Sources for Courses – iTunes U

As I mentioned previously, I am including classes from iTunes U in my Degree of Freedom lineup, despite the fact that they are often not listed when people talk about Massive Online Courses.

While not everyone might agree with this choice, Apple’s iTunes U service brings some serious game to the field of free college-level learning, namely:

  • An offering that includes not hundreds but thousands of courses taught by some of the world’s best professors teaching at the world’s most prestigious universities.  (To give you an idea of their scope, a search for philosophy classes available from iTunes turned up over 300 choices which is almost the same number as all current MOOCs in all disciplines available from the “Big Three” of Coursera, EdX and Udacity.)
  • Downloads from iTunes generally consist of all lectures making up a complete college-level course, meaning that a professor who teachers for 35 hours during a semester will make all 35 hours of lecture available to the public for free
  • Unlike courses that needed to be “repackaged” for delivery via a new platform (which often involves shortening the amount of lecture time and breaking lectures into smaller units), the lectures seasoned professors give in class have often been practiced and polished for years, making them closer to a perfected product than a work in profess

This is not to say that straight recordings of lectures given in a classroom environment don’t have their drawbacks.

Most significantly, if a professor doesn’t “get” some of the nuances of being recorded, they might wander off mike or stop their lectures to answer questions from un-miked (and thus unheard) students, leading to highly annoying dead air or divergences.  And because iTunes classes generally involve very little editing, they tend to capture every cough, every cell phone ring and every police car siren that interrupts (or distracts from) the professor’s speaking.

But like any free courses, iTunes classes can be dropped through the simple expedient of not downloading the next lecture once you realize you’ve chosen a dud.  In fact, I suspect that many of the people “dropping out” of any free class (including the large percentage who never take a MOOC to completion) are not dropping out at all, but are simply doing what we used to call “shop around” back when I was originally an undergraduate.

While not offered quite as generously today, shop-around periods basically allowed students to sit in on as many classes as they liked before making their final decisions regarding which ones to add to their schedule for a semester.  And the ability to kick the tires of any free course offered by any participating college or university before committing to it represents one of the major advantages of free learning over brick-and-mortar alternatives.

Historically, iTunes consisted only of lectures which led to (accurate) critiques that someone taking an iTunes class was really just auditing (since other components of the college class experience – such as reading, homework and testing) has not been part of most iTunes packages.

But this criticism is not as damning as it might first seem, largely because:

  • Many MOOC courses that include these extras do so with wildly different levels of demands on students and quality of materials.  Some MOOCs I’ve taken, for example, have demanding reading requirements, but many have none.  And while it’s nice to have homework or testing available to confirm what I’ve learned, within the MOOCs I’ve enrolled in, such homework and testing varies from truly challenging to a waste of time.
  • Because iTunes courses are recordings of real classes taught in traditional college settings, syllabi, reading lists, homework and even exam questions and essay assignments are often available (even if they might be hard to track down, given that not all colleges are as generous as MIT whose OpenCourseWare initiative places all of this material in one location).
  • iTunes U is evolving to provide professors options to place more and more of their courses (including the aforementioned syllabi, reading lists, etc.) into a single iTunes “Package”

This is not to say that all iTunes courses include these materials now.  But like all of the free learning options we’ve been discussing this week, iTunes U should be thought of as a work in progress.

We should also keep in mind that iTunes falls into the category of asynchronous learning, which for purposes of this discussion means different people are taking the same course at different times (vs. MOOCs from companies like Coursera and EdX which schedule their courses to run for a specific set of weeks which facilitates features such as online discussion which can count on large number of people learning the same things simultaneously).

This is one of many issues related to time that I’m planning to take up next week.  But before going there, I’d like to look at some additional free learning choices that should also be considered as options for anyone trying to put together their own college experience.

Next – Other sources of free learning

3 Responses to Sources for Courses – iTunes U

  1. 5th March 31, 2013 at 2:47 pm #

    Auditing lectures passively is quite different from taking a complete course, which is probably why Itunes U lecture (series?) are generally not included when people talk about MOOCs. A few years ago I tried out some lectures from Itunes U, and while I did enjoy some of them I think the experience was very far from that of a real course with coursework.


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