iTunes U makes free education a growing reality

Apple's iTunes offers a growing set of resources (many free) for students and lifelong learners.

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iTunes is known for many things in today's world: it's the largest online music reseller; a place to buy and rent HD movies and TV shows; the sync solution for iPods, Apple TVs, iPhones, and iPads (not to mention the mechanism for activating these devices and backing up their contents); a way to manage most of your digital content; and even a way to listen to Internet radio.

It isn't thought of as a solution for professional growth or academic advancement. In fact, if you asked most people, they'd probably describe iTunes as the antithesis of such higher pursuits – filled as it is with ways to distract you from them. But that perception would be quite wrong.

In fact iTunes offers students at the K-12, undergrad, and graduate levels a lot of additional learning tools and it can be a profound source of lifelong learning (for both professional and personal pursuits). This is largely thanks to three iTunes components: audiobooks, podcasts, and iTunes U.

Audiobooks may conjure up the idea of best-selling novels, but the fact is that there are audiobooks on just about every topic as there are convention books. That includes bad romance novels, of course. However, it also includes works by dedicated public servants with unique perspectives (the works of Jimmy Carter on middle east policy from his unique experiences come to mind), academics in all manner of fields (the works of Step hone Hawking and Carl Sagan, for example), and biographies and of every stripe imaginable. Likewise, podcasts include a range from the downright silly and absurd to the enlightened on any and every subject you can think of.

But the biggest learning tool offered by iTunes is iTunes U. This collection of audio and video content includes documentaries from academic and popular television (PBS and the various Discovery Channel imprints) as well as lectures recorded live with audio, video, presentations, and supporting materials from hundreds of schools, colleges, and the most prestigious universities in the world. All available for listening, watching, and downloading to your heart's content.

A friend of mine with a master's degree in public policy and economics once told me that, because of iTunes U, she felt that she could finally throw away her aging textbooks and notebooks full of lecture notes because she could easily most of that material for free and in an updated form from iTunes U.

Last week, iTunes U went beyond recorded classes and lectures and began offering e-book texts from universities including impressive brick and mortar schools Rice and Oxford as well as the more recent Open University. As high-minded and egalitarian as this may sound, it makes perfect sense as an expansion of Apple's iBooks store (which has somewhat floundered in book sales next to giants like Amazon and Barnes and Noble).

This doesn't mean that iTunes can't be a time suck or that IT departments are wrong to complain about its close ties to mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad, but it does illustrate the potential of these devices (and indeed all digital devices) as tools for learning both in structured formats like lectures and references for traditional classes and free-form resources that can be applied to any school or college assignment, professional project, career development, and the age-old value of just building knowledge. Of course, the caveat is that while you can gain all this knowledge, you're essentially auditing the classes and thus not earning academic credits.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfass.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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