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October 25, 2010

A few brief thoughts on iTunesU

The use of iTunesU by UK universities has come up in discussions a couple of times recently, on Brian Kelly's UK Web Focus blog (What Are UK Universities Doing With iTunesU? and iTunes U: an Institutional Perspective) and on the closed ALT-C discussion list. In both cases, as has been the case in previous discussions, my response has been somewhat cautious, an attitude that always seems to be interpreted as outright hostility for some reason.

So, just  for the record, I'm not particularly negative about iTunesU and in some respects I am quite positive - if nothing else, I recognise that the adoption of iTunesU is a very powerful motivator for the generation of openly available content and that has got to be a good thing - but a modicum of scepticism is always healthy in my view (particularly where commercial companies are involved) and I do have a couple of specific concerns about the practicalities of how it is used:

  • Firstly that students who do not own Apple hardware and/or who choose not to use iTunes on the desktop are not disenfranchised in any way (e.g. by having to use a less functional Web interface). In general, the response to this is that they are not and, in the absence of any specific personal experience either way, I have to concede that to be the case.
  • Secondly (and related to the first point), that in an environment where most of the emphasis seems to be on the channel (iTunesU) rather than on the content (the podcasts), that confusion isn't introduced as to how material is cited and referred to – i.e. do some lecturers only ever refer to 'finding stuff on iTunesU', while others offer a non-iTunesU Web URL, and others still remember to cite both? I'm interested in whether universities who have adopted iTunesU but who also make the material available in other ways have managed to adopt a single way of citing the material that is on offer?

Both these concerns relate primarily to the use of iTunesU as a distribution channel for teaching and learning content within the institution. They apply much less to its use as an external 'marketing' channel. iTunesU seems to me (based on a gut feel more than on any actual numbers) to be a pretty effective way of delivering OER outside the institution and to have a solid 'marketing win on the back of that. That said, it would be good to have some real numbers as confirmation (note that I don't just mean numbers of downloads here - I mean conversions into 'actions' (new students, new research opps, etc.)). Note that I also don't consider 'marketing' to be a dirty word (in this context) - actually, I guess this kind of marketing is going to become increasingly important to everyone in the HE sector.

There is a wider, largely religious, argument about whether "if you are not paying for it, you aren't the customer, you are part of the product" but HE has been part of the MS product for a long while now and, worse, we have paid for the privilege – so there is nothing particularly new there. It's not an argument that particularly bothers me one way or the other, provided that universities have their eyes open and understand the risks as well as the benefits. In general, I'm sure that they do.

On the other hand, while somebody always owns the channel, some channels seem to me to be more 'open' (I don't really want to use the word 'open' here because it is so emotive but I can't think of a better one) than others. So, for example, I think there are differences in an institution adopting YouTube as a channel as compared with adopting iTunesU as a channel and those differences are largely to do with the fit that YouTube has with the way the majority of the Web works.

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Comments

On that last point, it is interesting (to me) to note the comments made by Tim BL recently.

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