In my last post, I made the case that we should feel reasonably safe taking Apple at their word when they say that they want to keep iTunes U free and free from lock-in for the long-term. As far as I can tell, it's not evil. In this post, I'm going to argue that it is, in fact, a force for good-good for the evolution of learning environments, good for the textbook market, and good for expanding the horizons of digitally-enhanced teaching and learning interactions.Let's start with LMS's and learning environments. If you think about how the majority of classes in the majority of colleges use an LMS, it's primarily as a file sharing utility. Share the syllabus, share the handouts, share the assignments. iTunes U can serve this same purpose better than the typical LMS. You don't have to go through logins and click through multiple screens to find what you want. The content is organized in an easy-to-use, hierarchical offline tool. And if you use RSS feeds, students don't even have to explicitly log in to check for new documents; content is pushed right to their desktops whenever they are online and iTunes is open. As I noted in my last post, iTunes U supports PDFs, so teachers can send text documents as well as sound and video files. iTunes U even has a drop box and a sharing folder, so students can submit content to the teacher or to the class. (Currently upload is a browser-based interface, not built into iTunes itself.) If you supplement this capability with a discussion board and maybe a shared calendar, then you've provided pretty much everything that the majority of web-enhanced classes use today. You've also greatly diminished the value of licensing a traditional LMS to cover the entire campus. This is precisely why Apple draws the distinction between a learning management system (which is narrow) and a learning environment (which is broad).
And you've given Apple its halo effect opportunity. Sure, you can use iTunes U to share files easily without investing a dime in Apple equipment. But wouldn't it be better if you could effortlessly download those files to your iPod and take them wherever you go? And wouldn't you love to use a computer that comes bundled with free, easy-to-use content creation to make it easy for you to generate rich content to share in the first place?
Another potential watershed is the opportunity to use the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) as a textbook publishing medium. Apple was explicit about their goals in this regard. Following the model laid down for music (and now videos), textbook publishers would provide more even, commoditized pricing and support micro-commerce. (Wouldn't it be great to have your students pay for only the five chapters that you intend to use for your class?) Add to that the ability to share competing faculty-created (and hopefully Creative Commons licensed) content through iTunes U, and you could see radical changes in the textbook market. In return, publishers can reduce the percentage of revenues lost to illegal photocopying and to the used textbook market. They can also keep a higher percentage of revenues by not having to sell through university book stores, and they can keep their content fresher, since the cost of issuing an update digitally is far, far lower than printing and shipping new books.
Of course, to make this economic transformation happen, we need one piece of hardware that doesn't really exist yet-an affordable, easy-to-use ebook reader. Text isn't going away any time soon, and students are just not going to read entire textbooks on their monitors or print them out on sheet paper. One has to hope that Apple is working on just such a beast.
In the meantime, if Apple is successful with iTunes U then we should see a proliferation of student- and faculty-created multimedia in the classroom. Apple's iLife software suite really does drastically lower the barrier to producing audio, video, and digital images. iTunes, iPods, and video iPods make it easy for users to organize and use those newly created multimedia assets. iTunes U completes the ecosystem by making it easy to share the files. Honest to goodness, just about anyone can produce professional-sounding podcasts using Garage Band or a video using iMovie. Microsoft, of course, doesn't stand still either. Expect competition in these consumer-level multimedia production tools to remain high, and expect the tools themselves to remain cheap or free.
All in all, iTunes U could have a huge effect on higher education. That said, in my next post I'll outline some areas where they still have some work to do in order to really make iTunes U fly in enterprise higher ed.