iTunes U in UK Universities

I was surprised to read – in the listserv used by members of the Association of Learning Technology, a British-based but international organisation – an animated discussion of iTunes U in UK universities.

What surprised me was the deep concern felt by some correspondents about relying on a huge American company, Apple, to provide the vehicle for accessing albums containing British academic material.

Admittedly, my own view of Apple is coloured by long and valuable use of the company’s products. And my view of iTunes U is particularly favourable because of its outstanding success at the Open University, where a very wide public continues to download over a million ‘albums’ a month, about 27 million to date.

To some extent, I suppose, I have an inside view of iTunes U at the OU, because one of my family is a leading member of the team there. I’ve seen the care that goes into selecting material and presenting it.

Recently, with four BDRA colleagues, I wrote a paper* about OERs and we included a section about iTunes U at the OU. I wanted that because I see quite a few parallels between the albums and OERs being offered now by many UK universities. All of them are free to users. Creating them requires fairly similar processing and rights clearance. Few of them consist of a complete course or even a large part of one, yet all offer opportunities to get acquainted with a field of study.

Now the University of Leicester is thinking about moving into iTunes U as part of its educational mission. Without the OU’s huge resource of multi-media material to draw on, Leicester may think twice before committing resources to the creation of more than a fairly small number of albums, enough to establish a presence. Perhaps it will draw on OTTER’s products. Leicester may look for more evidence to emerge first about the benefits it would gain in the new higher education marketplace about to be established in the UK following the Browne Report and news of the government’s cuts in university budgets. If Leicester looks for ways of advertising more widely its academic products, iTunes U may be a channel it turns to, one that Martin Bean, the OU’s Vice-Chancellor, certainly rates very highly.

Yes, an American company hosts iTunes U, and very well too, without charge. Amazing, isn’t it, that such a company enables UK universities, as well as American ones and some others, to promote themselves worldwide? No wonder a recent report in The Guardian stated that the UK exports a great deal via the Internet: doubtless that includes a lot of higher education: 89% of the downloads from the OU’s iTunes U are by people living abroad.

David Hawkridge

* Hawkridge, D., Armellini, A., Nikoi, S., Rowlett, T. and Witthaus, G. (in press). Curriculum, intellectual property rights and open educational resources in British universities — and beyond. Journal of Computing in Higher Education.

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