UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

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Posts Tagged ‘iTunesU’

iTunes U: an Institutional Perspective

Posted by Jeremy Speller on 25 Oct 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.


… 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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What Are UK Universities Doing With iTunesU?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 11 Oct 2010

Early Adopters of iTunesU

Back in 2008 Jeremy Speller and Nicolas Watson ran a workshop session on “Podcasting and iTunes U: Institutional Approaches to Scaleable Service” at UKOLN’s IWMW 2008 event. In the session Jeremy, Head of Media Services at University College London and Nicholas from the Open University described how “The Open University and UCL have been pursuing projects to deliver on-demand audio and video podcasting recording and distribution services primarily via Apple’s iTunes U service. In this talk, Nicholas and Jeremy will discuss how the different approaches of two very different institutions impacted on the nature of the two projects, how challenges were addressed and how solutions were developed.

Two years later how has iTunesU developed across UK higher educational institutions?  Are the Open University and UCL feeling slightly embarrassed, like the institutions which decided in 2003 that the future lay with Gopher, or feeling pleased that their institutional commitment had identified an important technology, as was the case when Leeds University set up its institutional Web service in January 1993? There is much that can be learnt from the experiences of early adopters.

Who’s Using iTunesU Now?

Using the iTunes software you can see a display of Universities which have an iTunes U presence. These can be selected by country as shown below. From this we can see that there are currently 16 UK universities and colleges which provide multimedia resources which can be accessed via the iTunes software.

Using a Google search for “itunesU university uk” I looked in some more detail at the information provided by a number of these institutions. A summary is given in the table below.

1 The Open University on iTunes U “In 2008 The Open University joined iTunes U, making available a range of high quality audio-visual assets used in the courses. Featuring over 280 albums with content from over 136 courses, the OU on iTunes U reflects the diversity of the university’s curriculum and the strength of the academic brand. A fantastic learning experience on offer”
2 The University of Oxford on iTunes U “Oxford has had over 3 million downloads from its iTunes U site”
3 Warwick on iTunesU “This free service allows you to access interviews with academics, programmes about research at the University, lectures, teaching materials and content from our student community.”
4 UCL on iTunes U: FAQs “Is iTunes U free to use? Yes. All UCL audio, video and PDF content is free to download. The iTunes software is also free to download.”
5 Welcome to Cambridge University on iTunesU “In October 2008 the University launched its iTunesU site, from which you can download educational multimedia resources free of charge. There is a wide choice of both video and audio, which will grow on a month-by-month basis.”
6 iTunes U – The University of Nottingham “With The University of Nottingham on iTunes U, you have access to hundreds of free educational video and audio podcasts. Anytime. Anywhere!”
7 Coventry University on iTunes U “Coventry University was among the first universities in Europe to distribute multimedia content in conjunction with Apple’s iTunes U service for education resources. The Coventry University iTunes U site launched in June 2009. It now has more than 400 audio and video podcasts from around our campus for you to download for free.”
8 Experience the University of Hertfordshire on iTunes U “Download videos and podcasts of University lectures, public talks, conferences and tutorials for free. You can also download pdf documents and find out more about studying at the University of Hertfordshire. Content can be accessed on a PC or Mac and synced with your iPod, iPhone or iPad to be connected anytime, anywhere.”
9 Birmingham City University on iTunes U Where does Birmingham City University fit in?
Birmingham City University has collected a wealth of audio and video material from across the University that can now be accessed via iTunes U and through 
Does it replace internal sharing systems such as Moodle?

No, at present Birmingham City University’s iTunes U area is public-facing and accessible to people both inside and outside the University.”
10 Introduction: iTunes U, University of Edinburgh “We have our own iTunes U channel where we host video and audio files about the University and the city of Edinburgh.You can watch and listen to lectures with world-leading thinkers and subscribe to our podcasts to receive previous and future lectures, seminars and events.”

It is interesting to read how these institutions are described their use of iTunesU: a number of institutions are highlighting the amount of content which is being provided (“over 280 albums with content from over 136 courses“,”more than 400 audio and video podcasts“) or accessed (“over 3 million downloads“) whilst others point out that the content is available for free (“This free service allows you to access interviews with academics, programmes about research at the University, lectures, teaching materials“, “you can download educational multimedia resources free of charge“, “you have access to hundreds of free educational video and audio podcasts“, “Download videos and podcasts of University lectures, public talks, conferences and tutorials for free“) or combine the quantity with the free availability (“more than 400 audio and video podcasts from around our campus for you to download for free“).  Interestingly one institution points out that “You can also download pdf documents“. And whilst another answers “no” to the question “Does it replace internal sharing systems such as Moodle?” this is qualified with the words “at present“. Might iTunesU in the future have a broader remit than simply providing public access to podcasts and vodcasts, I wonder?

What Next for iTunesU?

A more important question will be the impact which iTunesU could have across the UK higher education sector in the future. The institutions which have been early adopters cover a range of institutions: we shouldn’t be surprised that a distance learning organisation such as the Open University being one of the first two institutions (who launched their presence on the same day as UCL) to make use of iTunesU. But we also see high profile and well-established institutions such as UCL, Nottingham and Edinburgh Universities in the list of early adopters alongside a number of newer universities and former polytechnics.

At the recent FOTE10 conference  I was involved in some discussions from institutions considering institutional use of the service. On the iTunes Web site I read about the financial benefits which the service can provide:

Apple provides your institution with a free iTunes U site, complete with templates you can customize with your own branding.

How the interface can be tailored:

Your institution creates its own iTunes U site that leverages the familiar interface of the iTunes Store, so it’s easy to build and even easier to use. Once your site is live, faculty members need little additional help from IT. They can start posting content right away — lectures, lab demonstrations, historical footage, and whatever else they choose to help bring their subjects to life.

and the levels of access control that can be applied

Your institution can decide whether to make its iTunes U content available only to members of your educational community (internal access) or to the world at large via the iTunes Store (public access). With an internal iTunes U site, user access is controlled through password protection. A public iTunes U site — such as those created by Yale, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, and broadcasters like PBS — distributes material for free on iTunes U. And there’s always the option of creating both an internal site and a public site for the best of both worlds.

Now I suspect that the reality of providing institutional use of iTunesU isn’t quite this simple. But neither will be use of an in-house service for providing access to audio and video recordings – especially on mobile devices. After all, which application are students (and staff) be more likely to be familiar with: iTunes, a home-grown synching application or a synching application provided by a CMS or VLE vendor?

Are the institutions listed above to be applauded for providing a user-friendly and cost-effective solution at a time when cost-efficiencies, in particular, are the order of the day? That seems to have been the feeling at Oxford University judging by the notes taken of an “iTunes U briefing on podcasting and mobile learning – a day at Apple” held last year: “Downloads have been enormous, iTunes U is global. Good ‘metrics of success’ 150 feeds of mostly 1h lectures“. Or will institutions which choose to make their content available by a commercial company eventually regret this decision, with perhaps a lack of flexibility in integrating multimedia content with other institutional services?

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