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iTunes U as a teaching and learning tool: The learner's view

Updated Wednesday 29th October 2014

The results from a major survey into how learners use iTunes U are presented and discussed in this podcast. 

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Interviewer:

So we’ve talked about the concept of iTunes U and the people upload all their materials there. But what about the users? Who is downloading podcasts from iTunes U? And why are they doing it?

Fernando:

Those are the key questions and you get very different answers depending on who you ask. When podcasting became popular, lots of researchers became interested in how it could be used for educational purposes. People quickly identified that podcasting was a convenient and easy to use format. They hypothesised that it would be attractive or “cool” for students, motivating (you know, that it wouldn’t “feel like studying”). They also pointed out that the technology made podcasts easy to access, and that for educational providers it would be good value for money, as podcasts are relatively cheap to produce, and it would give those institutions that provided them good publicity and face value, so they would be seen as using the latest technology. The other big thing was portability. The idea was that you’d carry a university in your pocket, and that you could access learning anytime and anywhere.

Interviewer:

And did all this potential actually turn out to be true?

Fernando:

Well, that’s the thing. It depends on the context. Researchers started to look at what their students were actually doing with the podcasts and the results were somewhat different from what they’d imagined. They found that learners liked using iPods for learning and found them convenient and attractive, but there was no certainty about whether this was just the novelty factor. Another thing that the research found was that listening to educational podcasts was perceived as an academic activity, and that students who took part in the research were not transferring the mp3s to their mobile devices; instead they listened at their computer. All this looked like some of the potential benefits that had been identified, such as the fact that it wouldn’t feel like studying or that podcasting enabled people to listen on the move, were not so. However, if you look closely at the research projects that found these results, you find that the vast majority were carried out by teachers using their own groups of learners and distributing the podcasts through their university’s virtual learning environments (or VLEs). So, when you think about it it’s hardly surprising that students perceived listening activity as an academic activity. If you’re told by your teacher to listen to something, you’re hardly going to perceive it as something non-academic. Also, because the students who took part had to download the podcasts from their VLE on their computers, it makes sense that’s where they listened.

I’m not saying that all that research isn’t valid, just that the results tended to be generalised to all types of podcasting and I think they applied only to the context of teachers providing their own students with podcasts. With iTunes podcasts, and iTunes U in particular, the context is completely different. Presumably, these are being “consumed” by the general public, people who don’t have a teacher telling them what to do.

Interviewer:

and that’s where your research comes in.

Fernando

That’s right. I knew that iTunes U was fantastically successful, generating all these millions of downloads, but realised that we actually don’t know much about the iTunes U learner. The three main questions I wanted to answer were: who downloads podcasts from iTunes U? What do they do with the podcasts? And what do they think of them?

Interviewer:

So how did you find the answers to these questions?

Fernando:

I set up a research study based on iTunes U here at the Open University. Basically, we placed a link to a survey I’d put together on every iTunes U at the OU page, including its home page. So everyone who went to our iTunes U collections would see a link that said “take our survey”.

Interviewer:

and how many people took part?

Fernando:

Over 2000, which is a great number or respondents.

Interviewer:

Yeah it is. And what did the results show?

Fernando:

Quite a lot. I won’t go on about everything because it would take me hours, and I’ve written some academic papers where you can find all the details. But basically the profile of the iTunes U learner is quite different from the university students who took part in previous research. For starters, they’re older. About 60% of the respondents were between 25 and 54. I guess I was surprised by this because previous research participants had been much younger. And also because I associated podcasting with young people, who are the ones you see on the street with their iPods or their iPhones. In fact only just over 1% of the respondents were under 15 and only about 6% were 15 to 18. People also tend to associate new technologies and “geeky stuff” with men, and there were indeed more men than women among participants. It wasn’t a huge difference – 56% men – but considering that there tend to be more women than men enrolled on university courses nowadays, it sort of confirmed that podcasting attracts more men than women. This may not be the case for much longer, though, because when you look at gender and age together, it shows that in the older age brackets there are more men than women, whereas among the younger users females outnumber males.

Interviewer:

And what else?

Fernando:

Well, another thing that’s quite different is that around 60% of the people who took part in the survey are employed, and less than 20% are students, and in the previous studies carried out, all the participants were students.

Interviewer:

So iTunes U podcasts have quite a broad audience.

Fernando:

It looks that way.

Interviewer:

You said you also wanted to know what they do with the podcasts.

Fernando:

Yes. First, though, I asked participants why they’re interested in the podcasts they download. Only 17% said that it was because these podcasts are relevant to their current studies, about 11% listen because the podcasts are relevant to their profession, and the rest, which is over 70%, do it because of personal interest. This confirms that most people are not students, but part of the general public who are interested in learning.

Interviewer:

Right

Fernando:

When it comes to what they do with the podcasts, over half the people who responded to the survey listen on a portable device: their mp3 player or their phone. And when I asked if listening to the podcasts is something they do as an activity they set time aside for or if it’s something they do as part of another activity, just around 60% say that they listen whilst doing something else, such as commuting or exercising. This is very different from previous research, and it shows that for most people listening is not an academic activity and that podcasting can be considered a mobile technology after all. So the university is in your pocket.

Interviewer:

So your findings are very different from what other researchers had found.

Fernando:

Yes, and once again I think it’s all to do with context of where you find these podcasts and why you’re listening.

Interviewer:

so what did the listeners think of the iTunes U podcasts then?

Fernando:

We had a very positive response. The participants rated the quality of the iTunes U podcasts very highly, and over 97% said that the podcasts are helping them learn about the subjects they are interested in. This is fantastic and of course it means that what universities are doing, putting their materials out there for people to find, is very worthwhile.

Interviewer:

But your research is only based at the Open University. Would the audience from other universities be the same?

Fernando:

You’re right. This is only the data from one university, and a distance university at that. But I’m fairly confident that this profile probably fits a lot of the users of iTunes U resources from other universities.

Interviewer:

Why?

Fernando:

Well, as we mentioned earlier, iTunes U is used by universities in 2 ways. They use it to deliver materials to their own students, in which case the profile will be similar to that of previous research. But they also let the general public access a lot of these resources. And my research applies to that type of user, the “general public” who is not enrolled on a course with a university, just curious to learn. And in that case I don’t think it matters which university they download podcasts from. They just pick and choose what’s of interest. So that’s why I think my results will apply to that kind of user regardless of where the research was carried out.

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