iTunes U for iPad & iPhone review

Apple has launched its iTunes U app, backed up by online services that enable schools and universities to publish their own course content to students.

Like iBooks 2, Newsstand and the iPad's Music app, the back end to iTunes U is the iTunes Store. The interface is familiar too. It's the same bookshelf metaphor that's used in Newsstand and iBooks: stained mahogany.

You'll find all the content that was in the original iTunes U, when it was still just a section of the iTunes store. Audio and video clips dominate here, with collections from many US universities on a variety of topics. There are TED talks, lectures from MIT and podcasts from Ivy League professors to challenge the intellect and develop the mind. Blighty's own Open University is one of the major contributors, with its history of distance delivery making course materials easy to translate to iTunes U. Apple claims that more than a thousand educational institutions have contributed free material.

Inevitably, there's some poorly produced media among the content available. Occasionally, you'll find material that lacks the academic rigour we expect in the European education system. That's not Apple's fault, and it should be applauded for the open approach it has taken to content delivery with iTunes U. The majority of material is slickly professional and free.

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iTunes U review: Publishing tools

The big news story is that, alongside the iTunes U app, Apple has released a new platform that enables educational institutions to publish their own courses. We were unable to directly try the publishing tools, Apple iTunes U Course Manager and the Public Site Manager, as these require verification from an educational institution, but we did look at some courses published using this new functionality.

Publishers aren't confined to simple documents, either. They can publish any media supported by iTunes, including audio, video, eBooks, PDFs, Pages documents, Keynote presentations and even other apps. Instructors can embed media content directly into course materials and link to content elsewhere in iTunes U. In short, this is a full service multimedia delivery system for digital course content.

The template for course creation enables tutors to place content in different categories. They can create a sequence of workshops or links to lectures in the 'Posts' section, provide detail about course structure and outcomes in the 'Info' section, and there's a tab for auxiliary materials too, including books that can be purchased within the app. Students can also take their own notes within the app and annotate set texts or course material.

iTunes U offers supporting features that enable students to complete assignments within the app. Courses can be developed on iOS, with iOS tools, through the web-based interface. Tutors can also use Mac or PC browsers, although the iTunes U app itself is currently iOS only.

Although we tested public content, iTunes U can also be used to produce content within member institutions. Members get their own site, built on the same infrastructure as iTunes. The content can be password-protected at any level the institution wants. So a course can be made available to one class, the entire university, or be publicly published.

iTunes U for iPad & iPhone review

iTunes U review: Education, education, education

In strategic terms, Apple's flurry of educational provision is a response to the success of the iPad in schools and colleges. Lecturers have found it an ideal device for a range of educational activities, from the arts to the sciences. And now Apple is supporting this with tools that let educators build and deliver courses with familiar programs, such as Keynote, iBooks Author, GarageBand, iMovie and Pages.

Though tutor-produced content is free at the point of access, the price educators pay is placing their material within Apple's walled garden. It's a closed delivery system, meaning students will need access to an iOS device to do their work. That means iPad and iPhone sales for Apple. Notably, the educational discount on iPads isn’t particularly significant.

This closed approach is nothing new for educators, though. They currently use institutional, digital distribution systems that leave much to be desired. Blackboard and Campus Pack are the online platforms for course delivery found in most UK Higher Education institutions. They are cumbersome, modular authoring systems well past their sell-by date. iTunes U and the services that support it bring some much-needed Apple polish to electronic learning.

OUR VERDICT

The iTunes U app has clear purpose for pupils and teachers, students and lecturers. It has the potential to change classrooms everywhere, and it has appeal for people outside the education system too. With free access to course materials, audio, video and presentations from schools and colleges around the world, it’s nothing less than a gift to iOS users.

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