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Is iTunes U for You?

(Theo Rudnak)

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By Jeffrey Selingo
Sunday, November 4, 2007

In an empty classroom on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Walter H.G Lewin, a physics professor, is practicing one of his lectures on the science of everyday phenomena.

Lewin has been teaching at MIT since the 1960s, and his courses are legendary among generations of students there. But he wants to get this lecture -- where he dives into the science of rainbows, musical instruments and pacemakers -- exactly right. The audience is not just his students at MIT. It could be anyone around the world with access to a computer and Apple's iTunes store.

MIT is one of 28 colleges that have posted courses, campus speeches and other events on a section of iTunes known as iTunes U. Since the site was launched last spring with 16 institutions, material from it has been downloaded more than 4 million times.

Unlike other offerings from Apple's music store, where songs cost 99 cents, everything on iTunes U is free. Penn State University offers instruction on information management. Users can download a general chemistry class from Seattle Pacific University, a lecture on the psychosocial aspects of health care from Northeastern University or a class on Ben Franklin from Stanford University. (No universities in the Washington area participate.)

"The content can be downloaded to an iPod and listened to on the go," says Eddy Cue, Apple's vice president of iTunes, "making learning from a lecture just as simple as enjoying music."

What is not yet clear is whether Apple will end up transforming online education as it did the music industry, with the introduction of iTunes in 2001. Right now, iTunes U is something of a novelty. The subject matter and quality of courses offered vary widely. Only a few classes are like Lewin's, where the instructor even seems conscious of the fact that some people might be following the lecture on a tiny iPod screen. The video content from some classes is nothing more than a static slide that shows the name of the course while the professor drones on.

"I'm baffled at what universities get out of this," says A. Frank Mayadas, president of the Sloan Consortium, which promotes standards for online learning.

ONE THING THEY SURELY DON'T GET IS TUITION DOLLARS. Apple doesn't pay anything for the content. Users don't get credit for the courses they watch. And professors don't get paid extra for courses on iTunes U. Administrators and professors alike view the idea of giving away courses that traditional students pay thousands of dollars a year for both as a free promotional tool and as a public service.

"Very few people have the ability to get a degree from MIT as students," says Lewin, "so why not open the world to our best courses?"

Lewin's classes are often among the top downloaded courses on iTunes U. His newfound popularity is exhibited by the dozen or so

e-mails he receives each week from people around the world.

"There are students who are using my courses to prepare for exams," says Lewin. "There are people who are retired taking the courses. There are professors in developing countries using the courses as models for their own."


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