Moovdle Over Blackboard, Here Comes iTunes U?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In one fell swoop last week Apple tried to take over two large segments of the education technology marketplace. iBooks2 and Author aim to position Apple and its virtual bookstore at the head of the textbook and self-publishing fields by revolutionizing our notions of what a book can be. The less heralded part of their announcement was the release of the iTunesU app that integrates some of the components of an LMS into iPhones, iPods, and iPads. On the surface, this seems like a direct challenge to Blackboard and Moodle, but is iTunes U really a viable alternative to these standby content management systems? Not yet.

The iTunes U App
Tech Crunch characterized the iTunes U App as an “Educational Content Portal” rather than a content management system and that is a good place to start in examining the program and its viability as a competitor for a share of the educational content marketplace.

The iTunes U app does a very nice job of integrating content into one location. It does a considerably better job than either Blackboard or Moodle at the present time. I downloaded two modules to evaluate: Stanford’s Programming Methodology and Common Sense’s Digital Culture.  Both of these courses integrate the entire content into one easy to navigate and manage interface that looks like a spiral-bound notebook with tabs (see image below).

(From Stanford University, Programming Methodology)

Both courses contained a good amount of material, with the Stanford computer science class containing far more and far better information and resources. Both classes also had resources that were not free as part of their package. In all cases, these materials were not labeled as either optional or required. The Stanford class, for example had a link out to a Java programming textbook that can be purchased through Amazon for $92.06 (list price of $123.00), and the Digital Culture class contained several links to apps in the App Store that could be purchased for between $1.99 and $9.99.

Now while these materials are optional (given the self-directed nature of the course), I wonder how necessary they are to achieving full value from the courses. That said, the content as a whole for the two modules varied greatly. The Digital Culture class was extremely basic, with a pop culture feel and very shallow content that felt lacking. The Stanford class, by contrast, seems to be fully developed and laid out in a way that would allow individuals taking it to actually learn a very concrete set of skills.

Control Freaks
The wildly different quality of the two courses I examined leads me to my first critique of the platform as a viable e-learning tool – a consideration of how content is generated for iTunes U. As the former administrator of my college’s iTunes U account, and as the person who was originally tasked with applying for the account and setting up our site once approved, I have to say that I am surprised by the lack of depth in the Digital Culture offering. The process for securing an iTunes U account is quite rigorous and takes months. You need to already have a library of content established and Apple has requirements (at least for audio and video podcasts, which were the only options available at the time I established the account) for the amount of content you have to offer as an institution and the perceived quality of that content.

It took us several months to get approval and several rounds of review by the college lawyer before we even reached the stage where we could design the site that would provide our content. That was another process requiring rounds of review and a strict adherence to Apple’s design manual. All that is said in order to raise two questions: 1. How did the piece of content that I examined slip through and 2. How many universities or especially K-12 schools are going to have the time or resources to craft their own iTunes U channel, let alone top quality courseware? I spent hundreds of hours preparing content and establishing the account that I worked on. That doesn’t seem feasible for many institutions, particularly the newly targeted K-12 demographic for iTunes U.

The disconnect between my own experience with the top down controlling nature of iTunes causes some confusion when considering the digital culture offering. There are two possibilities here. The first is that some of the offerings available at the launch of the iTunes U app were rush jobs strictly intended to have something available for people to look at when the announcement was made. The second possibility is that Apple is loosening the reins on iTunes U content in an attempt to make it a more accessible medium. Seeing the actual tools available for creating iTunes U courses will help to answer these questions.

Device Driven
The second flaw in the iTunes U rollout is its restriction to iOS devices: the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. As with iBooks2, there is either a hugely arrogant presumption happening here – that everyone has or should be able to afford an Apple device – or a nearly evil ploy to force people, particularly schools already working on shoestring budgets, to purchase the hardware necessary to access these resources. Either way, this is a very significant disconnect for an organization that claims to care about education and means, in all likelihood, that iTunes U will not become a dominant player in the world of higher education and especially will not become a major factor in K-12 education.

There is a disturbing lack of transparency in these recent Apple rollouts. Not enough information has been given to determine if they are meant to increase educational fairness or if they are simply a marketing ploy to carve out a larger chunk of the higher ed and K-12 markets. Without incredibly deep discounts (can you say free?), there is no way that all schools, particularly those serving low-income children or public universities, will be able to afford the equipment needed to access Apple’s new content.

Where’s the Live Element?
Finally, until there is significant modification of the iTunes U platform which integrates live communication with an instructor, other students, and outside resources, this is a dead venture. Not dead as in it won’t be used, but dead as in it lacks life, vigor, robustness, and interactivity – all of the things that make non-DIY educational efforts worth the price of admission.

The conclusion then must be that the iTunes U platform has been established strictly to cater to the DIY learner. In the previous, non-app version of iTunes U, there was an option to create closed sites which were accessible only to enrolled students and contained content not available to the general public. This content consisted almost entirely of video or audio recordings of lectures. Even if that option is still available for the new platform, there is a huge void caused by the absence of interactivity.

In short, I would characterize the iTunes U app offerings as very well-packaged canned courses. They are generally self-contained, and that very self-containment hurts their efficacy in a Web 2.0, socially connected world. The execution of the classes is great, they look good, have nice tools built in, and work seamlessly on the iPad, but they lack elements that would make them truly engaging. In addition to that, the strict reliance on iOS devices continues the disturbing digital divide-widening trend seen with iBooks2 and Author.