iTunes U: Relevant And Engaging

By Charles Lawson.

Ask just about any student, whether they’re in school or university, where the best single online source for music is and the answer you’re bound to receive is iTunes. Hardly surprising, really, given that since its launch in January 2001, iTunes has grown to the point where it has over 100,000 apps for the iPod touch and iPhone, 11 million songs, 50,000 TV episodes and 7500 films. So iTunes in education? Well, iTunes with a difference, at least.

It’s an Online Life

Consider for a minute that one of the growing trends in education is – at long last – to provide students with a learning experience that is relevant, not just to their future in the workforce, but to their everyday lives. Students’ lives are filled with online experiences that simply didn’t exist when the majority of today’s teachers were students themselves; experiences such as socialising on Facebook and MySpace, watching and sharing video clips on YouTube, chatting with friends using instant messaging programs, communicating via email, and researching using Google. Let’s face it, it’s an online world, and a rapidly growing number of schools around the world have introduced many of those same or similar technologies into the learning environment.

It All Started When…

In May 2007, after a pilot project between Apple and six US universities – among them Stanford, Duke and Brown – iTunes U was launched. The intent was quite straightforward: to provide tertiary education institutions with a service for the management, distribution and access of educational digital content using the familiar and proven iTunes infrastructure, model and interface.

There are currently over 200,000 educational audio and video files freely available on iTunes U. Of particular note, though, is that iTunes U is no longer restricted to universities and other tertiary institutions. In Australia and New Zealand, along with the other countries in which iTunes U has been launched, schools can now participate.

Before we get on to what you’re likely to find on iTunes U, there are a few things worth bearing in mind. The first of those is access levels. Even though there is a wealth of publicly available content on iTunes U, the service actually provides institutions with internal and external sites. So if there is material that a school or university wishes to limit access to, the support is there.

Next are access devices. While Apple, not surprisingly, would love it if everyone accessing iTunes U was using a Mac running iTunes software, or an iPhone or iPod touch, there’s extremely little access limitation. The iTunes software, which is the primary interface between the user and iTunes U, is available on Windows and Mac platforms. The content itself is generally in AAC, MP3, MPEG-4, PDF or MS Word format, which can be transferred to a massive array of devices, such as portable media players, compatible mobile phones and even certain gaming consoles.

Getting To The Content

So what is it that schools and universities are putting up on iTunes U? In the majority of instances, the content is in podcast form, essentially, audio or audiovisual files.

Among Australia’s earliest iTunes U K-12 adopters were sister schools PLC Perth and Scotch College Western Australia. In a joint media      release, PLC Principal Beth Blackwood and Scotch College Headmaster Andrew Syme stated that being able to access classroom lessons at home “means students can revise at their own speed, as well as giving parents the opportunity to keep in touch with their children’s learning. While we will continue to teach in a conventional school environment, this [iTunes U] provides us with a new opportunity to engage students in learning.”

During the preliminary stages of their iTunes U adoption, the two schools have developed and made available a range of digital assets that include presentations, talks from guest speakers, course guides, videos and International Baccalaureate study aids.

The colleges’ students are encouraged to go beyond the confines of the PLC and Scotch iTunes U library. “One of the real benefits of using iTunes U is that in contrast to Google, you can search a particular topic and know that the results will be aimed at the education environment”, states Aidan McCarthy, Director of Information Technology at both colleges.

Of particular interest at PLC and Scotch is the encouragement and support teachers are given to create their own iTunes U. Rather than video capture an entire lesson, though, they are being taught to capture the ‘essence’ of a lesson and use that as the focus of their content. One result of that is that students have the ability to get a different take on certain subjects.

Biology teachers at both colleges, for example, might create a podcast on a specific topic, but are likely to approach the topic from a different angle. “Students then get exposure to two teachers – both with different teaching styles – and one teacher’s style might strike a chord with a student more than that of the other one”, Aidan explains.

Consider that example from a global perspective. With iTunes U, all of a sudden, students and teachers have access to a wealth of subjects and presentation formats. Students can revise a subject under any number of ‘virtual’ teachers. Teachers can likewise see how their peers around the world present topics and interact with their students.

Moving Towards The Cloud

From the perspective of Greg Whitby, Executive Director of the Catholic Education Office in the Parramatta Diocese, the nature of the world is changing “in the way we use technology, and we’re moving towards the ‘cloud’. From an education perspective, we are developing more and more digital assets in a broad range of areas, especially with students and teachers now creating their own digital assets.”

In commenting on how iTunes U assists in streamlining the publishing of content, Greg goes on to say that “One of the advantages of iTunes U is that it provides a holistic environment, which relieves people of much of the workload that goes into publishing digital assets. Our plan is to use iTunes U as a powerful tool to publish good material to help teachers across the world share and collaborate. This is what it’s all about. We don’t have to build our own bespoke solutions, and it’s a proven product.” He adds that this is closely allied to a philosophy of “any way, any time, anywhere and any device.”

Greg emphasises, though, that iTunes U is not the sole solution to providing students and teachers with a more relevant and engaging experience. “It’s all part of a multi-strategy”, he says. “iTunes U will never be the single solution but you cannot prosecute enterprise-level computing in education without bringing it in as part of a rich mosaic of ever-changing patterns and opportunities.”

At Western Australia’s Department of Education and Training (DET), iTunes U is also being used to complement the more traditional methods of delivering digital content to teachers, as well as to those in the community who are considering teaching as a career.

“We want to engage with students, teachers and the teachers of tomorrow”, say Andrew Thompson, the department’s Assistant Executive Director of Curriculum Support. “We have a broad range of teachers out there, and our catchcry is to make things for teachers that just work without having to worry too much about what’s under the hood. We know iTunes U works intuitively. And my advice to schools and education departments is simple – get stuck in and give it a go!”

Giving It A Go

The big advantage of iTunes U is that schools don’t need their own iTunes U presence in order to take advantage of the available content. Once a participating institution has placed content on its external site, that content is freely available for everyone to access.

When you do decide to join in, there is a wealth of information from which to draw, and for most, the starting point is the main iTunes U website at There you will find a logically presented series of tutorials and guides that will, as Andrew stated, help you to “get stuck in and give it a go”.

Charles Lawson has been a technology writer for nearly thirty years. During that time he has worked extensively on developing case studies that focus on the innovative use of technology in K-12 and tertiary education.

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Education Technology Solutions has been created to inspire and encourage the use of technology in education. Through its content, Education Technology Solutions seeks to showcase cutting edge products and practices with a view to expanding the boundaries and raising the standards of education curricula. It introduces teachers and IT staff to the latest products, services and developments in education technology with a view to providing practical how-to guidance designed to facilitate the integration of those products and services into the school environment in the most productive and beneficial manner possible.

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