iTunes U: Free Education for the Masses

It’s amazing what people are willing to give away for free. Some of the most talented writers in our industry are devoting their time for little more than recognition or the plain joy of flexing their muscles. Where some workers require monetary reward for everything that they do, others are more than willing to devote their time for free. This is why well-known bloggers will give away their writing for free and then charge large sums for an hour’s worth of talking.

When you cross this free-sometimes-crazy-expensive-the-rest-of-the-time approach with education you end up with iTunes U, the free service and app that puts you into some of the world’s greatest classrooms that would cost tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars to normally attend.

iTunes U and its Beginnings

iTunes U has been around since 2007, offering video and audio podcasts from some of the world’s top educators for the past five years. The service is an excellent source of information, with classes from places like Stanford available at no charge. While this is already an excellent deal, Apple took the time to unveil an all new iPad app at their education even back in January that expanded on iTunes U’s functionality.

Now, instead of only offering videos or audio tracks of a specific lecture, teachers can upload entire courses to the iTunes U service and people like you or me can, in essence, take an entire college course for no cost. Surely a win if there’s ever been one, and an excellent resource that more people should take advantage of.

The App: Presentation

If you’ve ever launched iBooks on the iPad you’ll feel right at home with iTunes U. The app looks, at first launch, like the iBooks bookshelf done in mahogany instead of the typical bookshelf. I actually like the darker wood color, but that’s neither here nor there.

I like me some mahogany.

I like me some mahogany.

Unfortunately, where iBooks allows you ditch the skeuomorphism once you’re actually reading something, iTunes U decides that you haven’t had enough and turns the dial up to eleven. Once you’re within an actual course the entire thing looks like a binder, complete with dividers, stitched paper, and binder loops.

Hey, you know what kids really love? Binders!

Hey, you know what kids really love? Binders!

By now I should have made it clear that I can’t stand visual metaphors that get in the way of the app’s performance or don’t add to the experience in any way, and iTunes U is one of the worst offenders to date. I’m glad that there aren’t any bits of torn paper in the app (as there are in and that Apple didn’t re-use their dreaded Marker Felt typeface, but the praise stops there.

How It Works: A Course as a Syllabus

If you’ve ever taken a college class you should be familiar with each course’s specific layout. If you haven’t, it works like this: each course is going to outline what assignments you should be doing, in which order, and what you’ll need to complete the assignment.

So, let’s say you’re just starting a course. You can simply get going with the first item on the list within the course manual and work your way forward from there. Easy as pie.

Just tap something and you're taken right to the relevant material. Eat that, physical paper!

Just tap something and you're taken right to the relevant material. Eat that, physical paper!

Thankfully, Apple didn’t skimp out on features with this one. Reference materials are downloaded right from within the application, and if, say, the course mentions a chapter of a book that you’ve downloaded from the iBookstore, you’re taken directly to the corresponding location in iBooks and can begin your work right from within that application.

Course Catalog

There’s a large variety of courses available for study, covering topics from the maths and sciences as well as the humanities and technological fields. As mentioned above, Stanford has courses available and other establishments have also begun to use iTunes U, such as The Open University, a British effort that uses iTunes U to teach a variety of subjects for free.

Yes, it looks like plain-old iTunes or the App Store.

Yes, it looks like plain-old iTunes or the App Store.

I would have liked to have seen some more niche-y courses available, but it’s hard to complain with the offerings that Apple has brought to the table here. Chances are that you’ll find what you’re looking for, and if you can’t it’s certainly worth getting in touch with a specific professor or organization and telling them about the opportunities afforded by iTunes U.

iTunes U as the Future of Schooling

I see some real potential with iTunes U, especially when paired with the rest of Apple’s ecosystem. Announced alongside the (excellent) addition of textbooks to the iBookstore, it’s clear that Apple has set its sights on the lucrative and ready-for-a-change education market. By building things like iTunes U Apple has positioned itself as a powerful company that can work with schools to help students learn more effectively.

iTunes U feels better than most of the other online-course-tools that I’ve used, from Blackboard and Moodle to ANGEL. Each feels outdated and is a pain to work with, the exact opposite of what iTunes U offers.

I would like to see Apple change the education landscape, and they’ve begun to do that. The iPad offers so many opportunities, and I’m excited to see where it can take the education industry.

Worth a Download?

If you have something that you would like to learn about I would definitely recommend iTunes U. While I have some issues with the interface, the sheer depth of the courses offered and the functionality that Apple has baked into the app are without parallel.

What’s better is that everything is absolutely free. With the cost of textbooks alone, not to mention transportation, tuition, and every other cost associated with learning, “free” is a breath of fresh air in a costly landscape. Sure, you won’t have a piece of paper with your name on it, but if you want to learn for learning’s sake you can do worse than iTunes U.


iTunes U is a powerful app that misses the mark with its faux-world interface, but offers a large variety of courses and materials for free.