Universities reluctant to use iTune U

Kenneth J. Cooper | 4/4/2012, 7:48 a.m.

In keeping with Steve Jobs’ vision of transforming education, Apple has expanded its iTunes U so that professors can now offer entire courses, not just lectures.

So far, though, not many colleges and universities are rushing to drop the platforms they already use for online learning and adopt the new application from the technology heavyweight.

Apple bills the expanded iTunes U as “an entire course in one app,” with the capacity to accommodate lectures, assignments, books, quizzes and syllabi. Although the application is free, the courses can be accessed only on an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch, Apple products whose prices may be unaffordable for college students with limited financial resources.

Created in 2007, iTunes U is touted by Apple as “the world’s largest catalog of free educational content,” including lectures by distinguished professors at Harvard and Stanford universities, for example. There have been 700 million downloads, according to the company.

“The all-new iTunes U app enables students anywhere to tap into entire courses from the world’s most prestigious universities,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice-president of Internet Software and Services.

The expansion was announced in January to allow professors time to gather and put together material for courses starting in the fall. Six schools have already placed a total of about 100 courses on iTunes U, including MIT, Yale, Stanford and Duke. It is unclear how many other schools are moving to take advantage of the new app, which faces challenges in gaining wide acceptance.

“It’s competing with some of the traditional learning management systems that have been around a number of years,” said John Flores, executive director of the Boston-based US Distance Learning Association, who has not seen major movement to iTunes U. “It’s almost like changing bags or changing doctors or changing barbers. You get comfortable. You want to go to the same resource. The same happens with using a technology.”

The dominant player in online learning is Blackboard Inc., which was formed in 1997 and says its platform is used by 2,000 educational institutions of all levels. Three weeks after Apple’s announcement in January, the company released an upgrade of Blackboard Learn that it says makes the platform easier to navigate and more efficient to use.

North Carolina A and T University, a leader in distance learning among historically black colleges, uses Blackboard Learn. So does the University of Massachusetts Boston, which has a diverse student body and an African American chancellor, J. Keith Motley.

Staffers who help professors at UMass Boston design online courses say there are no plans for an immediate switch to iTunes U, which the school has used only for posting promotional videos of campus events such as commencement exercises.

“It’s tempered enthusiasm, I would say,” said Apostolo Koutropoulos, an instructional support specialist at UMass Boston. “When you get something new and you already have existing structures, it takes time to change to something else.”

Koutropoulos  and Christian deTorres, an educational technology consultant at UMass Boston, cited the relatively high cost of an iPad for students who may not even own a laptop, easier access to Blackboard Learn on any computer, and potential copyright and student privacy issues if UMass Boston courses were available on iTunes.