Review: iTunes U 2010 Conference in Munich, Oct 13-14

Stefanie PankeBy Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

In 2004, Duke University gave out 1600 iPods to incoming freshmen to experiment with the educational value of podcasting. Students and teachers soon were facing a mobile content distribution problem. This gave birth to the idea of applying the distribution logic of the Apple iTunes music store to educational material: The same infrastructure that was already used to provide download opportunities for albums and tracks could easily cover lectures and sessions. This was the start of “Project Indigo,” a collaboration of Apple with Duke, Brown,  Stanford, Michigan, and Wisconsin. As a result, in 2007, Apple officially launched  iTunes U, a distribution system for educational content with the compelling slogan “Learn anything, anytime, anywhere.”

Three years later , Richard Teversham, Director of Education Mobility and Content at Apple Europe, London, announces, “Today is a momentous day for us all,” opening the iTunes U 2010 conference. The 170 attendees from 16 countries (mainly Europe, but also India and the US) gathered at the Hilton Parc Hotel in Munich to discuss educational use cases and institutional strategies for iTunes U. The conference started on the evening of the 13th with a welcome reception at the Pinakothek der Moderne, a museum that presents art, architecture and design and offers one of the world’s greatest collections of works from the 20th and 21st century. The location was well chosen to serve as a metaphor for Apple’s curational aspirations. iTunes U, indeed, has gained undeniable momentum: 800 institutions from 26 countries provide content on  the educational repository, which so far comprises 350,000 assets and has recently passed the 300 million download mark.

The second conference day provided a concise overview of seven universities’ different institutional strategies, various examples of best practice, and – to start with – Apple’s vision of ubiquitous learning. Quoting data from “Morgan Stanley Research,” Jason Edinger, Apple’s director of iTunes U, made clear that mobile applications have moved from the periphery to the center of educational media: “It is not about using mobile technology on the fringes of education. There are five billion mobile device users worldwide. Fifty to sixty percent of US students have smart phones. One hundred twenty million people use an  iPhone or iPod touch.”

Edinger also introduced educational use cases for the iPad: “Whereas the iPod is a personal learning device, people use the iPad as a community learning device to share and discuss material in a group.” On a side note, the paperless conference ran very smoothly by distributing iPads to the participants and providing a “Munich conference app” with all the information you usually find in the conference booklet. Unsurprisingly, e-books and educational apps were key elements of the vision pictured by Jason Edinger. For instance, the “The Elements,” an interactive textbook of the periodic table; HeartPro, an animated, 3D medical e-book; or Inkling, an electronic textbook production platform, were specially designed for the iPad. The university of South Florida offers a collection of free audiobooks with the platform Lit2go. The open content project Khan Academy offers short videos on school subjects. There were plenty of starting points to get creative and go beyond mere recording scenarios: “We estimate that only 50 percent of content in ITunes U are recorded lectures,” said Edinger.

Screenshot from the educational App “The Elements”

Jill Vermillion, head of digital collections at Duke University, explained how iTunes U has become a platform for teaching, learning, and research. Since its start in 2007, Duke has provided 10 000 assets and has generated over 8 million downloads – most of them on the public site. Universities that decide to create their own iTunes U presence can choose between an open access model and a password protected option – or provide both, as Duke University. However, as Vermillion observed, “The internal closed access model is diminishing. We are reaching out to scholars worldwide and we also use iTunes U as a tool for students to demonstrate their learning and showcase their creativity.” Particularly impressive is Duke’s use of iTunes as a delivery platform for media primary sources – for example, with AdViews, a collection of advertisement from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Screenshot from AdViews

Regarding Open University’s motivation to participate in iTunes U, David Wilson exclaimed, “Why? Because we can!” He said, “Open has been key to our mission.” The distance education provider offers over 5,000 assets on iTunes U – approximately half are text transcripts of audio and video content, which can be downloaded as PDF documents. Besides making accessibility through transcripts “the rule, not the exception,” Open University stands out through compelling science features such as “Search Engines of the Future” and “The Large Hadron Collider.”

Vanessa Klein, iTunes U Project Manager at leading business school HEC Paris, has received 580,000 downloads since launching the school’s iTUnesU account in March 2010. Only 28 percent of the material are courses. The main sources for content are conferences and talks. Despite this success, she advises to be cautious: “You have to aware of the limits.” The challenge for introducing iTunes U is bringing together people from different teams. Her advice for content development: “Respect the teaching style, and do not focus too narrowly on lecture recording. Instead, have teachers talk about their subject for 20 minutes – that will allow you to come up with a great concept to turn into a podcast.” HEC also developed the recording system multiCAM that allows students to records their lectures without being distracted from the content. “So far, our experiences are promising. The teachers can cover more content and procure better results.”

The iTunes U initiative at the German LMU Munich is a joint venture of e-learning and public relations services. Launched in 2009, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität was among the first continental European Universities on iTunes U – and one of the first to supply German content. Its collection comprises 400 audio files, 900 videos, and 10,000 PDFs – since the institution uses iTunes U as a distribution channel for open access publications. Appealing to the “iPod generation” is a major motive for the effort by LMU, explained Armin Rubner, head of e-learning services. “Apart from classic educational material, we offer research reports that cover the profile of our institution like the ScienceCasts and features about the academic life at LMU like recordings of Poetry Slams.”

The University College London (UK) launched its iTUnes U site in 2008 with the required 150 assets – now they offer 10 times their starter package. As Jeremy Speller from UCL puts it, “Although it is PR, it is PR of the best kind – your scholarship.” He particularly recommended the iTunes U project management kit for getting started. Also, a clear deadline for the launch helps staying focused.

At the German RWTH Aachen, the partnership with Apple did not start from the central e-learning unit but from the initiative of a single researcher, Prof. Jan Borchers, head of the media computing group and “Mac-enthusiast.”  Since the launch in 2009, the popularity has spread throughout the institution: 20 groups from 6 departments offer content – 700 tracks up to now. Popular offers are the PathoCast and a course on iPhone application programming. As for the introduction, Jonathan Diehl from RWTH explained: “Teachers at RWTH did video production already, and they did not have an organized channel, so they embraced it”. However, producing for public access brings along challenges of its own. Jonathan Diehl advised “Double check your slides to ensure correct referencing and to eliminate copyright material – your Dilbert comic has to go….”

Launched in 2010, the iTunes U site of the University of Nottingham, presented by Andy Beggan, was clearly “the baby of the bunch.” The University’s motto, “A city is built on wisdom,” works well with the idea of podcasting. The university had started to experiment with podcasting in 2006, to reach out to external and internal audiences. So why use iTunes U? Beggan added a new perspective to the concert of motives: “iTunes U is not banned in China – which is an important market for our satellite campuses.”  The preparation time before going live took four month. Finding and collecting assets and pushing an open content strategy from the start were the biggest issues.

Summing up, iTunes U offers slightly different strategic advantages to each institution involved. Recurring issues are getting the faculty and the central units engaged in the process and ensuring a constant flow of compelling content. From an educational research perspective, it will be of interest to see more studies on actual use in formal and informal learning. That is, beyond impressive download rates, who uses the podcasts and for what educational purposes?

“If the mission of the university is the creation of knowledge (via research) and the dissemination of knowledge (via teaching and publishing), then it stands to reason that giving that knowledge away fits neatly with that mission“ (Katie Hafner, “An Open Mind,” NY Times, 4.16.10). If we take this statement seriously, it means that we have to focus our research attempts to open learning situations. This calls for instructional design practices that take into account individual as well as community oriented learning strategies, where learners take responsibility in structuring their learning process.

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