iTunes U: the debate continues

There’s a good discussion on iTunes U going on in the bark back (comments) section over at Alan’s place, where the honorable CogDog detects a wee bit of passion in my own continuing response to iTunes U. Rather than leave another comment, I want to point readers to the comment thread and place my response here.

Alan asks, “where is the assumption that Apple *should* be giving away completely open hosting via a successful set up?” Good question. I don’t have such an assumption myself. In fact, there’s no reason on earth for Apple to give anything away, except perhaps for PR value. And no, Microsoft isn’t doing anything like iTunes U. My point, I think, is that it appears that Apple is giving something away because Apple is fostering that impression (see below). The reality is that we are the ones giving away the things that are crucial to our academic mission: free, open access to the knowledge we create; a public arena that is not dominated by implicit or explicit advertising; a commitment to our students that we will not build a learning environment inside a mall or a superstore.

How is Apple fostering the impression of its philanthropy and obscuring (I might even say hiding) its commercial ambitions? Look again at the iTunes U web page:

Education beyond the classroom
iTunes U 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.

It’s the most powerful way to manage a broad range of audio or video content and make it available quickly and easily to students, faculty, and staff. And it is the only application that supports the overwhelmingly popular iPod. iTunes U also offers you the simplicity and mobility you expect from Apple because it is based on the same easy-to-use technology of iTunes Music Store.

Through iTunes U, users can download content to their Macs or PCs regardless of their location. They can then listen to and view content on their Mac or PC or transfer that content to iPod for listening or viewing on the go.

Look at the language: “free,” “easy,” “most powerful,” “overwhelmingly popular iPod,” “simplicity,” “mobility,” etc. This is a strategy to leverage the popularity of the iPod into larger commercial strategies by means of an appeal to the altruistic principles inherent in the professed mission of higher education (or education generally). I’m not so naive as to think that those principles are necessarily dominant or even decisive in education today, but I’m pretty stubborn about continuing to profess them.

Let me hasten to add that I do not mean that those who disagree with me about iTunes U are crassly commercial or care nothing about the mission of higher education. Far from it. If they were or did, Apple would have no traction with iTunes U at all. And it’s entirely possible I’m over-reacting here. But I don’t think so.

More close reading of the iTunes U site:

Colleges and universities need an easy way to create and distribute content throughout their educational institution. And of course, the content must be portable.

Why do we have that need? Because we haven’t stepped up to the challenge of creating that easy way ourselves. And yes, of course that content must be portable. But iTunes U uses the iTunes Music Store, and even if all the content is in the player-agnostic mp3 format, iTunes without an iPod is not very exciting as a portable content manager. As a very happy iPod owner, I marvel at the close and effective union of iTunes and iPod. I love the interface. But that doesn’t mean I want to adopt it as a content management system for my university.

iTunes U sets educational content free by delivering the best solution for the distribution of content that can be accessed by an iPod.

Along with the “liberation” pitch, there’s pretty frank talk here: “content that can be accessed by an iPod.” Sure, we can access that content if it’s not aac-encoded and if we don’t mind the limitations of iTunes when it comes to non-iPod players, but it’s clear that Apple has created iTunes U with the iPod, not education, primarly in mind.

And iTunes U complements other higher education online learning systems, leveraging existing investments in technology infrastructures.

One walled garden loves another. That sounds cynical, but that’s how it looks to me. On a Monday morning, anyway.

This one may be my favorite:

In addition to providing a great conduit for digital academic content, iTunes is also the largest source of legal digital music available online. So students can buy and download music that has both educational and entertainment value, with all copyrights honored and the full support of the music industry.

Hard to know where to start here. Apple will keep our students from being criminals, feed their heads with music that’s both entertaining and educational (what on earth does that mean?), please the tycoons who’ve stifled innovation and set artificially high prices while ensuring that artists get meager returns, and help us all route around the debate over existing copyright strictures.

Easy as pi
iTunes U is the only content distribution system that offers one-click support for transferring content to iPod, ensuring that students and others wishing to access information to go can do so quickly and easily.

Interesting logic. Everyone has an iPod, so we’ll naturally want the only content distribution system that offers one-click support for transferring content to iPod (I love how Apple omits the article before iPod, as if it’s a proper name). And once we have iTunes U, everyone will want an iPod, because it’s the only portable player that offers full support for all content available within iTunes U. “Easy as pi,” indeed.

Just a little more:

Instructors can easily post and change content on their own without impacting the IT department….

Doubtful. And is Apple prepared to offer free, unlimited technical support to students, faculty, and staff? It’ll have to be 24×7, I’d think, because of those pesky time zones.

iTunes U delivers on the promise of mobile learning in higher education by extending teaching and learning beyond the classroom.

That’s our job, not Apple’s. We can use Apple products in the service of that job, but that’s different.

Use your school colors, logos, and photography to make iTunes U familiar to staff, students, and alumni. iTunes U looks like your college or university but it acts like iTunes.

Chilling words. It looks like a school, but it’s really a store, and it will indeed act like one.

Purchase songs at a discount on behalf of your students through the iTunes Volume Songs Program.

We all scream for ice cream.

Become an iTunes Affiliate and earn a 5% commission on all qualifying revenue generated by links posted on your site.

Especially if we get a cut of the proceeds.

I wouldn’t be nearly so concerned about iTunes U if I were more confident that folks in higher education saw it for what it is, and if Apple’s iTunes U campaign weren’t so much of a piece with its larger campaign to make truth, virtue, individualism, and innovation into corporate brands. Apple doesn’t need to pursue that strategy, and we don’t need to help it.

A nod here to Jon Udell and Brian Lamb, who continue to voice concerns, and to Bryan Alexander, whose perceptive comments on the “turn in a copyright violator” provision in iTunes awaken even more. I also think Bryan and Alan are right to point us to OurMedia as an emerging set of practices and a model for how higher education might forge ahead without an iTunes U, or at least make the shopping center less worrisome.

11 thoughts on “iTunes U: the debate continues

  1. Thanks for dissecting the Apple ad copy, stuff I pretty much glossed over as phluff. My hunch is that Stanford iTunes was really an early prototype or a proof of concept, and the PR stuff was written before the system was (which is not available until May).

    Please keep the skepticism coming as I like to feed it to the Apple folks and see what they come back with. It’s a bit mind bending to think of them as the Big Brother in their own 1984 ad, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

    The “the only content distribution system that offers one-click support for transferring content to iPod” is very questionable considering all the podcast apps like iPodder that do this, not only to iPods but any MP3 player.

    And they forgot an added educational bonus- students have that easy access to download (buy) those critical episodes of Lost 😉

    I tihnk an interesting project would be to build a prototype site woth FOSS tools that has the same functionality of easy access to audio content stored in OurMedia or elsewhere.

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  3. Gardner,

    Perhaps the most dangerous logic you dissect in your post is the one Apple is banking on, but has little control over: higher education. How does a small underfunded college (to take Alan’s example) or university (to take our example) avoid such a tantalizing “apple” given the time, energy, and financial invertment to develope a similar digital meda content delivery system in the already under-budgeted sphere of education?

    This is what so distressing about Stanford’s pilot. If any university could afford to develop their own system it would be a school with the resources of a Stanford -if the heavy-hitting research univesity’s turn to itunesU, there may be little left in the form of an open-source development community, like Sakai for example, that sees the need for creating such a system for educational institutions.

    This, inturn, returns us to Alan’s original dilemma (resorces for such a homegrown system) : how can univesity work collaboratively to model an open-source variant of itunesU that escapes the insidious marketing and moves away from the product placement for a whole new generation of educated consumers? A question work pursuit i think … and Alan already has a few ideas it seems!

  4. Overall, good analysis, as the first commenter said I just glossed over the ad copy as fluff.

    But as a college student, at a 600 student college, I understand exactly the benefit of iTunes U. Our IT department is already small, and were our school to implement any sort of content distribution system, it would need to be based on familiarity.

    Just pull up iTunes shared libraries while connected to any college network and you’ll see the prevalence of iTunes usage amongst college students. If my small school could use iTunes to help with academics [say the special lecture series they run every month or so], then the system would mostly only have to implemented at the foundational level: installing itunes on the school computers and deciding who has the ability to upload lectures.

    If there were other software available, my school would a) never be able to afford it, b) feel it was too complicated to implement, or maybe c) implement it but find it was never used.

    iTunes current popularity though, is an immediate boon to the success rate, and the reason that it’s something my school will probably consider using.

  5. How do we ( fit into this discussion? I’ve had more than one educator express an interest in our ability to deliver sequential content, starting from square one and on an individual basis. I don’t know that iTunes U does that.

    I’d be extremely interested in working with a college or university to use our software to distribute the content to *any* aggregator capable of downloading enclosed media files of any type.

    Obviously we’d need a new interface and specialty content, but the concept seems sound. I’m open to talk…


  6. I agree that we need to look closely to understand what iTunesU is providing. To some extent they are offering a solution to a problem that really does not exist. It is really not difficult to set up a podcast or vodcast using completely free tools such as Blogger and Feedburner and submitting the feeds directly to iTunes (outside of iTunesU). It is also very simple to password protect the files if necessary if your files are sitting on a regular server that you control. There may be branding or other convenience issues to consider but individual faculty who wish to start podcasting or vodcasting absolutely do not have to wait for their institution to sign up for iTunesU to get going.

  7. Frankly it’s way too early to be putting out final opinions- I don;t even think Apple has designed the system or processes, so the ad copy is way ahead of the cart.

    The problem, Jean-Claude, is that the individual uploading to Blogger is that it is a solution fo innovators- it is a one course It does not provide to say students, an organized way to find audio content from say other classes, or from departments sucha s student services. Our college system ahs students that “swirl” between locations, and it seems unrealistic to have them trickle out to a different Blogger site for each class.

    Listen to the words of one of our faculty members who is the pioneering kind:

    “when you’re me at a small college that doesn’t have much, you’ll take what ever you can get for free, even if it means selling out to those who make a profit in the end. I did a presentation on podcasting last Thursday and was lucky to have our head Technology director attend. He was amazed when I told him how I managed to house my audio/video content among 7 Cox email accounts (10 mb each), my .Mac account, YouTube, and a TypePad account. That’s less than 2 gigs (excluding YouTube), that my college can’t seem to provide. It gets tough managing it all. It sure would be nice to have it all organized in one place.”

    How do you answer that? And this person is an innovator type with technology.

    By the way, Gardner, you’ve been Udell-ized as well!

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