Being a teacher and a die hard geek, I’ve long been searching for a way to take my courses online in a meaningful way where students can engage in their work in Martini fashion (anytime, anywhere, not drunk). There have been lots of, what we might call ‘Virtual Learning Environments’ over the last ten years, some terrible (I’m naming no names here) and some pretty good. There has always, however, been the stumbling block that the student still has to go somewhere to get hold of course materials, ie to a computer. What I have long been after is a medium where the work goes seamlessly to the student, and likewise, the teacher can create courses in an effective, time efficient way. We might just have found this with iTunes U 2.0 which has been recently updated by Apple.
iTunes U has been around a while now, but it has finally got to a stage where it is a mean, lean fighting machine of an educational product. If you’ve never used iTunes U before, you should try it, even if you are not a teacher. iTunes U is a huge collection of online courses from some of the world’s best universities and schools. Everything is free, so if you ever wanted to take that course on astronomy, or wanted to find out how to program a computer game, the courses on iTunes U will show you how. You simply download a course that you are interested in and all materials and updates will be automatically pushed to it.
In the previous incarnation of iTunes U, you could use your browser and Apple ID to create courses, attach materials and have them delivered directly to the student’s iPad. What iTunes U 2.0 does is take this creation onto the iPad. This might not sound like much, but there are some outstanding apps which allow teachers to prepare content in advance and in the past we would have to go through a transferring nightmare of getting a resource from an iPad, to a computer, then uploaded through the browser. We can now do this directly on the iPad. I can, for example, make a video tutorial on Explain Everything and upload it directly to my iTunes U course. This is a huge tick in the box for teacher productivity.
The beauty of iTunes U is the Apple mantra of ‘it just works’. One thing I particularly like is the fact that if you update something on your course, the update gets sent to your students immediately. I had a situation earlier this year where one of my students noticed I’d put a couple of the tasks in my iTunes U course in the wrong order. I reordered it in the lesson and every student got the update straight away. This is a strange thing for teachers – we are not used to having it so easy when it comes to educational technology!
There is also no messing about with formatting. Like most things Apple, they have a particular template that you need to stick to. If I was being really picky, I’d like rich text formatting options on the iPad interface (they are present on the web version). This template is simple to use, and great for students because they are not continually getting used to different course structures or visuals because everything is the same for each course, no matter the subject. It has other features like course forums and discussions, which I have yet to test.
I’m really happy with how iTunes U 2.0 has been designed and thought about with teachers and learners in mind. The only thing I would like to see in the future is perhaps more access for students, in other words, web access. I know this is going back to the old days of a student going somewhere to access their course, but not everyone is lucky enough to have an iDevice. You can take courses through iTunes on the computer, but this assuming that you have downloaded iTunes to your computer. You may also want to upload some resources which don’t work on an iPad, like a Python program for example. Having this available through a web portal would make for less transferring of files by the student and make it a more seamless experience. It may also be a way to open up education to those in other parts of the world where computer access is less one to one as it is here. I’d like to think that Apple will ultimately do this through their improving iCloud in a web browser service.
Hats off to Apple for putting the resources into developing iTunes U, as they are not making any money from it directly (indirectly they are through iDevice sales). Google are about to make a play for the market with Google Classroom which ties into their excellent Google Apps for Education suite. It’s a different sort of thing to iTunes U, seemingly focussing on the day to day classroom management, rather than an overarching course structure. All we need now is Microsoft to pull their finger out and we might have some very interesting competition on our hands!
iTunes U is available here on the App Store for free. All course materials are also free.
If you are an educator and you want to see a course created by Mr. Average (ie me), you can check out Introduction to Python here. This course was created on an iPad in iTunes U 2.0. Anyone can create a course and distribute it privately, but you need to be attached to an educational institution to be able to publish it in the iTunes U catalogue. Feel free to contact me on Twitter @BGSICT if you have any questions about publishing on iTunes U. I won’t have all the answers but I’ve been through the process and may be able to help.