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."
Before his lectures are recorded in front of his actual class, Lewin performs three dry runs: one 10 days before, another five days before and the last the morning of the lecture. The first dry run, he says, almost always takes more time than the 50 minutes available for class. So, he restructures the lecture. "That can be quite time-consuming," Lewin says. "You cannot simply delete the last 10 to 15 minutes."
The end result is a class that even a physics novice could follow. As he moves quickly through his lecture, Lewin is well aware that he has an audience beyond students in the classroom. When he demonstrates a tuning fork to the class, for example, he does so for those at home, too, by speaking directly to the camera. He is careful to print large enough on the chalkboard so that, when the camera zooms in, even those watching on an iPod can make out what he has written.
"You have to prepare enormously if you're going to teach this way," says Lewin.
But judging by the inconsistent quality of the classes offered through iTunes U, not all professors who have posted courses prepare as much as Lewin does. Unlike Lewin's courses, some iTunes U classes are audio only, making it difficult to follow certain lectures that can last more than an hour.
To make the online classes more valuable, the New Jersey Institute of Technology encourages its professors to record their classes specifically for iTunes U. Live classes often fail online because faculty members have a difficult time controlling the classroom environment in ways that are necessary for those viewing the lecture from a distance, says Blake Haggerty, the institute's assistant director for institutional design.
"In a live classroom, there may be talk that has nothing to do with the course, such as an assignment being delayed," says Haggerty. "Discussions like that don't matter to someone not enrolled in the class."
As iTunes U grows in popularity, universities will need to pay more attention to the quality of the content they are placing there, says Mayadas, of the Sloan Consortium. "There's still an experimental nature to iTunes U, so users are willing to overlook problems."
Maybe so, but for many people, a course downloaded from iTunes may be the only interaction they ever have with a particular university. Ricky Fernandez, who has sampled several courses on iTunes U, including some from well-known universities, says he has been surprised by how little effort was put into designing them for use on an iPod. In some videos, he says, it is difficult to hear instructors, while in others it is impossible to read what they write on the blackboard.
"If I paid for the classes, I would have asked for my money back," says Fernandez, a student at Hartnell College, a two-year school in California.
OREN SIMANTOB IS A SENIOR PRE-MED STUDENT AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, but this fall his favorite course is an iTunes U physics course taught by MIT's Lewin.
"To be honest, he does it better than anyone else here," says Simantob. "All the lecture classes here are 300 people. So there is no engagement. Even online, Lewin is engaging." Sometimes, Simantob adds, he skips classes and watches Lewin's lectures on his iPhone.
One downside, though, says Benjamin Cooper, a freshman physics major at Boston University, is that "you can't ask questions." Cooper says that if he has difficulty understanding a concept, "I usually look it up on Google or Wikipedia."
If he can't find the answer he needs, he moves on. After all, he says, "there's no penalty for not understanding the material."
Many of the institutions now giving away lectures on iTunes U had ambitious plans a decade ago to make money from selling course materials online.
Nearly all those efforts to profit from distance education failed, in part because higher education institutions overestimated demand. In many ways, online education is still in its infancy. About 3.2 million students took at least one online course in the fall of 2005, according to the Sloan Consortium, up from 2.3 million the previous year but still a small slice of the 17.4 million students enrolled in colleges nationwide that fall.
The iTunes U service is not the first to give away course materials online. Since 2001, MIT has been publishing materials on the Internet for free as part of its OpenCourseWare project. The effort, however, is not without costs. The institution spends more than $6 million a year on the project, much of it coming from foundation grants. "MIT is special in that it can raise that kind of money to support such a project, but most universities can't," says Mayadas.
With tight budgets a fact of life at most colleges, Mayadas believes the market for free courseware is limited to a few classes at any one institution.
Officials at universities participating in iTunes U say that the biggest benefit is worldwide exposure. Norbert Elliot, a humanities professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, says a world literature lecture of his that was featured on the iTunes U Web site recently was viewed 74,000 times in one month. "There is no way that anything I can do under traditional means would interest 74,000 people," says Elliot.
While Apple releases download statistics to universities that participate in iTunes U, the company does not release them publicly. Stanford, which worked with Apple on the development of iTunes U, averages about 10,000 downloads a week, says Scott Stocker, Stanford's director of Web communications. A survey the university conducted last year found that 22 percent of users of the service identified themselves as Stanford alumni. "It's yet another way for alumni to stay connected to the university," says Stocker.
For now, Apple's Cue says the company has no plans to charge for iTunes U. "Our view is that students at the university are already paying for the classes to be produced," he says.
Indeed, many universities, including Stanford, also use iTunes to make recordings of other classes that are available only to current students on a secure server. But some iTunes U users say a few courses are so helpful that they would be willing to pay for them.
"It's definitely worth more than music on iTunes," says Simantob, the Columbia pre-med major.
Jeffrey Selingo is editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education. He can be reached at email@example.com.Top 10 Downloads From iTunes U
1. "Steve Job's 2005 Commencement Address" (Stanford University)
2. "Modern Theoretical Physics." (Stanford University)
3. "Exploring Black Holes: General Relativity & Astrophysics; Einstein's Field Equation" (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
4. "The Heart of Nonviolence: A Conversation With the Dalai Lama" (Stanford University)
5. "Consciousness, Creativity and the Brain" (University of California at Berkeley)
6. "The Earth in the Balance" (Stanford University)
7. "Requiem -- Mozart Requiem" (Duke University )
8. "Introduction to Copyright Law: Basics of Legal Research; Legal Citations" (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
9. "Mozart: Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat" (Yale University)
10. "Elementary Greek: Introduction" (Concordia Seminary)