Thursday, 25 August 2011

Why 'Apple control' is probably good for iTunes U and the realm of open educational resources

Today it has been announced that Steve Jobs is stepping down as CEO of Apple. He has been battling health issues for some time now and I wish him well. The announcement has given rise to numerous profiles of his career and of Apple in general. One excellent view of Jobs' career is by Robert Scoble.

In my discussions with various universities about their implementation of iTunes U,  the topic of Apple's control arises. One person described it as a 'benevolent dictatorship,' hastening to add that Apple wants to make sure that everyone has a good experience accessing the material in iTunes U, and wants to help each institution look their best. Apple does not pass judgement on individual pieces going into iTunes U; rather, it wants to see that the university has in place a good 'iTunes U team' which includes academics (so it can't be Marketing running away with the show) and who will keep the channel going. It seems to me that the end result is that universities end up doing their best to show a good profile of themselves on iTunes U. This should mean good learning material is being released. Add to that the power of Apple's presence itself, and the fact that it markets chosen materials on iTunes U, and you have a win-win situation for open educational resources (OER).

Steve Jobs in front of an early Mac computer lab in Stanford. Photo courtesy of The Seb on Flickr
YouTube as an educational material channel is certainly easier to add material into, and it can be argued that it is more accessible in that all you need is a browser. (To access iTunes U material, one must download the free iTunes U software from the Apple site -- this software works on Windows and Macs, but not on Linux). However, this simplicity means it is simple for everyone to post on YouTube, including jokers who just post whatever. Overall, and especially in comparison to iTunes U, YouTube is not characteristically seen as a source of excellent learning material, although there is certainly much excellent learning material in there.

Also, because it is so easy for jokers to post whatever in YouTube, certain governments (such as China's) prefer to block access to YouTube. But iTunes U is seen as a respectable source of learning material, and thus it is not blocked in any country as far as I know. And I have been checking.

While on the topic of comparing iTunes U with YouTube, I have recently been looking at download figures of UK universities who are offering material on both iTunes U and YouTube. I was very surprised to see that the iTunes U download figures are many times greater than the YouTube figures. I hope to be able to be more specific in upcoming reports.

Therefore, Apple being a bit of a control freak is probably a force for good in the realm of open educational materials. It's not the only model, and it's probably not the best model. But it is working.

Terese Bird
Learning Technologist and SCORE Fellow

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