Posted tagged ‘iTunes U’

So what are you in university for?

December 18, 2012

Why does a student go to university? Is it to pursue deep learning in the company of other committed students and brilliant faculty? Or is it to get the passport to a job, in the form of the degree parchment? As in a number of countries students are having to put their hands in their pockets to pay for their tuition, the question as to what exactly they want to buy is becoming more directly relevant. If the customer is paying and the customer is king, we had better give them what they want. Whatever that is.

One way in which this question is being thrown into relief is through the growth of online university courses that can be accessed fully for free. The latest initiative of this kind is Futurelearn, which is providing free online access to courses from 12 UK universities, including the Open University. Another similar initiative, Coursera, was launched earlier in the year, and according to its website it has over 2 million students taking courses from one or more of the 33 partner universities. Furthermore technology giant Apple has been pushing its iTunes U concept for a while, with some success – and it is now available through a special iPad app. Individual universities – such as MIT – have also got into the game.

So, if you can take the very best courses from the very best universities for free, why bother ‘going’ to university in the traditional sense? There are a several reasons, in fact, including the absence of a campus experience and real interaction with fellow participants in the educational journey. But another critical reason – the critical reason I would think – is that these programmes do not give you a degree.

As in so many other sectors of modern life, the internet is changing the assumptions of higher education, but it is not yet clear what is emerging at the other end. Clearly there are also business questions: if you are offering free access to courses, how is that being funded? And the answer generally is through advertising. But the biggest question is whether free online courses, without certification, can find a market, and more particularly whether they will destroy the existing ‘market’ for university degrees. Probably not, because the formal qualification is still the key objective for most. But if this gets more and more expensive, and the return on such an investment gets less obvious, some may begin to think again. But then, perhaps there is another model altogether, that combines technology-smart methods with employment-aware content, affordable cost and secure quality assurance, with a degree at the end. That may be the golden ticket.

It’s an interesting world in the digital age.

Why not just study for free?

December 20, 2011

As tuition fees rise across the developed world, often at a pace that significantly outstrips inflation, some are now predicting that the new trend will be to look for higher education remotely, for free. In fact for some time now universities have been making their course content available online. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) started the trend 10 years ago, and it now offers 200 courses on its MIT Open Courseware website. Not only can you get free access to programmes from Aeronautics to Writing and Humanistic Studies, but if you complete the online programme you can also get a certificate that you have done so successfully. So, why bother paying $40,732 (the standard MIT undergraduate tuition fee) when you can get the programme and a result for exactly $40,732 less, i.e. for nothing?

Other universities have similar offerings, and indeed there is Apple’s iTunes U that acts as broker of free higher education programmes offered by some of the world’s best universities.

How all this will go may depend a little on how higher education is able to present itself to communities across the world. On the whole, the assumption has been that university programmes have a value based not on their content or available expertise, but on the reputation of their qualifications. A Stanford University degree certificate gets you a better job, or at least a better prospect of one, than one awarded by, say, the University of Northampton. So what the institutions are ‘selling’ is the qualification. But what if society increasingly doesn’t see it that way, and if people come looking for knowledge (in other words, content), and employers for an assurance that this has been acquired (without worrying too much whether it involves a degree)? This will not necessarily mean that open courseware is suddenly all that is needed, but it may mean that the heavily controlled degree programme with its relatively inflexible pathways to a qualification and resulting professional success may lose value.

And if that happens, it may be worth pointing out that the whole funding edifice just created in England may fall apart, because the financial assumptions on which it is based will prove doubtful.

For higher education, these are interesting and unpredictable times.

Digital badges: the future of education?

October 5, 2011

With the rapid expansion of educational content on the internet, it has become easy for any interested person to gain access to some of the world’s best programmes of study. So for example iTunes U brings you free courses from the world’s leading universities, and elsewhere learned journals are publishing free access scholarly articles online. Knowledge is being democratised and opened up in a way that would have been unthinkable until very recently. The only thing still protecting ‘traditional’ universities is their monopoly of degree awarding powers. But is all this about to change?

Meet the ‘digital badge‘. This is essentially an electronic method of gaining recognition for activities undertaken, and skills or knowledge acquired. The intention of those promoting the concept is that digital badges will become recognised currency as a qualification. So will this be the ultimate modularisation, with people assembling their own programme of achievement and qualification? I suspect it is unlikely that digital badges will replace university degree qualifications for those who need the latter, but the informality and flexibility of the concept may potentially have an influence on how degree programmes are structured.

Universities are essentially the guardians of formal knowledge and structured inquiry. They will not lose their place in the field of education, but education itself will continue to change. Not all universities may find this transformation equally easy.

Going entirely online?

September 14, 2011

There is still nothing like a consensus around the role of and potential for online learning. While there are now possibly thousands of university programmes available for free online – including all those collected together through Apple’s iTunes U (which has now hit 600 million downloads) – and while universities and colleges across the world increasingly offer at least some of their programmes in online versions, most degree programmes are still delivered in a classroom setting, perhaps now supported by online materials.

But what will happen in the future? Some are now suggesting that online eduction will make campus-based programmes obsolete. I don’t take that view, in part because the classroom experience still has significant value and will, I suspect, continue to dominate the school-leaver higher education market. But there are some points worth noting:

  • the growth of online programmes or programme materials has brought in its train more serious reviews of pedagogy and learning methodologies (for online and classroom teaching) than had been in evidence for decades previously;
  • the availability of materials and sources has been significantly enhanced; but
  • there is a significant risk that some stakeholders, including governments, may believe that elearning can save money, whereas in reality it needs to be very well funded and supported; and
  • developing elearning is not the same thing as just putting previously used classroom materials online; and some courses may not work well online at all.

Finally, given the costs and the need to maintain the latest technology, I suspect that learning will work best when it is developed and delivered in collaboration between several providers.

A new direction for higher education?

July 10, 2010

If you want to learn something at a higher education level but don’t have the time, inclination or money to apply to a university, then you could do worse than head for iTunes and enter ‘iTunes U’ (you’ll find it at the lower left corner of the windows inside the iTunes store). Here you can download and study amazing subjects, generally for free. For example, one course I have just enjoyed is Art and Art History offered by Oakland University in Michigan. Next I am thinking about doing a course in DNA offered by Britain’s Open University.

In fact, the Open University has been a particular success story on iTunes U. Its portfolio there has now recorded more than 20 million downloads. Some of these are not necessarily advanced intellectual programmes – the most popular is, apparently, beginner’s French – but nevertheless the OU’s success shows that higher education is now reaching a target population by all sorts of unexpected ways. For many of those in universities the assumption still is that most of our customers want to do whatever they need to do in order to get a formal qualification. But we must be open to the reality that many just want to learn, and we must welcome this.

This, too, is another way in which the nature, purpose and methodology of higher education is changing, and changing fast. We need to ensure that we are part of this movement.

A *really* open university

October 18, 2009

Have you heard of iTunes U? Well, if you are interested in learning in innovative ways, you should have a look. You can read about it here, but the basic concept is that universities can upload content for distribution on iTunes, generally for free. You will need to have iTunes (which is also free), but that’s all. On the front page of the iTunes Store, scroll to the bottom where you will find a link to iTunes U, and after that you are right into the content. I have gone straight into the ‘Saturday Scholars’ programme of Notre Dame University, and am finding it really interesting. And very appropriately there is something from the UK’s Open University being featured there as well.

Right now what you find here is free content, much of it fairly random, that major institutions are making available on this platform. But of course the obvious question immediately is: might this be the future, or at least a future, of higher education? Could this be a platform for online accredited education, so that while today you may just be availing of interesting information and knowledge here, tomorrow you may be using this platform to get a BA (or whatever) degree.

Of course online elearning is hardly new, but what makes this interesting is that it is being promoted by the very market-savvy Apple Inc. Big university elearning initiatives have more often than not failed. But maybe this is different. If it is, we may of course get worried quickly about the dominant status of Apple in such an endeavour, but for now we might just look at the potential.

I remain of the view that the desire of people for a campus, classroom experience will continue to drive students into physical university spaces, though no doubt using more and more new technology while there. But there will always be some for whom that is not an ideal or possible choice, and for them this may be heralding a new framework. We’ll have to wait and see.


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