Smarten up for free with Apple's iTunes U app

Have you read Ernest Cline's novel, Ready Player One yet? It's a fun book that postulates a not too distant future where the real world has pretty much gone to heck but there's a cyberspace world, called Oasis — one part video game and one part virtual reality — where everyone goes to escape. The plot involves a big hunt for a hidden treasure but one of the aspects of Oasis that I found interesting was that there were schools in there. These schools mean kids can get an education no matter where they are, assuming they can get an Oasis connection (and WiFi connectivity is the one thing that hasn't gone down the tubes in the world described in the book). So our hero hides out all day in an abandoned van and attends school in cyberspace. How cool is that?

Yesterday Apple held a big announcement about the future of textbooks in electronic form. James Gaskin covered the event for ITworld so if you somehow missed the news you should read that first. As cool as interactive textbooks are, they don't really have much of an impact on me since I long ago left the scholastic system behind. The chance of me sitting down with a textbook to slog through is pretty slim.

The announcement that really caught my eye was the release of an iTunes U app for iOS devices. iTunes U lets you take high school and collegiate courses, for free. It's an awesome resource; finally Apple has released something that caused me to dust off my iPad and leave my Android tablet alone for a day.

I just had to test this out and because no sacrifice is too great for my readers, I decided to fire up a course called Intermediate Algebra, taught by Pamela Watkins of HACC (Harrisburg Area Community College). It's been a long time since I did any algebra but back in the day I kind of liked math so figured it'd come back to me.

So here's how it works. First you "subscribe" to the course you want to take. It downloads some framework files onto your iPad (or other iOS device). There are 4 tabs along the right side of the course framework, and Posts is where all the good stuff is.

In the case of Intermediate Algebra, the first post prompted me to download a "Meet the Teacher" file in which Ms. Watkins introduced herself, shared her teaching credentials and a picture of her dog (really). OK so we're trying to convey that she's a real person. Moving on...

The next post was labeled 1.1 Solving Linear Equations. Step 1 asked me to download and print out a handout. Downloading wasn't a problem but I don't have an iPad friendly printing solution. The good news is that when I tapped on the handout to open it (it was a PDF) I could use the "Open In..." menu to access Dropbox. This let me upload the file to my Dropbox account, and from there I hopped onto my PC and printed out the handout. If you have an Airprint printer this part will be much easier.

The handout turned out to be one slide and 7 algebra equations waiting to be solved. I marked getting the handout step as done (every step includes a 'Completed' checkbox to help you track where you left off) and went to the next step, which was to download and watch a podcast. Actually the next two steps were downloading part 1 and part 2 of the same podcast; it seems iTunes U likes to keep sessions to 15 minutes, which makes fitting a session into a busy day pretty easy.

So I fired up Part 1 of the podcast and found myself looking at an electronic version of the same handout I had, with Ms. Watkins talking in a language that seemed completely foreign for a few seconds but that I then realized was math. I kid, Watkins actually did a great job of introducing the material. As she talked, she wrote on her 'whiteboard' to illustrate the concepts she was discussing. At certain points she askes the student to pause the podcast and attempt the next equation (the handout leaves plenty of room for working the problem). She then walks through the solution. Part 2 of the podcast was more of the same except it introduced more abstract concepts. The point of this post isn't to review this course but to describe the experience of using iTunes U, so I'll leave off the math talk for now.

That's as far as I got in one night, but looking ahead the next few sections are about word problems and follow the same structure of using a handout and then a podcast to give theory and hands-on practice. After that is a self-assessment section.

I have to say, I'm delighted so far. Algebra is a pretty obscure topic for a man of my age to be studying, but there's a wide range of topics covered in iTunes U. Everything from science and math to history, literature, and most specific topics like iPad App Development. Of course self-assessment for a math course is relatively easy: did you solve the problem correctly or not. It'll be interesting to see what, if any, self-assessment is included in, say, a history course.

Most of the content appears to be free but now and then some of the materials include a charge. For instance in a course called American Revolution, taught by Joanne Freeman of Yale University, one of the supplemental materials is a book (The Minutemen and Their World by Robert A Gross) that costs $9.99. You could probably skip that if you really had to.

Anyway I'm generally not a huge fan of Apple, but I have to say I'm really impressed by this iTunes U app and the content it holds. I guess a lot of these courses have been available via the iTunes Store for some time, but I wasn't aware of them and doubt I would've taken advantage of them if it meant sitting in front of my computer for another hour every day. Having it on the iPad where I can take it to my favorite easy chair to relax and learn? And it's free to boot? That's just amazing. I tip my hat to Apple, and wait to see if Google can come up with a response.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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