Learn anything, anywhere, anytime
September 26, 2011

by tmartin on September 26, 2011

I NEVER GAVE MUCH THOUGHT TO GEORGIA State University before. But now, well, a bit of glow comes from the name because I’ve been listening to a series of brief musical lessons on the history of jazz.

Hmm, I guess I better connect a few dots here. It starts with iTunes U.

In 2007, Apple launched the space as a way for schools to private-label a download space for podcasts. It provided an application for higher education to communicate within itself. However, in the digital world things have away of taking on a life of their own – and iTunes U did exactly that.

In the intervening four years several trends converged:

  • The nature of education took a turn as some schools started to think about ways to extend and increase their brand and visibility.
  • On the information-yearns-to-be-free front, the concept of public courseware began to catch on fire.
  • The iTunes store became mainstream.
  • Mobile devices sprouted like so many traveling weeds.

The result? In early September iTunes U reached 600 million downloads of material representing more than a thousand schools around the world — and Jazz Insights from Dr. Gordon Vernick, Associate Professor of Music at Georgia State University landed in my library.

Like Apple says in its current promotion: learn anything, anytime, anywhere.

Many lessons lie within iTunes U (ooh, that’s a pun that I couldn’t resist!) Seriously, take a few minutes to traverse these digital hallowed halls of downloadable learning at http://www.apple.com/education/itunes-u/ and you’ll find not only courses, but also a crash course and what does and doesn’t work in this format.

First off, check out the breadth – both in source and topics. This isn’t about big name US Ivies. Community colleges and schools and from multiple countries appear.

Lesson notes: If you thought education meant a handful of institutions, a few minutes with iTunes U quickly reminds you that education comes from a diverse and global universe.

Yup, there’s the expected Stanford and UC Berkely and MIT and Harvard … but there’s also Jefferson Community College (Watertown NY) and Madison Area Technical College (Madison WI) as well as Trinity College in Dublin Ireland, Universite de Lausanne, and Univerisida Rey Juan Carlos.

Some schools use the space as a way to channel internal communications and marketing – one of my favorite titles Brown is Green – turned out to be a pitch for one of Brown University’s programs. I love that schools actively use lots of different channels to reach prospective parents, students, and staff, as well as alumni.

However, to see what makes iTunes U more than just an interesting application for schools, take a browse through all the courses, lectures, and presentations posted here. For you. For free.

A few quick examples …

  • Utah Valley University (Orem UT) takes a stab at distance learning with classes like POLY 420 – State Legislative Process
  • Oxford University records its Critical Reasoning for Beginners course.
  • MIT, through its OpenCourseware project, has a huge suite of courses including Professor’s Marvin Minksy’s The Society of Mind
  • Harrisburg Area Community College (PA) podcasts lectures like HIST 101, World History: Becoming Human with Professor Richard Moss.

And of course, there is the aforementioned Jazz Insights from Georgia State University. But don’t stop at these. I liked the currated collections as a gateway to cool stuff: Entrepreneurship. For History Buffs. Economic Insights. Physics for All. The Middle East. 101: Intro College Classes. Noteworthy.

It turns out that not all materials present equally well – and in that lies a lesson about how to prepare for the media.

For example, although the OpenCourseware materials cover amazing ground, their format of a microphone in the lecture hall alone … well, let’s just say that listening to Professor Minsky through iTunes U feels a bit like sitting in the hall outside the classroom straining to hear thorugh the closed door. Great material, but not the ideal way to experience it.

Lectures recorded as podcasts specifically, like Professor Moss’ history lecture, provide a strong audio experience. I felt like I was getting the voiceover to a power point, but at least I moved from the hall back to the same room with the class.

Production expertise clearly makes a difference. For example, both the jazz series and Harvard’s excellent Justice series were co-produced by radio and television partners. The jazz series combines music, voice, and a keen sense of pacing into a clean produced package. The Justice series uses well-recorded video to produce – but not over-produce – Professor Michael Sandel’s lectures at Sanders Theater.

Some schools take the step of combining the audio with online workbooks. Want to learn Russian? Check out UCLA’s Beginning Russian, which combines short lectures and actual spoken language examples with a web-based workbook – http://www.russian.ucla.edu/beginnersrussian/.

The audio tutorials, tied into interactive website and a recommended text really do combine to make you a student in the class. Well, expect for that grade and credit thing!

Of course, as well all know, the teacher matters. Check out the Holloway Poety Series from UC Berkley or Whats New in Poetry – Readings from the Poetry Council at Emory University, where each session is as good or, well, as less good, as the poetry reader.

Education has long reached back into the community. I guess that’s one reason I smiled when I spotted BackYard Farmer. The University of Nebraska/Lincon has been producing Backyard Farmer since 1953. But time hasn’t stopped — and Nebraska, along with its production partner, rebroadcasts the 2011 edition of show in iTunes U, turning its panel of insect, turf, and other experts into a digital export.

I also take it as a sign of hope for the world – and yes, with 60% of its audience international in nature iTunes U does reflect the world — that digital multimedia can actually mean more than YouTube’s latest-cute-dog or current-gruesome-unmentional-actstop 20. The iTunes U collection doubled its download volume in the past 12 months. Maybe this learning thing is catching on!

OK, class, your turn now. Tap your way to check out the physics of football, overview of autism, intermediate French, the fall of the Roman Empire, or climate modeling … and meanwhile I’m going back to GSU to learn about Lester Young.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: