iTunes U may make radical shift in online learning

Apple's higher ed initiative offers compelling distribution medium that shouuld encourage creativity, new thinking, ease of use, all with no proprietary lockdown.

Apple's iTunes U is up and running with plenty of commentary in the blogosphere. The educational version of the iTunes Store is a "free, hosted service for colleges and universities that provides easy access to your educational content, including lectures and interviews 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," as Apple's PR puts it.

Michael Feldstein, assistant director at the SUNY Learning Network, took at trip to Cupertino and has been publishing on ongoing series about the U. He finds no proprietary lockdown: Apple supports popular MIME types, including MP3, AAC and PDF; doesn't support DRM; doesn't want to own your content; and stores content in an XML-tagged database on your hard drive.

That said, they make no secret of the fact that everything works better with iPods and Macs. For example, they have made no effort to make iTunes synchronize with non-Apple MP3 players (though now, with the advent of podcasting and RSS enclosures, there’s no reason why you couldn’t push iTunes U content directly to any MP3 player via any computer operating system). iTunes U will unquestionably be a better experience for Mac and iPod users than for others. But that’s a far cry from real lock-in. iTunes itself runs on Windows as well as Mac, and I suspect there would be a linux version as well if there were sufficient market demand. If your main goal is to distribute large files to (and from) students’ computers, then iTunes U looks like a sweet deal with no real strings attached.

He also sees the U as stimulating a great explosion in multimedia creativity, an improved online learning system and even the commodification of textbooks (if albums have been reduced to songs with standardized pricing, why not reduce textbooks to chapters with standardized pricing? Considering post-graduate texts routinely cost more than $100 for a book, that's real attractive.)

[I]f Apple is successful with iTunes U then we should see a proliferation of student- and faculty-created multimedia in the classroom. Apple’s iLife software suite really does drastically lower the barrier to producing audio, video, and digital images.  iTunes, iPods, and video iPods make it easy for users to organize and use those newly created multimedia assets. iTunes U completes the ecosystem by making it easy to share the files. Honest to goodness, just about anyone can produce professional-sounding podcasts using Garage Band or a video using iMovie. Microsoft, of course, doesn’t stand still either. Expect competition in these consumer-level multimedia production tools to remain high, and expect the tools themselves to remain cheap or free.