iTunes U down under

Martin Levins
9 June, 2008
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What tickles your fancy? The Geography of Europe. Nanotechnology, Philosophy or perhaps Astrophysics and Supercomputing? The University of Melbourne, Swinburne, Australian National University, University of Western Australia, the University of NSW, Griffith and Otago University in New Zealand, are just some of the Antipodean tertiary institutions now joining their US cousins in providing public lectures, courseware and recordings of ceremonial events such as commencement and valedictory speeches.

It’s all a bit thin on the ground, but it’s early days so far, with the official announcement made by Apple Australia last week. The first Australian podcast that I looked at was the “Study Smarter” series from the University of Western Australia, with the first lesson being “How to avoid procrastination”, but I decided I’d listen to it later.

Which is part of the point of course — I want to listen when I want to listen and not necessarily at 9am on a Monday.

But the other, far larger point of the program is not just regurgitating lectures, but learning stuff by watching or listening to things that are space shifted as well as time shifted.

In the US, where iTunes U has been maturing over the last few years, there is an enormous amount of really interesting stuff on offer and a good indication of what may be possible as the Australian institutions gain more experience.

“Special Relativity” with Leonard Susskind from Stanford, or “Being Opinionated in America” with Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman from UC Berkeley, are examples of the range and depth of available titles.

The content on iTunes U is largely audio, with some videos available from institutions such as the Massachussets Institute of Technology. The live lectures are often given by people who may, shall we say, have not had much experience with microphones or appearing before camera, let alone the benefit of makeup and studio lighting. This means that production values are not necessarily high. But this all adds to the charm and verisimilitude of the experience.

Not sure about you, but when I was at uni, there were very few photogenic lecturers. In fact there were very few entertaining lecturers. Now I think that lecturers could do with more stagecraft when lecturing (Peter Simpson of Sydney University where are you?) and perhaps their exposure via the web will encourage them to consider a course in voice projection, the odd change in inflection and dynamics that will benefit those who may have to endure their lectures.

Your endpoint for most of this content is, of course, the portable music device (to use the ABC’s quaint euphemism for the iPod). Videos are compressed to 320×240 pixels, suitable for iPods and iPhones (just in time for the Australian release) and typically occupy just over 100MB for a one hour video. In most cases, these are free to download, with a Creative Commons Copyright licence.

It’s clear that this form of remote delivery of lectures has an iceberg of hidden opportunity for education in general. In late July, the Apple University Consortium is offering 20 partially-funded places at each of two iPhone/iPodTouch Web Applications Workshops. To be held in Sydney and Melbourne, the workshop is aimed specifically at students or staff who have an interest in developing web applications for portable devices.

More information about the workshops and how to apply is on the web site.

Education: coming soon to an iPod near you.

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