updated 03:20 pm EST, Thu January 19, 2012
A quick look at iTunes U in app form
Apple as part of many education introductions Thursday put out iTunes U as a self-contained app (App Store). The title turns what was once ultimately a glorified podcast section and turns it into a system that can be used for full, active courses. We're taking a look at an app to see how well it works in practice.
The app is at first deceptively similar to iBooks, although that's likely on purpose to create continuity with iBooks 2. Each item on the shelf is actually a full course containing everything related to that class, and the catalog lets students subscribe to a class that, if it's still active, can download new material over time.
It needs iOS 5 and supports both push notifications and auto-downloads, so you can in theory sleep through a real-world class by accident and still get the course materials when you wake up. That said, the professor has access to a convenient posting system as well, so he may single you out for your lack of diligence.
Depending on the course, the materials can include everything from direct documents to audio and video clips as well as books to download or websites to visit; if the professor wants, he can require paid material, including apps and books. One Yale astronomy course we looked at had raw board notes included. Audio and video streams if you don't want to download it permanently, so you're not forced to get a 64GB iPad or iPhone just to watch all of the professor's lectures -- it even jumps to specific points if the professor wants. We liked that it marks which content you've looked at, and that it supports multitasking: unlike regular iOS videos, you can shift away from a video without stopping it if you need to check a textbook in the process.
The posting system we'd consider valuable, if somewhat limited. It's a great way to systematically cover every aspect of a given class that the professor wants to cover. Some potential is wasted here, however: posts are strictly one-way and are somewhat set in stone. We'd have liked if students could post comments or questions, for example, instead of having to turn to e-mail or a third-party website.
Note aggregation works much like it does in iBooks, which is to say fairly well. Notes and highlights can be inherently linked to each other and pool together for each course, not just individual books.
We're quite comfortable with the overall interface, then. If there are overarching issues, it's with the hardware condiitons that you need to truly advantage of iTunes U. Not surprisingly, a professor coordinating an ongoing class through the app will need everyone to have the same app, and therefore an iOS device: at a minimum $200 per person, that could get very expensive, especially in college and university classes with hundreds of students. Likewise, there's still no iBooks app on computers, so you can't catch up if you're not around your iOS hardware.
Still, it's one of the first times that a concerted effort has been made to make end-to-end course study a staple of mobile devices, and for that, Apple deserves some credit. We just hope Apple is aggressive and makes sure that it adapts as education demands expand.