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iTunes U as a teaching and learning tool: The stakeholders

Updated Wednesday 29th October 2014

Key stakeholders from universities that offer iTunes U materials discuss their reasons for adding content, their expectations and evaluate their involvement.

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Interviewer:

So we’re just talking about podcasting in general, but of course when Apple released iTunes U it became this huge platform for educational podcasts.

Fernando:

Yes. So suddenly it wasn’t just enthusiastic teachers and techies who were uploading teaching content, but institutions got behind the initiative, and they put in the money for good equipment and resources. They convinced people who possibly wouldn’t have wanted to broadcast their lectures to do so, and they made it easy for them. And these were big name universities too, like we mentioned earlier: MIT, Yale, Oxford… Early in 2013 iTunes U reached its billionth download, which is just incredible.

Interviewer:

It is, it’s an amazing figure. But why though? What do these universities have to gain by putting their materials on iTunes U?

Fernando:

That’s a question that I also asked myself. To answer it I spoke to a number of people about it. I wanted to speak to someone from one of the best known universities in the world and one that is very successful on iTunes U, so I spoke to Melissa Highton. She is the Director of Academic IT Services at Oxford University and the Senior Manager for Oxford contributions to iTunes U. Here’s what she had to say:

Melissa Highton:

iTunes U is a very large global brand and has an enormous marketing power behind it, marketing operation behind it, and Apple is a very well know brand and we were very happy to put the Oxford brand into iTunes U next to the Apple brand and next to the other universities who had put their material there and it’s been a very positive activity for Oxford University, we’ve enjoyed it and benefitted from it very much. The University of Oxford has a number of business aims, one is to attract the best possible students and staff to come and join our organisation and having a global presence and the kind of reach that iTunes U offers means that those people all over the world will find out what Oxford is like and perhaps come and join us. We also have a strategic mission to disseminate the research that we produce, to make sure that people understand and know about what’s going on, particularly publicly-funded research and publicly-funded education. We have an interest in making sure that that is accessible and open to everybody to see what’s going on at Oxford.

Fernando:

I also wanted the view from a university who didn’t join iTunes U straight away when it was launched but waited until later to do so. The University of Leicester joined iTunes U in 2013 so I spoke to Terese Bird. She’s a Learner Technologist there and works with the “Beyond distance” Research Alliance, which is a small group researching teaching and research Innovations. She’s been leading the development of iTunes U materials for the university.

Terese Bird:

The University of Leicester’s interest in iTunes U actually started about 2 years ago with our first work in Open Educational Resources. We launched a small repository of open educational resources comprised of really great materials from departments across the campus and it was out of that project that we began to realise there is this other channel, this iTunes U channel, and this wasn’t too long after the Open University launched their iTunes U presence and we could see all the exciting stuff that was going on there and we realised, if we’re serious about sharing our materials with the world, we need to make use of this platform and at the same time our marketing people could just see that angle on iTunes U that it just purely shows off our material well, but academics also could see that there was great possibility for learning.

Fernando:

Terese saw the delay in joining iTunes U as an advantage from their point of view:

Terese Bird:

We had the advantage of being able to learn from the other universities who have gone before us in launching their iTunes U sites and we could see that everybody does it in a different way. Everyone offers materials that are sort of particular to what they can handle, to their expertise, to their capacity and we realise that if we are going to do this, we’ve got to figure out a way of doing iTunes U that is right for University of Leicester, a way that we can sustain it, so sort of learning from the strengths of others and finding what are the strengths that we can maximise for ourselves.

Fernando:

And of course I wanted to speak to people from The Open University. As you know, here at the OU we are one of the most successful iTunes U sites in the world in terms of downloads. In early 2013 we reached 60 million, so even though it’s my “home” institution I think the OU is a very good example of a successful provider. I spoke to Martin Bean, our vice-chancellor, and asked him why the OU joined iTunes U:

Martin Bean:

Just like Apple, The Open University has always been open to new ideas and ways of working. As I look back on our 40 plus years of history, we’ve always exploited the technology of the day, TV, video, DVD… and the internet is just an important part of what we do now, we’ve just embraced it, the way we’ve embraced every other piece of technology along the way and iTunes for us was the next logical step in that process: a hugely popular and easily-accessible way to deliver content directly to students around the world. It was just a natural fit for us in our ever increasing desire to open up education; to work with Apple and iTunes in iTunes University and of course for us having a presence on such a high-profile portal benefits our students who gain access to world class academic content and it benefits the university by raising our profile in the UK and throughout the world.

Fernando:

I also spoke to Andrew Law, who is the director of Open Media here at the Open University:

Andrew Law:

We’d worked with the BBC for over 40 years in terms of distributing free public educational content and suddenly there was this major opportunity to work with another major worldwide brand to release what was a really very rich back catalogue of content into the public domain with unknown consequences, some risks, but some real possibilities there and that’s the kind of disruptive thing the Open University likes as long as it understands what some of those risks are, there was definitely an opportunity that could be explored here at relatively low cost compared to some of the other operations that we were involved in and so I think the team in the Knowledge Media Institute and the Learning and Teaching Solutions brought together incredibly rapidly a very large amount of material, a really expertly arranged, quality-assured and delivered on to that platform and within weeks it became apparent that (a) we were a substantial player in a world of other universities that we would never usually have been recognised including major Ivy League and Russell Group universities, working alongside a high-quality brand halo apple organisation that couldn’t feel like it would does us any harm and getting really vast and growing numbers of downloads.

Interviewer:

So the universities are benefitting from brand recognition and are being seen to provide open access education.

Fernando:

That’s right, and I guess that’s what makes it worth their while. Now after they’d talked about why their universities had joined, the obvious question I put to the people I’d spoken to was whether those aims had been achieved. Here’s Melissa Highton.

Melissa Highton:

We know that the material from Oxford University that’s in iTunes U is very popular, we know that we’ve had nearly twenty million downloads and we know that those downloads are coming from more than 100 countries. So we certainly know that we’re reaching a worldwide audience. We also know that many of the students who join the institution have listened to the podcasts before they arrive, whether they’ve made the decision to come to Oxford based on that I’m not sure, but we do a survey of freshers once they’re in the university and many of them say that they have enjoyed and listened to podcasts before they come. They say that they’ve listened to introductory materials and they say that they have searched for podcasts in their subject.

Fernando:

Martin Bean told me about how much further than expected the project has gone:

Martin Bean:

When I look back and I think about what our original ambitions were for iTunes U and I now look at what we’ve achieved; boy it’s a classic example of ‘we needed to raise our aspirations’. So you know, we’ve absolutely succeeded in reaching new audiences, each year around 40 thousand downloaders go on to visit the Open University to find out more about our qualifications and other free learning resources and potentially going on to becoming an enrolled student with us and we’re now known in places where we’ve never had any presence before and students are able to get a taste of what we’re all about, before that twinkle in their eye says that maybe they want to come and study with us more formally. So the University gains, students gain, communities gain and I think that’s just something we never would have dreamed could have happened at the scale that it’s happened when we first started working with iTunes U.

Fernando:

And Andrew Law highlighted how iTunes U has changed the way The Open University is perceived in many areas.

ANDREW LAW:

So there was a wide range of objectives to do with brand, to do with audience impact, to do with possible new business models, to do with new markets that we might reach, to do with potentially disrupting the way that we think about teaching and learning in the university, and I think there has been an impact on all of those during this period, some more than others. We would not have expected, I think, to be sitting consistently above Cambridge and Oxford, and Stanford and MIT in that brand space. And we are now the university of iPhone (and iPad) is an interesting shift of perspective and I think that has had a significant and will continue to have a significant impact on our brand.

Interviewer:

So what do these universities think has been the key to their success on iTunes U?

Fernando:

Well Melissa attributed the success of Oxford University on iTunes U to the general interest that the university generates.

Melissa Highton:

I think that Oxford has a global brand and people have heard of Oxford University and people are very interested to know what goes on at Oxford University. I think traditionally it has been seen perhaps as a very closed and mysterious institution and making the step of putting our materials in this very public way has met a need; there is an interest for it. So it has been very successful for us in meeting a range of business priorities across the institution that we want to disseminate our research all over the world and to attract people who are interested in the organisation.

Fernando:

Martin Bean thought it had to do with The Open University’s tradition of teaching at a distance:

Martin Bean:

I think the Open University is so successful inside iTunes U, because we’ve had 40 years plus getting it right. We know how to produce breath-taking content that works well at a distance. We know how to inspire and engage students when they’re not in the same room as us. And along comes iTunes University and where other universities had to struggle to begin with, because for them it was ‘Oh my goodness, how do we take what happens in a lecture room or in a tutorial room and somehow bring it to the web; for us it was the most seamless and natural thing in the world, if anything it just gave us a megaphone of education; to just take what we’re already doing and blow it out to a completely different set of audiences and I think that experience shines through.

Fernando:

But iTunes U is not the only online platform that these universities are having a great impact on. Martin Bean also talked about the success of the OU on YouTube:

Martin Bean:

It’s important I think, as you look at the landscape that we realise that iTunes is just one of many of the channels that we’ve mastered, you know I do like to think of them as the great new megaphones of learning and our own OpenLearn site is also hugely successful and we’ve also embraced other environments like YouTube where we’re now the most popular university in Europe in that channel.

Fernando:

Melissa also discussed other channels:

Melissa Highton:

We probably get more traffic through iTunes U than we do from our local site, but the use of our local site is increasing as more and more material is added and as we promote a range of material, not just audio and video, so we have a lot of open educational resources that are text and e-books and images and essays and blog posts, so more activity is going on on our website now. So not everybody wants to use iTunes U to find material, but I think that the largest number of downloads is probably still coming from iTunes U, but the number of local downloads is increasing also.

Interviewer:

So how do they get their lecturers to share their materials online? I‘d imagine that there’s some degree of reluctance.

Fernando:

So would I. In fact a lot of the early research into podcasting looked into this. Academics were worried that if they put their lectures online then students might not attend their lessons. But it’s not really the case, as research from Leicester University has found. I asked Melissa about whether she’d had to twist people’s arms to get them to agree for their lectures to go on iTunes U.

Melissa Highton:

I haven’t had to fight staff on this; no. I think that Oxford colleagues are very generous in what they are prepared to release; they know that people would want to use and re-use their material and they are very welcoming of the idea that publicly-funded research and education should be shared and can be used by people in different settings.

Terese Bird:

I found that the academics were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about iTunes U, I didn’t have to do much convincing with anyone.

Fernando:

Terese Bird

Terese Bird:

I think most academics are enthusiastic about their subject and they would just love another platform to get the word out about their subject that they have such passion about and iTunes U seemed to, I don’t know, it seemed to be a kind of sexy platform that they thought would reach more people and it was an exciting opportunity and so people were very positive.

Interviewer:

And how about Apple themselves? What do they have to say about all this?

Fernando:

When iTunes U reached the one billionth download in February 2013, Apple released a statement from Eddy Cue, their senior vice-president of Internet Software and Services. He spoke about how inspiring it was to see what educators and students of all types are doing with iTunes U and highlighted the shift in the way we teach and learn.

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