UK Web Focus

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iTunes U: an Institutional Perspective

Posted by Jeremy Speller on 25 October 2010

Recent posts which provided surveys of institutional use of third party services for content delivery generated a fair amount of interest and discussion. As a follow-up to the post on “What are UK Universities doing with iTunes U?” Jeremy Speller, Director of Web Services at UCL, has been invited to provide a guest post which provides an institutional perspective on use of this service.


Brian Kelly recently asked What are UK Universities doing with iTunes U?As an early adopter Brian invited me try to answer that question and to pick up on some of the comments which his post generated.

Let’s be clear on one thing – no one is fooling themselves. Apple is a hardware vendor intent on sales and iTunes U is just one of many ways in which it drives custom to its devices. Some have a philosophical objection to engaging with “trade” in this way, but for me the post-CSR university world demands that we use of the best that the commercial sector can make available to us. Have I sold my soul for the Yankee dollar? Maybe – but I’d kind of like a job next year. Strangely those that argue otherwise seem to accept Microsoft, Google and the rest.

Having dispensed with that argument let me examine why I believe that Apple has a positive contribution to make to higher education. I can think of no other major hardware vendor which has had such a clear policy over many years of engagement with education. And I’m not talking discount here – I mean services and assistance.

During 2004, Duke University bravely decided to issue iPods to its intake and to populate the devices with course material, timetables etc. Since there was no easy way to update the content en masse, Duke approached Apple to see what could be done. “Project Indigo” was born and iTunes U was the result. What’s important here is that Apple reacted to the requirement of a university and worked with Duke to deliver something that met its need.

It’s worthy of note too that many of the iTunes U team have backgrounds in education rather than software engineering or sales. Indeed Jason Ediger, who has a typical corporate title but for the purpose of this article heads up iTunes U, is a former teacher and educational technologist in the public sector.

Anyway, here are some of my views on “popular” opinions.

iTunes U is a closed ecosystem

Yes it is but the arguments for not using it are thin. In a comment on Brian’s post Andy Powell worried that:

… the overarching emphasis of sites who have bought into iTunesU is that they have bought into iTunesU – the other routes to content are presented as secondary to that. To me, that implies that users and lecturers who choose to use that route are somehow second class citizens of the institution.

I can only speak for UCL, but I would worry about any institution which bought into iTunes U as the only or primary means of distribution. Apple positively discourage use in this way – their take is “we provide the tool as one channel of communication“. UCL’s engagement with iTunes U came out of our desire to develop podcasting and other means of multimedia distribution as part of our mission to increase reach as London’s Global University. We were developing in that direction before iTunes U came to Europe. As far as primary teaching materials are concerned the Moodle course page remains the focus – the podcasts (whether taken from iTunes U or via feeds) are a value-added service to students. This is important for a metropolitan institution where students spend time offline on trains and buses getting about.

It is expensive to run

It depends. If you buy in to iTunes U without a background in multimedia distribution it could be, but I would argue that if you have not worked out a content or media distribution strategy taking into account a range of channels you shouldn’t be looking at iTunes U anyway. I have a department of around 30 souls of which a part (0.25 – 0.5 fte) of one post is a direct result of iTunes U, and that came a year after we joined. We have a multimedia unit who have been producing video since before U-matic was the format of the future. Over time the unit has moved with technology and now concentrates on streamed output and download formats – the staff complement hasn’t varied, they just do things differently. And we’d be doing all that to support a variety of distribution channels anyway.

It is PR fluff

For some reason this view is quite prevalent among those who don’t use the system and in my opinion misses the point of iTunes U completely. Sure, there is publicity to be had and, in UCL’s case as a launch partner, was valuable. Of course general PR shorts can be provided. But the real assets should be educational and examples of your institution’s scholarship. How you choose to do this and what material you provide is down to you. We increasingly provide course materials via the internal authenticated part of iTunes U to complement other teaching materials – others would argue that the provision of OER of high quality is the best PR there is for a university.

What wider and innovative uses could be made of the system in future?

adviewsBrian asks what the future holds in terms of innovative use of the system. Some of the most interesting uses we heard about at the iTunes U Conference in Munich involved the provision of primary sources for research. Duke University Libraries showed AdViews, a collection of 16mm movie film which had been digitized and which included thousands of TV commercials from the 1950’s through to the 1980’s. At Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich over 10,000 PDFs are available as LMU has chosen to provide all dissertations stored in its library back to 2002 as downloads. I’ll admit that at UCL we have yet to fulfill one of our original goals which was to open the system up to students as a collaborative environment and to submit work for assessment but that’s a matter of resource priority internally rather than a limitation of the system. Julie Usher has posted some other thoughts on innovations discussed at the conference.

Will institutional users regret lack of flexibility if Apple move in a different direction?

The lack of future-proofing is to my mind another non-argument because of the way iTunes U is architected. Apple maintain the framework and the serving of links via the iTunes Store mechanism while the feeds and media files themselves are hosted at the institution. This used not to be the case but all new sites since mid-2008, including all UK institutions, are split-hosted. This means that even if Apple pull the plug tomorrow all of your feeds and content remain yours and intact, and deliverable via whatever other channels you have in place.

Those who don’t buy into the ecosystem are 2nd class citizens

Again, if you are only providing iTunes U content this could be seen as an issue but not if you’re adopting the multi-channel model. I accept that at UCL we do sometimes plug iTunes U over other channels and that it’s something we should address. The content is nonetheless available for pretty much any modern device.

The content has poor discoverability

Because the iTunes software is a proprietary browser it does not afford discoverability to search engines. Apple fully accept that this has been an issue and have recently been including iTunes U in their iTunes Preview service. This is a conventional Web-based service which lists and includes metadata for all content in the system. Although it is early days and usage has not pumped too much to the top of Google rankings yet, search for a specific item by title and Google will return a top result. Audio content can be played directly in the page though it is still necessary to link out to iTunes to play video at present. Try searching for “Why species are fuzzy for an example. We also provide links to the preview service for the most popular items from our iTunes U launch page.

So…

… is there a cost-saving to adopting iTunes U as opposed to creating custom portals? Certainly the development grunt is removed and the system offers students who come to us with their own devices (another saving as I argued at the recent FOTE10 event) having bought into the ecosystem access to our content. For those of us committed to the distribution of media content whatever the channel the issue remains that the content has to be created and managed and therein lies the cost. I believe therefore that our efforts should lie in keeping the creation process efficient and demonstrating the value of the content to our users and paymasters. Content is, after all, still king – but as noted at the Munich Conference:

@thStamm: RT @jeremyspeller … content is king or there’s no point … I agree but we all want king arthur not king richard II #itunesuconf2010


Jeremy Speller has been involved with the UCL Web presence since 1995. Having headed UCL Web Servicesfor a number of years, Jeremy is now Director of Learning & Media Services which, along with the Web, covers AV, design, learning technology, multimedia and photography. Prior to full-time involvement with the Web, Jeremy’s background was in planning and statistics at UCL and previously at the University of Birmingham. Way back when he ran the Overseas Research Students Awards Scheme at what was then CVCP.

Some of Jeremy’s presentations are on SlideShare. You can also follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremyspeller


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6 Responses to “iTunes U: an Institutional Perspective”

  1. Just to clarify…

    Re: I can only speak for UCL, but I would worry about any institution which bought into iTunes U as the only or primary means of distribution.

    Note that I didn’t mean to imply that iTunesU was being seen as the “only or primary means of distribution” and I accept that isn’t the case in general.

    I was specifically referring to the emphasis that is given to the use of iTunesU.

    In general people don’t stand up in conferences and say, “We’ve made a lot of podcasts available on the web. Oh, and by the way, we also disseminate them using iTunesU”. Rather, they say, “We’re using iTunesU. Oh, and by the way, we’ve also built a web interface to the same content as well”.

    The problem (or not!) is the extent to which that emphasis is carried over into the way things are discussed internally as well. As I said, if the emphasis is always on one particular ‘channel’ rather than on the content, then I think there is a valid concern to be raised because it has a tendency to disenfranchise some users and to encourage lecturers to cite one particular channel rather than the content itself.

    In response to that, you say:

    As far as primary teaching materials are concerned the Moodle course page remains the focus – the podcasts (whether taken from iTunes U or via feeds) are a value-added service to students. This is important for a metropolitan institution where students spend time offline on trains and buses getting about.

    That’s good and really what I wanted to hear. So I presume that lecturers cite audio/video material in Moodle, rather than citing iTunesU?

  2. Neil Martin said

    A key remit of a university is to disseminate knowledge . iTunes U provides an incredible platform to do this and reach audiences that could only been dreamed of in the past. One only has to look at how well the Open University has done in terms of content downloads, since the launch of their iTunes U site in 2008.

    For some people being involved with Apple is unpalatable, but iTunes U allows an organisation to associate their brand with one of the strongest brands in the world. If you have some killer content that demonstrates your universities expertise in a particular subject area, there is a distribution ecosystem in place that can reach a global audience over a sustained period. In more practical terms, from experience I know that senior management love iTunes U!

    In the age of austerity, I think the benefits of joining iTunes U far outweigh the drawbacks.

  3. […] Sichtweise auf das Thema hat dagegen Brian Kelly von der University of Bath, UK. In seinem Beitrag iTunes U: an Institutional Perspective beschäftigt er sich mit einer Reihe von Argumenten gegen iTunes […]

  4. […] iTunes U: an Institutional Perspective […]

  5. […] benefits or challenges of ‘using’ iTunes U, Jeremy Speller did a great job in his guest post over at Brian Kelly’s blog. I’m more interested in the overall market trends for mobile and what the implications […]

  6. […] benefits or challenges of ‘using’ iTunes U, Jeremy Speller did a great job in his guest post over at Brian Kelly’s blog. I’m more interested in the overall market trends for mobile and what the implications […]

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