Underwhelmed by iTunes U

Locked in at Apple
Used courtesy of -t- [formerly dtc]

Can I just say how unimpressed I was with the demonstration of iTunes U we had yesterday. In short, iTunes U offers universities a free, mildly customizable space on the iTunes client that allows students and faculty to upload and access digital content such as podcasts, vodcasts, etc. The organizing logic is that iTunes U does the aggregation for the university and offers a half terrabyte of storage space. But are either of these elements necessarily unique given the tools we already have at our disposal? I mean what can iTunes U do that a WordPress install with PodPress and a few aggregation plugins cannot? Hey, Drupal might even be able to handle this one without too much fuss. And guess what, unlike iTunes, these applications are web-based and provide easily accessible RSS feeds. A few things irk me about the iTunes U package:

  • The assumption that “everyone” is doing it. In Virginia it seems like UVa, William & Mary, VCU, Radford, Va Tech, and many more have jumped on the bus. Why are they doing it? It could be because they haven’t been playing with more sophisticated, web-based options for media-casting, aggregating, and customizing their own space with free, open source applications that have easily accessible RSS feeds built in. No buried feeds to dig out as Jon Udell pointed out over a year ago here.
  • iLife quickly becomes the defacto means for authoring and importing multimedia into iTunes U -namely because it just works. How many students and professors have MACs? The figure is far less than PCs, and I would venture a guess that it is fewer than 10%. So you sell iLife during these presentations in order to sell MACs. No need to sell iTunes U (that’s “free”), you just sell an OS (which you can’t load on a PC legally) and its programs to make the whole thing work without a hitch. Questionable.
  • Finally, I’ll echo Gardner’s sentiment from last year which brilliantly traces how Apple is really trying to create a situation of “vendor lock-in” by providing a branded digital management system that offers little beyond a customizable homepage for selling their products. All this under the assumption that what they are doing is somehow philanthropic. How is it philanthropic? They are giving you a program that they have already designed which costs them nothing, they throw in some storage space (which is cheap and plentiful) in the hopes that every student every where will be getting their music, TV shows, videos, texts, etc. through iTunes. Not exactly OLPC, now is it?

So whether or not we go ahead with iTunes U -and I see no compelling reason why we should- it will have little, if any, impact on the work I do at UMW. Not only is iTunes a less than intuitive program to begin with, but it’s primarily a product and a brand, and I think we have had enough of them on campuses throughout the US over the last 10 years. I think it’s time to introduce applications more concerned with open, accessible, and easily re-purposed content, rather than cornering market share and selling units. In my opinion, what we are doing at UMW is a movement, it ain’t a mall!

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14 Responses to Underwhelmed by iTunes U

  1. Chris Lott says:

    We had pretty much the same experience with iTunes U. It looked interesting then we were distinctly underwhelmed. The only real benefits are easily replicated using open tools and retaining more direct control of content, right down to appearing in the iTunes store…

  2. jimgroom says:


    I think even a year ago it may have been a bit more compelling, perhaps not much, but a bit. But with the strides so many of the open source applications have taken for integrating and aggregating media from all around the web it just seems like a deal for product branding without any real benefits.

  3. Steve says:


    Tell us what you *really* think! 😉

  4. I agree, and add: what an asocial tool iTunes is. How do you connect with a podcast creator through it? Wait for someone to do an enhanced podcast (and leave the mp3 universal standard behind), and hope they’ve done a URL in there, and wait for it to appear?
    Compare with blogging, for instance.

    But, that said, many people in our podcasting classes really like iTunes. The explicit reasons:
    1) Mac users, of course, already enmeshed.
    2) Ease of podcast search and discovery.
    Implicit, too, is a sometimes love of shopping, which is gratified by the mall-ish iTunes interface.

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  6. Joel G. says:

    iTunes is obviously nicely integrated with macs and garageband which makes podacsting pretty easy, but like others say here, tools exist now that perhaps weren’t there at first–and ipodcasting is just not that hard (technically) to do anymore regardless of platform. (new podcasters might consider whether they have interesting to say-before casting.)

    I use an open-source, cross-platform tool called “Juice” (juicereceiver.sourceforge.net to manage my podcast downloads (I don’t do that many). I still think plain old RSS and blogs should do the trick nicely for most of us. The abililty to control the playback speed of podcasts is critical for me, and Itunes disables this feature of quicktime in their interface, forcing me to open all my podcasts in an external QT player anyway…and when will they start acknowledging in their interface that all audio is not a “song”–grrr.

    Of course the other aspect that bothers me about Podcasts in general–regardless of platform or tool, is that so many of them place learners back into passive, learn-from-a-lecture mode. It’s fine and fun for driving down the road or sitting at a bus stop, but it doesnt elicit the type of engagement we often seek for our learners. Compare that to video/audio that can be annotated, shared, recorded, tagged, uploaded, recorded, searched, blogged about, commented on, discussed –all from the same interface! (www.viddler.com).

    Now that is some impressive interface and web 2.0 app for temporal media!(audio and video) Go check it out. So, maybe for now it can’t be downloaded to an iPod, but even here, converter tools already exist to do that (online.movavi.com/). I think Viddler, and tools with similar affordances, is a perfact app for the next generation, web-enabed mobile devices (i.e. iPhone, Nokia N95, Nokia N800 etc.)

    I’m glad to see there are those with similar feelings. It can at times be like walking into a proverbial minefield when one dares criticize anything made by Apple.
    -Joel G.

  7. jimgroom says:


    The relationship between notion of an asocial tool and the mall-like nature of iTunes are directly related in my mind. It is a matter of packaging the product for a consumer, rather than framing a series of relationship around the ideas within it. A recent article in Campus Technology about the lack of any “inherent” educational value of podcasts. I don’t necessarily disagree with this “finding,” although I think framing it as an issue with podcasts and not every single technology related to teaching (including something as seemingly germane as the book) is specious. Fact is, teaching and learning is not about inherent values, but socially created meaning struggled over in a series of discussions, conversations, and contexts. Saying podcasts have no inherent meaning is straw man to attack a technology that is only as good as its relationship to a relevant social framing of the issues. iTunes goes a long way towards mystifying the social relations, and for that it is less than an ideal teaching and learning tool. Thanks for the comment, and I hope you can forgive my propensity to turn every response to a comment another post 🙂


    Thanks for the tip on Juice, I am going to have to play with that. PodPress has category feeds that basically do the same thing as iTunes for a WordPress blog, with out all the branding 🙂 I would be particularly interested to know how a huge system like PSU deals with this issue, for here at UMW we have about 4000 students and we can find alternatives relatively easily because we are smaller and a bit more limber. Yet with 80,000 some odd students that may be impossible, scale is always the way to explain away and exonerate the negative implications of a “mall-like atmosphere” (to quote Bryan above0 and I was wondering whether or not you guys could even consider an open source alternative via blogs, CMSs, etc. given the number of students you serve?

    Thanks for the comment Joel, and I have to say that instructional design and technology at PSU more generally has been a leading force in so many of these areas, so as always we look forward to more!

  8. How hard is it to have social construction, social conversation, when using asocial tools?

    @joel – agreed about the dangers of Mac crit. But that can also be link goodness. 🙂

    Unrelated – we all need to watch Teorema about once a year. I should set up a daily Pasolini feed.

  9. angie says:

    Here is information to consider….

    About WordPress

    WordPress.com is a service run by the people of Automattic. WordPress.com hosts and maintains blogs, zillions of people create blogs there and the people at Automattic keep it running smoothly. Recently WordPress broke 10 million page views. Not quite a zillion! You can read about that here….. http://barry.wordpress.com/ but the fairly high technical barriers have been removed and you can sign up, create an account and start blogging in minutes.

    WordPress.org WordPress is an open source blogging tool that is basically, a non-hosted blog application…or platform.

    For my site I use WordPress as my blogging tool and my host is Bluehost. I have to have a host, because I will be postcasting. The space is limited on WordPress.com. Media files take up server space. I will be using the Podpress plugin and as soon as I get the time in my busy life…but I can set iTunes specific settings in Podpres to deliver my feed to iTunes… Anywho…I will use iTunes as my Podcast client.

    Thoughts on the iTunes

    I agree that some people might find it a challenge to learn the iTunes interface. But it is the most popular digital media player and Podcast Client probably in the world. It does work well on mac and pc…not sure about Linux.

    It is a free download….you can download National Geographic Video Shorts, National Geographic Atmospheres, and National Geographic Wild Chronicles….all for free…and National Public Radio is there…..UEFA vodcast are there…NASA has vodcasts about planets and more…. (think Astro), Epicurious has vodcast cooking demos all for free…there are so many podcasts available…it is amazing!

    I don’t think there is another podcast client out there…at this point that can provide the amount of quality podcasts that iTunes provides…

    Kyle, my son, and I watch Wild Chronicles and UEFA casts…and we talk about them. AC Milan has a futeball (soccer) skills set of video podcast episodes to learn skills from the best and brightest coaches that Italy has to offer…..for free.

    iTunes provides a link to the podcast site…right in the interface where the podcast is…so you can easily access the main site.

    and the iTunes store…sure it’s commercial…but why criticise? It does provide OODLES of free content.

    Podcasts at PSU

    And then there are kids out there developing their own podcasts about Solar Cars, Static Electricity, Switches….all can be tagged annotated and discussed…..at their blog…they use iTunes as their podcast client…but you can also watch their podcast at this url
    http://podcasts.psu.edu/taxonomy/term/63 And….there is so much more that is happening…if you visit this site…browse the content.

    I am so enthusiastic about what I mentioned….there are SO many possibilities. Remember what iTunes (and iTunesU) is in addition to being a digital media player…..a podcast client….

  10. jimgroom says:


    Sorry to respond so late, and thanks for the comment here. I agree with you on so many counts, in fact iTunes as a podcast client is not necessarily problematic for me. And if we had a whole bunch of professors churning out podcasts I think iTunesU would seem like a more palatable corporate branding solution for our university. But the fact is that with the tools you mentioned above (like podpress for WordPress, as one example) -the means to both publish your podcast on your own blog, web page, etc., and feed it out to iTunes becomes relatively seamless without iTunes U. What’s more, you don’t have to store your content on an iTunes server, you have more control over the RSS feed, and you can still make everything available via the most popular podcast client.

    My major concerns are the following: the lack of social elements in Itunes U; the local client-based nature of the service (rather than web-based); and more than anything the assumed necessity of such a service -which I personally think may be more of a reactionary band wagoning process then a real thoughtful consideration of school’s needs. For example, PSU (with their 80,000+ students) could have 800 podcasts if even just a small fraction of students and professors were utilizing this technology. UMW has less than 4,000 students making a similar ratio about 40 podcasts. Do we need iTunes U for 40 podcasts? Probably not, moreover by making such a deal we invite the marketing, branding and “sales package” approach of iTunes U on campus for a service that is well under utilized and seemingly unnecessary. It is Apple’s way into the growing market of digital malls on campus -which is fine 🙁 To Apple’s credit they pioneered this business model with iTunes and it has been a raging success -but it really doesn’t make it inherently good or useful as a teaching and learning tool. A majority of our students will probably use iTunes for purchasing digital music, tv shows, etc., whether we go with iTunes U or not given the ubiquity of the iPod. So my question is -do we really need to brand our logo with theirs to make this relationship somehow more official? And, if so, why?

    In fact, I hope universities are thinking of some more strategic long term Digital Asset Management and archival solutions than those offered by iTunes U, for if they aren’t the “easy way everyone is doing” may come back and bite them in the Apple later on.

  11. David Mulder says:

    What I’m about to say probably has very little to do with why lecturers and faculty staff put hours and hours into creating online content, but the main advantage of iTunes U for me is convenience.

    I’m not a student and I live in China, so it is a little hard for me to get to an UMW or MIT lecture in a typical day. iTunes U brings together fantastic content in a relatively easy-to-navigate form and is 5 clicks away from my desktop.

    For me iTunes U brings content that is normally hard to access together in one place. Is it a good way to deliver teaching material to students in the course? Probably not, from what has already been posted. Is it a good way for me to expand my knowledge base and pursue some of my more esoteric interests? Absolutely.

    One final point: as a university student, I made every effort I possibly could to go to lectures in person. I don’t think any technological solution will ever replace the immediacy of sitting in a lecture theatre. Being able to discuss the topic with other students (the ones who care about the subject, that is) and ask the lecturer questions are important, but I think it is more about making a conscious decision to focus on the subject exclusively for the duration of the class. It is too tempting to do other things while listening to a podcast, too easy to get distracted and kid oneself about how much one is actually getting out of it.

  12. cunysl says:

    As anyione who is remotely connected with rich media in teaching and learning in higher education knows, the challenge for integrating audio and video into the classroom is a complex undertaking. iTunes U, for what it is, can be an excellent platform from which to launch and integrate rich media into the teaching and learning experience. A couple of points:

    1. 500GB is nothing to turn one’s nose up at
    2. iTunes U and the iTunes application are a potent combination for providing student and faculty access to media, sharing media, etc.
    3. iTunes U has a rich web services subsystem that begs institutions to integrate the platform with their campus learning management and other systems. (Take a look at the flexible and feature-rich way that Vanderbilt University’s building block (“plug-in”) integrates iTunes U and Blackboard.
    4. Media creation is not limited to Apple product, and there’s nothing about iTunes U besides the branding, that screams Apple at you or demands that you use apple products.


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