The End of the Line for iTunes U?

Apple’s app for sharing university lectures was an important precursor to the MOOC movement, but the future of iTunes U doesn’t look bright.

June 12, 2019
 

Many critics weighed in earlier this month when tech giant Apple announced it was dismantling its iconic iTunes music platform and replacing it with separate apps for music, podcasts and video.

In numerous articles reflecting on the legacy of iTunes, they remarked on how the software became bloated and suffered from poor user design. But they also acknowledged the pivotal role iTunes played in shaping the music industry by changing the way consumers bought and listened to music.

Largely absent from the discussions, however, was the central role iTunes played in opening up higher education to the public.

“ITunes U was the predecessor to massive open online courses in a lot of ways,” said Phil Hill, partner at MindWires Consulting and publisher of the Phil on Ed Tech blog. “I think it had a huge influence. That mentality of creating free content for the public had an enormous impact.”

ITunes U was launched in 2007 as a dedicated area within the iTunes Store where users could find free educational content from universities such as Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; Duke University; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The content included course lectures, language lessons, lab demonstrations, sports highlights and campus tours in audio, video or ebook format.

Hundreds of universities around the world embraced the opportunity to share their content, uploading hundreds of thousands of courses that were downloaded millions of times. In particular, Stanford University’s iPhone Application Programming course was hugely popular, reaching one million downloads in under seven weeks in 2009.

Universities could have easily shared their course materials on a blog, but what iTunes U did was put university content on a platform that millions of people were already using, Hill said.

“It made it easy to access, download and browse,” he said.

In 2012, Apple launched a stand-alone iTunes U app with new features enabling instructors to offer full courses to students, complete with homework assignments and quizzes. The app, primarily aimed at teachers in K-12, promised a new learning experience for students with iPhones, iPads or iPod Touches.

 

 

For many years, iTunes U content continued to be accessible on desktop computers through iTunes. But in 2017, that changed. Apple eliminated the iTunes U section of iTunes, making full courses accessible only through the iTunes U app on Apple mobile devices. At the same time, Apple moved stand-alone lectures and content in iTunes U that didn’t make up full courses, known as collections, to the Apple Podcasts app.

In moving stand-alone lectures to Apple Podcasts, it’s possible Apple was trying to make the content more discoverable to a general audience at a time when podcasts were surging in popularity. But the changes had the effect of restricting access to iTunes U courses and collections to Apple device owners, Hill said.

“I think they knew two years ago that the changes to iTunes were coming,” he said. Moving audio from iTunes U to Apple Podcasts is a reflection of that, he said. There was a road map for iTunes that Apple was following, and iTunes U became "collateral damage," Hill said. By restricting access to iTunes U content, Apple sent a message to institutions that it doesn’t make sense to continue uploading content there.

“I think it was an elegant way to wind it down. It’s been a two-year end-of-life process," he said.

The iTunes U app has not undergone any significant updates in two years. Hill said he'd be "really surprised" if Apple spent time and money improving it.

"I think they're shutting it down, but not publicizing they're shutting it down," he said. Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

Hill said Apple's overall focus seemed to be on training students to create Apple applications and improve their coding skills, rather than helping institutions share their knowledge with the world.

Tom Evans, program manager for open learning at Ohio State University, manages the institution’s iTunes U courses. He’s wondering what will happen to the app in the wake of the iTunes announcement and hasn't heard anything from the company about their plans.

The app still works, but the lack of recent technical updates is concerning, he said. "Where are they taking this?"

 

 

Ohio State started sharing courses on iTunes U in 2012, amassing 1.4 million subscriptions.

“It’s been heavily used over the years, but from 2012 to now, it’s definitely trending downward. There’s been a gentle decline in usage,” Evans said.

The university currently has 87 courses on iTunes U, 57 of which are open to the public. Evans isn’t sure if the courses that are not open to the public are still being actively used. The public courses continue to get subscribers, but fewer than before. Over the last six months, the public courses have averaged 7,500 new subscriptions per month, he said.

“We haven’t added any new courses since 2017,” he said. He explained iTunes U is now described to faculty members as an additional platform from which they can share their work, rather than a primary distribution center. Evans is already thinking about how to archive the content on iTunes U and share it on other platforms.

“It could be a lengthy process,” he said. “My hope is that Apple would give us lots of notice so we have plenty of time.”

Chuck Pearson, associate professor of natural sciences at Tusculum University, in Greeneville, Tenn., is a longtime user of iTunes U.

Pearson has worked at various small institutions and has been called on to teach a wide range of courses, from molecular and cellular biology to courses in chemistry, physics and math. He uses iTunes U to see how other instructors are teaching these courses, noting how they present ideas and develop them over time.

“I have my own picture of how I should be presenting content, but it’s useful to sit back and listen to how someone else does it,” he said. “It’s been incredibly valuable to me.”

Still, Pearson said the app appears to have been “neglected” by Apple. It has become more difficult to find lectures that are up-to-date, and in some cases, content appears to have disappeared.

Pearson wishes Apple would be more transparent about its plans for the app.

“They don’t communicate a lot of this stuff,” he said.

Pearson never taught with the app because he was wary of course materials he creates becoming trapped in a “walled garden.” Using the app would also require all his students to have Apple devices, which they don’t, he said.

By making lectures available to the public for free, Apple changed higher education -- shaping the way students and instructors think about tech in the classroom and making content accessible, Pearson said. As an example, he cited a 2004 experiment by Duke University, in which first-year students were given iPods loaded with lectures and information about the university.

“At the time, a lot of us thought this was nuts,” he said. “We didn’t understand how they were going to use this tiny thing to teach. I think they saw something we didn’t see.”

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