Simply speaking, if you're not using iTunes U, you're not getting the most out of your Apple experience. Many daily iTunes users probably have yet to really explore the tiny tab that allows access to a whole library of completely free educational opportunity, a truly valuable concept in an age in which the cost of higher education is steadily on the rise. iTunes U is probably one of the most underrated Apple platforms available, and even now - seven years after its initial release - it is definitely worth a closer look.

(If you want to know what other Apple brands and related tech terms mean, take a look at our Apple user's jargon buster.)

Plus, on 30 June 2014, Apple issued an update to the service, which means teachers using the free iTunes U app can create, edit and manage entire courses directly on the iPad for the first time, as of 8 July. There are also new ways for students to collaborate, by starting class discussions or asking questions right from the iPad.

To get to iTunes U, open up iTunes on your Mac or PC and click on "iTunes Store" on the left-hand side. Select the iTunes U button on the top right side of your iTunes Store toolbar (it's the tab to the right of Podcasts) and you're in. Here you’ll find a wealth of lectures that you can browse by university affiliation, subject, most downloaded, or noteworthy courses.

As of June 2014, the most popular courses in the catalog range from programming and quantum mechanics to Chinese and French to meditation and photography from sources like Oxford, Yale, Stanford, MIT and more. The iTunes U catalogue consists of a combination of audio and video subscriptions - videos are more convenient when slideshows or demonstrations are involved in the lectures, audio-only lectures are perfect for multi-tasking listeners.


How to download iTunes U courses

Content can be downloaded from either iTunes on your Mac or PC or directly from your iPhone or iPad from the iTunes U app for listening on the go.

To download a course onto your mobile device, download the iTunes U app from the App Store, open app, click on "Catalog" on the upper right-hand corner, find a series you're interested in, and click "Subscribe". The content is then delivered directly to you, whether the course is a series of lectures, videos, PDFs, or an entire book.

After downloading the course content, you can process it however you wish. You can choose to learn at your own pace and decide whether to use your computer, iPad or iPhone to take it all in. On your mobile device, you have the option to slow down a lecture to half speed (perfect for diligent note-takers) or up to double-time (perfect for those trying to fit an in-depth French Revolution lecture into a 20-minute commute) - just press the 1x button on the lower right-hand side of your screen to scroll through the options.

Learning with iTunes U

Since its 2007 inception, iTunes U has morphed from its sole university focus into a much more inclusive database with resources for primary and secondary school students and instructors. Apple has been heavily pushing classroom iPad learning initiatives for National Curriculum students, encouraging teachers to use the iTunes U platform to integrate technology into the classroom.

An instructor can create a course on iTunes U using the course manager, which now works on iPad too. Within the course manager, there are two different types of courses an instructor can create: in-session and self-paced. In-session courses are taught in real time with calendar-based posts and assignments. Instructors provide specific start and end dates for the course. Self-paced courses allow students to begin and end a course at any time. Instructors provide a course outline and a suggested duration for the course, but it is up to the student to take the initiative to get it done.

There are lectures that have been recorded specifically for iTunes U versus those where a recorder has simply made its way into a classroom. Those specifically made with the iTunes U audience in mind tend to have the benefit of fewer irrelevant interruptions from a live class audience, such as someone asking about an assignment due next week. But at its best, a present class member can help alleviate one of iTunes U's biggest flaws - no interactivity between the professor and the downloader, or with the downloader and other downloaders in a discussion format - by (hopefully) acting as a surrogate question-asker when things get complicated. If no such luck exists, you'll simply have to Google your question later and hope for the best.

The benefits of iTunes U

Though it lacks the interactive features of Khan Academy, a free online learning database and iTunes U predecessor, iTunes U makes up for its cons with portability, sheer depth of information available, and the fact that no real prior knowledge is needed. Khan Academy is more reliable as a supplement to in-class learning than iTunes U. Need to re-learn molecular orbit theory before your organic chemistry exam? Try Khan Academy. Want to learn about something more random or specific, like the best way to report UK news to the German or French news media from a Reuters/Oxford-grade journalist? A quick search in the iTunes U catalogue will take care of that for you.

A big iTunes U flaw exists in the fact that no course credit is available from the iTunes U affiliate universities, no matter how many lectures you "attend". It doesn't seem realistic to expect this to change anytime soon, as the notion of prestigious universities giving away degrees for free seems pretty far-flung from reality. However, the fact that the content is free in the first place is rather remarkable.

Another issue with iTunes U is that the content is not easily shareable, which is an essential feature in this digital age. Sharing a TED Talk with your Facebook friends is extremely easy; sharing an iTunes U lecture with your Facebook friends is basically impossible. This also creates an issue from a learning standpoint, as it's hard to tell a friend to search for a specific professor in a certain series, wait for the series to download, go to lecture 15, scroll to 14:03 - now, did she say “solve it” or “solvent”?

But one can only complain so much about a platform that gives away Ivy League courses for free. Despite minor issues, iTunes U is undoubtedly a great and underused resource in the Apple world. iTunes U can only be as good as the participating lecturers are, though, so as long as top universities and independent parties continue to create great iTunes U lecture series, the platform will be a great resource for a long time.

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