Online classes are a hit at iTunes U

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 November, 2010, 12:00am

Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Stanford were all in the top 10 - and, no, we are not talking about this year's world university rankings. Lectures posted by those leading universities were among the 10 most popular items in November on Apple's iTunes U - the latest technology fad to sweep campuses around the world.

Number one on the chart was Oxford's Critical Reasoning for Beginners, Part 1, followed by Stanford's Developing Apps for iOS and Yale's How to Write a Business Plan. All are available for downloading from iTunes U, on Apple's iTunes Store.

More than 800 universities around the world distribute their learning materials through the iTunes U website, and some seem to take its list of most popular downloads almost as seriously as university league tables.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology was moved to issue a press release when a lecture on electricity and magnetism by its renowned physics professor Walter Lewin bagged the top spot ahead of a talk by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs at Stanford, shortly after the launch of iTunes U.

Among the most recent institutions to sign up are Chinese University (CUHK) and the Open University of Hong Kong.

'Like our other teaching and learning support tools, our link with iTunes U has been welcomed by students and teachers at CUHK,' said Philip Leung, the university's director of information technology services.

'In September, our tracks or individual content items on iTunes U were accessed 57,718 times by local and global users. We believe we can further improve that access by continually promoting the service to our teachers and students, and producing more and higher-quality content.'

Leung said some materials were suitable for downloading and others were not. Those especially well suited to the medium included items from skills-based courses such as nursing, as well as lectures, simulations and costly experiments.

Academics from the university were briefed on podcast production and how to use iTunes U for teaching at an expo held last month, he said.

As well as leading US and British institutions, top universities in China, Australia, Japan, Mexico and Singapore are among the hundreds listed on iTunes U. In addition to lectures, the site offers other materials including slideshows, PDFs, films and audiobooks.

According to Apple, there have been more than 300 million downloads and, of the 800 universities using the service, 400 are distributing their content publicly, offering free access to more than 350,000 audio and video files. All that is needed is a computer, iPad or suitable iPod to connect to the iTunes Store, browse and download the lectures.

One US researcher even posed the question - 'Can podcasts replace professors?' - after leading a study last year that found students who downloaded a podcast lecture from iTunes earned higher test marks than those who sat and listened to the lecturer.

But Dr Dani McKinney, of the psychology department at the State University of New York in Fredonia, cautioned that the findings were only preliminary. They were based on just one lesson from an introductory psychology course.