunes U, the visibility of any particular piece of content reduces.

    I’m not convinced by iTunes U but then I’m biased because I also think the iTunes software is far too clunky.

    • Oh, and I think Blackboard used to be named WebCT. Perhaps the frequent name changes say something about the reputation it gets.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, I should have mentioned that I also think iTunes is clunky and uncomfortable to use. I also dislike the way the PC version keeps trying to take over all my media files.

      Learning Central is a lot better than the old WebCT, but it’s still far from ideal.

  2. My wife has an iPad which is great for what she uses it for. I don’t own any Apple kit. I have to say it appeals to me more than Unix, Linux or Windows but I’ll stay on VMS as long as I can. While I think that one should use whatever kit suits one best, when it comes to publicly available information, I think it is an absolute no-go to have this accessible only to hardware from certain companies. One can have whatever kit one wants, open or proprietary or whatever, but all publicly available information should be available via an open protocol.

  3. Thanks Peter for mentioning the OU. I don’t know if spending much resource on a significant iTunesU presence would fit the business model of all universities, but for the Open University it’s an important profile raiser, and yes we’ve put a lot of taster material up there for free (and on YouTube, OpenLearn and other places too). Perhaps it depends on the nature of the teaching and/or the scale of the operation? On the other hand, it strikes me that production values aren’t necessarily a show-stopper if there is a demand for the content – just look at YouTube in general. I love the ethos of widening access to higher education, and as for how much resource goes into it there comes a point where one has to ask the business question of how the institution would gain (unless the resource can be funded some other way) – eg highlighting a dynamic or high-profile lecturer, or as a shop window demonstrating the credibility of the academic content, or perhaps even just to have a presence or a foothold in a new environment. At any rate I could easily imagine a business case in almost any university for a few tens of K to make a small amount of taster physics video material, and it would certainly do UK physics and access to higher education no harm to have more on these online platforms.

    There is a new Apple iTunesU app that should considerably simplify the interface: The interesting industry point for me is that Apple iBooks is simultaneously also entering the academic (textbook) publishing market.

  4. Sorry, that last link was a bit of internal OU puff. Here’s Apple’s page on the new iTunesU app:

  5. It seems impossible to get a copy of the iTunes U Service Agreement (the terms and conditions that a university would have to agree to) without first of all being someone with the “authority to contractually bind his or her institution to the terms and conditions” who has to first apply to Apple and be approved. I wonder what interesting conditions it contains that make it so secret. Perhaps they claim copyright over any course content you add or forbid you to sell or re-use the same content elsewhere.

  6. Monica Grady Says:

    Following on from Steve’s post – I’ll continue blowing the OU’s trumpet. As of 2nd Jan, we have had over 44.2 million downloads of our material by around 5 million visitors to iTunesU. There are a whole load of other stats about our offering here: under the heading of ‘impact’. What we have to show though, is how many of those downloaders then go on to become OU students..

    • I always feel a bit embarrassed about blowing one’s own trumpet! Perhaps it’s an English thing. Yes, the OU keeps breaking its own world records for iTunesU downloads, but then the differences in the OU’s business model compared to the rest of the sector means the OU has a lot of distance education teaching material to tap into. Peter’s blog post raised the interesting question of whether other universities should be uploading teaching materials, and I think there’s a good case for it, even if it’s only at the level of dipping toes in. I wonder if we might even be able to identify philanthropic or industrial sources to sponsor a free open access higher education physics resource on iTunesU (or some other platform) from all UK universities…

      It does make me wonder what higher education will be like in 20 years. Perhaps most teaching material will be sold in micropayments. Or perhaps all teaching material will be free and it’s tuition that’s for sale. Here’s hoping AI doesn’t get that good before I retire.

    • telescoper Says:

      Actually here in Cardiff we take the view that the fee should cover all teaching materials, so everything should be free if it’s essential. All our first year students get textbooks for free (to keep) and all course notes are free. I’ve heard that some other places charge for such things…

      • Likewise at the OU, everything a student needs is included in the fee, but then it has to be that way for distance education. In previous jobs I’ve stopped short of putting all the lecture material freely on the web, to avoid people just missing the lectures altogether, but I did put up the powerpoint that accompanied the chalk and talk, and I was happy to see the slides being re-used elsewhere.

        But what do we mean by free? There’s a difference between “free to enrolled students” and “free to the world” and even “free to re-use for resale for profit”. When you have a team of 20 people working for a year on a course, making the material freely available online becomes a different proposition than just putting one’s own lecture notes on the web.

  7. hde226868 Says:

    I have been putting the viewgraphs of my lectures on my (University hosted) www pages since about 10 years now, long before this became common. I find that they are quite widely used, which I’m happy about since quite a lot of work went into them, and the more people use them, the better. They’ve also been used as the basis for lectures at other universities, based on the feedback I’ve received from colleagues (plus: it has happened now quite often to me that I’ve gone somewhere and a [PhD] student approaches me and tells me that she knows the slides, so they’re used). So the impact of posting notes shouldn’t be underestimated.

    I continue posting the viewgraphs on my own pages, just because the system offered by my current university is bad AND only allows people access who are enrolled at the university. I don’t think that this is good practice, as academics we should share knowledge and not hide it behind artificial “paywalls”. With some limited exceptions, I believe it is best if educational materials are as widely available as possible. Plus: if somebody claims that access to such materials will reduce the need for coming to class/enroll at a specific university, this probably says more about a potential student’s maturity than anything else…

    A second reason for using my own pages is that I’m afraid that systems such as itunesU will lock people to certain commercial systems. The first shot of heroin is always free… So, I’d rather be conservative and use a system that will be around for longer and where the University is in control instead of something from the Evil Empire (point in case: shortly after my university bought a system for student administration, the seller decided not to support it anymore, such that 2 FTE in the administration are now wasted on trying to keep the thing going, because that’s cheaper than switching to another, incompatible, system).

    (having said this, I’m now teaching at a good University in Germany and previously taught at a Russell group university in the UK, and my impression at both places was that our 1st years didn’t choose the university primarily for the quality of teaching…; and if one is honest, I’d claim that in physics, despite all RAE efforts etc., the gradient in educational quality between the top 20 or 30 universities in both countries is very small, such that secondary factors such as research specialization for elective subjects probably should be the deciding factor, once a student has decided to study physics…)

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, I used to put lecture notes on my university webpages, freely available to the world, as a standard practice.

      I wonder whether scans of overhead projector transparencies for a topics course I gave in 1998 are still out there on the web. As an indication of how dated they are, I used H0 = 50 km/s/Mpc, q0 = 0.5 and lambda = 0 (which would be Omega_M = 1.0, Omega_Lambda = 0 in modern parlance). Perhaps an even better sense of their outdated character comes from the fact that I scanned the transparencies with a desktop computer having a 4GB hard disk drive and 38MB of RAM.

  8. […] likely to get involved in the PC versus Mac controversy. Except occasionally. And with great reluctance. It doesn’t do any good to take sides in such conflicts. I couldn’t resist passing on […]

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