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iTunes U as a teaching and learning tool: Talking to learners

Updated Wednesday 29th October 2014

In these interviews with several iTunes U users, learners discuss how they find and use the materials they download.

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Interviewer:

So that was your research and it gives us an insight into the questions you asked using a questionnaire: what they use, what for, what they think of the podcasts for learning…. But have you also spoken to learners individually? What do they say about what it’s like to actually learn, or try to learn, using podcasts in general or materials from iTunes U in particular?

Fernando:

Well I have spoken to quite a few people about it, and obviously everyone has different preferences and styles of learning, so they use the materials they download in different ways. For this programme we interviewed three iTunes U users. The first thing I asked them was how they came across iTunes U.

Jennifer Beard

I came across iTunes U purely by accident. I was using iTunes on my windows laptop at home and going through interacting with the iTunes store for the first time and I just stumbled across something in the top right corner, it’s not something I’d ever seen before so I just went in and had a look to see what it was. Before that I’d never even heard of it.

Laura Chenery:

iTunes U… I think was actually purely by accident. I discovered it when I was doing my Master’s degree actually rather than Languages, because it had a lot of lectures that were useful to my course and then through that I discovered other things such as some of the different language conversations and language audio tracks that they publish on line through different universities.

Fernando:

So as you can see, these users found iTunes U pretty much by accident, which at the end of the day is how I find many things online. That, or someone has recommended something to me. I then asked the learners about how they use iTunes U to find resources of interest to them. Do they browse or do they search? Jennifer, who studies linguistics had this to say:

Jennifer Beard:

Yeah, when I go into iTunes U I usually go in because I have a particular topic in mind, so it’s something in particular that has come up that I found that I have a bit of knowledge lacking, so I tend to go in and search for something in particular rather than browse through the materials.

Fernando:

In contrast, Laura, who is a student of politics and languages, tends to find resources in a different way:

Laura Chennery:

I tend to browse actually rather than search. I spend quite a bit of time online anyway and I think rather than using things like social media such as face book and You Tube, I just tend to go on websites such as iTunes U and TED talks is another one and watch things on there and often from what you watch on iTunes U something takes your fancy, you end up getting more recommendations that lead to other university sites or other subjects and it goes from there really.

Fernando:

And Robert, who is a doctor and uses iTunes U to catch up on developments in medicine, likes the bite-sized nature of iTunes U materials:

Robert Jay:

One of the things I really like about a lot of the podcast learning that I’ve tried is that in many cases it produces a fairly short sort of 10/15 minute segment of a lot of important information that you can listen to and refresh your learning from.

Fernando:

Now one of the issues we discussed earlier was the matter of whether podcasting and iTunes U in particular can be considered a mobile technology, so I asked these learners about where they listen to iTunes U resources:

Laura Chennery:

OK, I tend to download quite a few podcasts every week. I don’t necessarily listen to them all but I often save a few up and listen to them in the car at the weekends when I’m driving to friends and that sort of thing. I find podcasts a really good way of fitting in language learning in the other parts of my life where I’m not necessarily able to just sit down with a book for an hour and a half each night and read, but I go to the gym for an hour a day so I take the podcast with me and ‘Oh look I’ve just fitted in an extra hour of language learning so that’s how I do it.

Jennifer Beard:

Most of the materials I download from iTunes U I download as audio-only files and I download them to my iPhone, mostly because I have a half-hour bus ride into university and a half-hour bus ride back, so I tend to use that time to listen to the materials that I’ve downloaded and do it that way rather than trying to fit in some time in front of my computer to do it.

Robert Jay:

Probably one of the greatest strengths of this sort of thing is that it does allow you so well to maximise your time, so I can do lots of other things that I would normally do during my day that would allow me to take the same time to use it for learning, so driving the car to somewhere on a particularly long journey as long as it’s not a completely new topic I’m going to have to really concentrate on but just something talking to me in the background, that’s fantastic, I like going to the gym, I find it really de-stresses me after work, but I can use that time as well for some learning.

Fernando:

Robert actually mentioned as well that he likes to go swimming with a waterproof case for his mp3 player, so he listens while he swims too. It was interesting because he found that he could concentrate on what he was listening to and also it encouraged him to swim for longer as he didn’t get bored.

Interviewer

Well I often listen while I’m running but I’ve never thought of listening whilst I’m swimming.

Fernando:

Well, you know, there’s a gadget for everything. Now the obvious question was whether the users think that they’re learning while they listen to podcasts or iTunes U resources. Here’s what Laura had to say:

Laura Chennery:

Yes I do think I’m learning. I do think I’m learning by listening to iTunes materials, because often they’re about contemporary topics. I feel often that they’re more contemporary relevant whereas sometimes when you’re using text books or work books that, this is just language actually, especially Spanish and German, they can often be a little bit outdated. A lot of the most interesting podcasts I listen to with Spanish and German are often news-related, so they’re about what’s happening in the world today, so you learn a lot of contemporary vocabulary, a lot of contemporary structures and by the same token you’re also learning about what Spanish and German people are actually talking about themselves, so it does help, I think it helps your speaking ability because it helps you to speak about topics that are important on that day or that week or that year.

Fernando:

I asked Laura whether she thinks of iTunes U materials as learning materials or more like infotainment, like you would watch a documentary on TV because it catches your eye rather than because you have a special interest in the subject:

Laura Chennery:

I don’t think that learning and entertainment are necessarily mutually exclusive in that I think you can listen to podcasts or iTunes U broadcasts and gain a lot of personal satisfaction from learning but also you can be entertained by them at the same time. I get a lot of personal satisfaction in my free time from learning; so therefore, yes I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.

Interviewer:

It’s very interesting to hear directly from people who use iTunes U for learning. Did they mention anything else they use the materials for?

Fernando:

Well we heard earlier from the practitioners and the people who make decisions about iTunes U content and one of the things they talked about was the fact that iTunes U helps to put their university brand out there. I think many people will definitely be attracted to content from big-name universities, but interestingly, when I asked Jennifer if the name of the institution that provides the resources is a factor in deciding to download their podcasts, she wasn’t that bothered.

Jennifer Beard:

I’ve never really paid an awful lot of attention to the institutions that were providing the materials that I was downloading from iTunes U, it’s not something that was a deciding factor for me when I was looking for materials, it was more the quality of the materials once I’d downloaded them and how closely the topics related to those I was trying to learn about.

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