Tuning into an iTunes Education

In keeping with Steve Jobs’ vision of transforming education, Apple has expanded its iTunes U so that professors can offer entire courses, not just lectures. So far, though, colleges and universities are not rushing to drop the platforms they use for online learning and adopt the new application from the technology heavyweight.

Apple bills the expanded iTunes U as “an entire course in one app,” with the capacity to accommodate lectures, assignments, books, quizzes and syllabuses. Although the application is free, the courses can be accessed only on an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch, which are Apple products whose prices may be unaffordable for college students with limited financial resources.

Created in 2007, iTunes U is touted by Apple as “the world’s largest catalog of free educational content,” including lectures by professors at Harvard and Stanford universities, for example. The lectures and other content have been downloaded 700 million times, according to the company.

“The all-new iTunes U app enables students anywhere to tap into entire courses from the world’s most prestigious universities,” says Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet software and services.

The expansion was announced in January to allow professors time to gather and put together material for courses starting in the fall. Six schools have placed a total of about 100 courses on iTunes U: Yale, Stanford and Duke universities; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Open University of the United Kingdom; and Harrisburg Area Community College. It is unclear how many other schools are moving to take advantage of the new app, which faces challenges in gaining wide acceptance.

“It’s competing with some of the traditional learning management systems that have been around a number of years,” says Dr. John Flores, executive director of the United States Distance Learning Association, who has yet to detect major movement to iTunes U. “It’s almost like changing bags or changing doctors or changing barbers. You get comfortable. You want to go to the same resource. The same happens with using a technology.”

Dr. Bruce Chaloux, executive director and CEO of the Sloan Consortium for online education at Babson College, says the initial reaction has been mixed.

“The response seems to be wait and see. I think there’s some excitement about this,” says Chaloux, who recently departed the Southern Regional Education Board.

The Competition

The dominant player in online learning remains Blackboard Inc., which was formed in 1997 and says its platform is used by 2,000 educational institutions of all levels. Three weeks after Apple’s announcement, the company released an upgrade of Blackboard Learn.

North Carolina A&T State University, a leader in distance learning among historically Black colleges, uses Blackboard Learn. So does the University of Massachusetts Boston, a commuter campus with a diverse student body and an African-American chancellor, J. Keith Motley. Staffers who help professors at UMass Boston design online courses say there are no plans to transfer them to iTunes U, which the school has used only for posting promotional videos of campus events such as commencement exercises.

“It’s tempered enthusiasm, I would say,” notes Apostolos Koutropoulos, an instructional support specialist at the school. “When you get something new and you already have existing structures, it takes time to change to something else.”

Koutropoulos and Christian deTorres, an educational technology consultant at UMass Boston, cited the relatively high cost of an iPad for students who may not own a laptop, easier access to Blackboard Learn on any computer and potential copyright and student privacy issues if UMass Boston courses were available to anyone through iTunes U.

The school has been working in vain for three years, deTorres says, to create an interface with iTunes U so that only paying students would be able to access its courses if they are posted there.

“If you have a $600 iPad, it’s great,” says deTorres of Apple’s platform. “Any discussion of educational technology has to tie into access issues.”

Some iPads are available for as low as $400, but that is still pricey for many students who struggle to pay college costs and, in many cases at commuter schools like UMass Boston, also work to pay living expenses or support their young families. Some models cost $800.

Even so, sales have been rising as iPads grow more popular, Chaloux notes. “More and more people are getting their hands on these devices. My guess is most people wouldn’t buy these devices just for these purposes,” he adds.

Flores, who is also executive director of business and organizational relationships and a program professor at Nova Southeastern University, says colleges usually invest in professional development for staffers and professors to train them how to use a learning management system and then devote time and effort to making patches so it works as they want. Switching to another would likewise take time and money.

He suggests the expanded iTunes U may win favor more quickly among devotees of Apple products than with professors and university staffers more inclined toward PCs.

Chaloux, who owns an iPad and iPhone, says he found “fascinating” the iTunes U packages he downloaded. “Generally speaking, faculty likes the tools. I really think students will like it,” he says.

Blackboard Learn, Koutropoulos says, has the advantage of working well on either a Mac or PC. “With Blackboard, students can go to a computer, open up Internet Explorer and just go to their Blackboard account, and they’re set,” he says.

The other two leading platforms for online learning are Desire2Learn and Moodle, which is open source. Besides A&T, Flores cites Howard University and University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff as HBCUs with considerable distance learning programs. Both use Blackboard Learn. Another, Morehouse College, relies on WebCT, which Blackboard Inc. bought in 2009. No Black colleges use Desire2Learn, according to a map of higher education clients posted on its website.

Nova Southeastern University, Florida International University and Northern Arizona University are three Hispanic-serving institutions that also use Blackboard Learn.

Any university switching to iTunes U will have to grapple with copyright issues, the UMass Boston staffers say, because such material will be available to anyone, not just enrolled students. “Professors use copyright material in every course,” deTorres notes.

And students who are actually in the classroom having their images and possibly words distributed widely, he adds, can also raise legal issues about student privacy.

At any rate, Apple appears to be gearing its educational technology efforts more to K-12 schools than colleges at the moment. Besides expanding what can be done on iTunes U, the company also has opened the platform to elementary and secondary schools for the first time.

The announcement was coupled with another about making available e-textbooks, with video illustrating lessons, for an initial price of $14.99.

Apple’s initial targets in electronic publishing are the K-12 schools, a larger market with a potentially higher volume of sales. The texts could be integrated into iTunes U courses.

Apple has the brand name and marketing prowess to muscle its way to a share of the online learning market for higher education, but it may take some time. DeTorres of UMass Boston predicts that iTunes will enjoy some success, eventually.

So does Flores.

“With the freedom and flexibility of iTunes U, as long as it’s following professional criteria to build a quality course, I think eventually it will be readily accepted,” Flores says. “It’s a new product. It’s a new service. Time will tell.”