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Education & Development
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iTunes U as a teaching and learning tool: Introduction

Updated Wednesday, 29th October 2014

How does podcasting provide access to Open learning resources from around the world and what’s different from previous formats?

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In this programme we’re going to talk about podcasting in education, and in particular we’re going to discuss iTunes U as a teaching and learning tool. With me I have Fernando Rosell-Aguilar from the Open University, who’s done a lot of research into the use of technology for learning.




Now, the popularity of podcasting is undeniable: millions of people download and listen to podcasts every day. Among them, educational podcasts are hugely popular: there are podcasts available about every subject you care to think of. Some are great, some are very poor, and a lot of them are somewhere in between. Where did it all start?


Well, 10 years ago we hadn’t heard of podcasting, and now it’s everywhere. Where did it all start? Podcasting technology became popular around 2004-2005. In fact, in 2005 “podcast” was named “word of the year” by the editors of the Oxford American Dictionary. Since then, podcasting technology has spread, expanded what it can do and become easier to use, which has led to its adoption by individuals, businesses, the arts, the media and of course education.

Without a doubt the largest channel for distribution of educational podcasts is iTunes U. It was launched in 2007 as a method for US and Canadian universities to distribute content for their courses. Some of the content these universities uploaded to iTunes U was restricted to their own students, and some of it was made available to anyone who wanted to download and listen to it. Apple talked about its new service as “a university in your pocket” and highlighted the unprecedented access to lectures and materials that were previously only available to a minority.


But iTunes U now has materials from universities beyond the United States and Canada.


Yes. Apple soon invited universities from further afield to join iTunes U, and nowadays universities from 28 different countries (and counting) offer free materials for download. These include world renowned institutions such as Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge, or La Sorbonne. As well as the materials from universities, iTunes U now also incorporates resources from other educational institutions, such as colleges and museums in a section called “beyond campus”. Thousands of collections are available on iTunes U in subjects ranging from Arts and History to Engineering, Science, or Philosophy.


Well with all this material available, and the very large numbers of downloads, iTunes U is a very successful initiative, giving away thousands of free educational resources. But why? What do universities have to gain from opening their doors and letting the general public have access to the top experts in their field, which their own students have to pay to listen to? And what about the end users? Who is downloading all these podcasts? And why? What do they hope to get?


Those are the questions that I’ve been researching for a few years now. For this programme I’ve interviewed key players in iTunes U and researchers in the field of podcasting as a learning and teaching tool. I’ve also spoken to people who learn using iTunes U resources. And of course, there’s my own research on the topic.


Yes. Now, you’ve been researching podcasting as a learning tool since 2005.


That’s right.


So what attracted you to it?


I guess there were a number of reasons. I’m a bit of a techie gadget kind of person and also I love music, so of course the iPod appealed to me straight away. I work here at the Open University and among other things I write materials to teach Spanish. One day I was looking at some videos we’d recorded in Spain and I wondered what they might look like on my iPod. I’d just got myself a fifth generation iPod, which was the first one that could play videos as well as music. Now this iPod had a tiny screen, so I had my doubts as to why anyone would want to watch anything on something so small. But the thing is I was quite happy to watch music videos on it myself, so why not teaching materials? So I transferred a video clip from the course I was developing to my iPod. Now, don’t ask me why, but somehow this video clip suddenly seemed 100 times more appealing. The screen size didn’t bother me at all. I was so excited that I could take my videos and watch them on my iPod wherever I liked, I could pause the video, rewind if there was something I wanted to hear again… and then it occurred to me that my students might feel that way too, so I started looking into what had been written about podcasting as a teaching and learning tool.

Another thing was that few months later I saw this cartoon in the Times newspaper. It showed two drawings: under the heading ‘‘University lectures then’’ was an elderly man, in jacket and bow tie, giving a lecture, and next to him, under the heading ‘‘University lectures now’’, was a young student in a t-shirt and baseball cap, sitting, smiling, listening to his iPod. This was 2006 and the cartoon didn’t reflect university teaching at the time, but to me it showed that the concept of learning through your iPod (or whatever other mp3 player you had) was penetrating the mainstream and that universities were perceived as a prime place for this to happen.


But before mp3s or podcasting you could get educational materials on CD, cassettes and even LPs.


Yes, but what changed was much more than the format. Those CDs, cassettes etc. that you mention had to be purchased or borrowed from a library, and their availability was limited. Their audience was people who were interested in learning and made the effort to seek those resources and pay for them. With podcasts, everything is free and easy to find. Within seconds you can have it in your mp3 player, or your phone or whatever you use to listen to digital audio files. Another thing that to me is very important is that podcasts found a completely new audience. In the case of iTunes, which is at the end of the day the main place where you can find podcasts in the world, these were learning resources that were available in a music store. You couldn’t get a marketing team to come up with a better idea to make educational stuff easy to find than to embed it within something else that’s hugely popular. And a third factor is that once they saw the potential, a lot of people – from individuals with something to say, to businesses and of course teachers – started developing podcasts. And the media picked it up and started putting a lot of their programmes and content online so people could catch up with it, or listen from other countries. So the amount of stuff available just exploded.

Listen to other podcasts in this series

From learning beginners' French to finding out more about the design behind the bike, we have a great range of audio and video collections that cover a variety of subjects here on OpenLearn. Take your pick from hundreds of podcasts here.

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