Classrooms without borders

Macworld Australia Staff
19 June, 2012
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In January this year, Apple hosted an education-themed event in New York where a bundle of new iOS products were announced in conjunction with the launch of its third-generation iPad. The goal was to provide compatible tools for the tablet to expand its capabilities as an interactive learning device for students.

In addition to the iTunes U app, iBooks 2 and iBooks Author were also released, offering an end-to- end system for authors, educators and students to participate in the process of learning. This new trifecta of software is already creating an impact in schools, setting up alternative structures to traditional classroom methods.

Here, we explore the potential of iTunes U on iOS, the additional support that iBooks 2 and iBooks Author provides and how institutions have implemented the system to build new curriculums and, subsequently, greater opportunities.


Of the three education apps released this year by Apple, iTunes U was arguably the most important.

Until recently, iTunes U was Apple’s primary education resource that remained partially hidden in the podcast category of iTunes, underrated and underused by many who didn’t quite grasp what the education utility was all about or how to properly utilise it. That all began to change earlier this year when Apple ventured further afield into education by launching its iTunes U app, providing a mobile gateway for students to access uploaded content from universities and schools via an iOS device.

It was a smart move by Apple which now provides content (via the app) to a mass market platform (the hardware), hosting a universal dialogue that scholars of all ages, cultures and levels of education can understand and speak.

iTunes U is the world’s largest digital catalogue of educational content, providing free online access to browse and download lectures, videos, books and other course materials on a range of academic subjects.

Before its expansion into iOS this year, the resource had racked up over 700 million downloads from a pool of more than 1000 schools and universities globally. But access was limited to a desktop, publishing rights were tricky at best and the service’s full potential had not been realised by the vast majority of education communities, prompting Apple to reconsider its approach.

If you’ve ever tried to ‘take’ a course from iTunes U without the backing of its partner app, you’ll know that the experience can be frustrating at times. The resource on its own fails to provide materials paramount to studying a complete study unit. Where are the books? What about the exercises? Add to that numerous difficulties for course authors to properly communicate with students and offer sufficient guidance from start to finish. This is where Apple’s iTunes U app addresses a lot of these shortcomings, providing access to a range of learning materials, course outlines and structures.

Australia’s first educational institution to implement the iTunes U app into several of its history courses was La Trobe University, joining other world prestigious universities such as Stanford, Oxford and Yale.

La Trobe’s Australian Aboriginal History unit is being taught on the Melbourne campus, and now to a global audience via the iTunes U app. The mobile course offers “lectures and readings every week while it is taught during first semester”, says the university, adding a simplified approach to a topic entrenched in large volumes of information.

‘‘I’m delighted that La Trobe University continues to be at the forefront of developments in online digital education,’ says Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor John Rosenberg, via the university’s website.

“iTunes U courses bring all relevant material together to make it simple for anyone who wants to study a subject, however complex or challenging it might be.”

La Trobe Professor of European Studies Stefan Auer – also employing the app – says the program has opened a number of doors for the method of delivery in terms of content and access.

“The advantage of iTunes U is that it can reach audiences outside of our university network and enrolled students. Also, it gives us the possibility to organise the content neatly for iPads and iPods,” Auer explains.

Historically, iTunes U was a system set up to cater for a small number of universities and other large institutions to publish syllabuses. One of the biggest procedural changes to the structure since the launch of the app is that individual K-12 schools are now able to upload courses to iTunes U, too.


iBooks Author is a powerful program that improves the process of putting together multimedia-rich e-textbook exclusively for Apple’s iBookstore and iPad – all you need is an idea and a Mac. The app itself is free and works a bit like an Xcode for books. You create the book on the Mac, compile it into an ebook and then transfer it to the device for testing, replicating the way in which iOS app developers work.

Authors and publishers can easily develop full-screen books; interactive animations, diagrams, videos, photos, fluid navigation, note-taking and highlighting. Users can also work from ready-built templates, drag- and-drop mouse gestures, as well as incorporate widgets to be included in books to enable galleries, slideshows and 3D objects. The utility provides a dynamic palette of interactive features to choose from when creating textbooks that will appeal to students of all demographics. The process is relatively easy to adopt and the resulting proof can be seen in the pages.


iBooks 2 was the third app in Apple’s swag of education utilities announced in January. The download offers access to interactive textbooks, venturing beyond the parameters of traditional paper and restrictive binding.

The software is a free download from the App Store, enabling textbook makers to craft interactive titles exclusively for the iPad. From an access point, users can swipe across the display interface to open book pages and watch movies within individual chapters.

iBooks 2 employs familiar gestures such as pinch and tapping motions to interact with content in a host of ways.

Apple emphasises that the design objective of iBooks 2 is engagement, opening up new learning capabilities that students were previously unable to explore in paper form texts.

The content is touchable and responsive to a range of commands; pupils can look at 3D images, for example, to grasp a better, more comprehensive understanding of what DNA compositions look like; books can be viewed in portrait and landscape modes, depending on content and user preferences; relevant sections of text can be highlighted; notes can be added to pages and later used to make up study cards in preparation for exams. The options are endless and, more importantly, fun.

Similar to what Apple was able to wrangle with iTunes by getting record companies to share their music on the company’s service, major publishers have signed up to offer text content via the app, forming powerful partnerships between the two industries.

Major textbook makers, like Pearson, McGraw Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US have released books onto the platform, with prices set at US$14.99 or less. The gap between these digital downloads and actual textbooks often retailing upwards of hundreds of dollars, offers greater access to all students. Plus, once a text has been purchased, it can be re-downloaded at any time free of additional charge.


Apple offers a space in education where creation, access and management allow authors, teachers and students to engage in the processes of learning, without restrictions.

Prime among the reinvention is iTunes U – a publishing platform that joins the dots, bridges the gap and opens the gates to educational content.

As Apple Senior Vice President of Internet and Services Eddy Cue explained at the launch, iTunes U “enables students anywhere to tap into entire courses from the world’s most prestigious universities”.

“Never before have educators been able to offer their full courses in such an innovative way, allowing anyone who’s interested in a particular topic to learn from anywhere in the world, not just the classroom.”

With iTunes U, learning isn’t just “read this document, then watch the video and complete the assignment”. Courses now offer audio, video, documents, links to iOS apps and iBooks.

It is just the beginning of what Apple has planned for schools, and the future looks expansive as ‘classrooms without borders’ begin to take shape and take over.




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