iTunes U as a Sharing Space for Digital Learning Content Assets with Quality Examples

When poking around iTunes U and iTunes U K-12, I have found some interesting content. It may have been a college lecture, a video, and even a few PDFs. But my lens of interest is different than that of a classroom teacher, who is likely either looking for personal professional development materials (hey, it’s possible) or resources for use with kids. (If my writing bores you, scroll down to the end for some gems I found.)

The iTunes/iOS ecosystem allows you to point to passive digital content (movies, PDFs, eBooks, audio files) and interactive digital content (iBook textbooks, apps). It’s history started as iTunes U, where the emphasis was on “University.” Big names like the University of California at Berkeley signed on and used the platform as a means to share lectures and digital content. Apple even sold a complete solution to capture, edit, and publish this content. Students who came to college armed with iTunes accounts and iPods were set to grab digital content from the class they just took, or maybe even capture a lecture they missed.

The migration to K-12 content was slow and today when visiting the iTunes Store, iTunes U > K12, we’re provided a list of links to school districts and individual schools who have signed-on to share content. I browsed today with my teacher’s hat on, looking for digital content resources we might use as we expand our 1:1 program. I was flummoxed by the process and wouldn’t blame teachers for not using the site in the way I thought they might.

  1. Content is not indexed with any sort of folksonomy save for the star rating. I cannot search, for as far as I see, for 5-star content, for example.
  2. Browsing is pretty much limited to the collections Apple is promoting on the front page of the “store.” This construct works well for selling new music releases, but it is not efficient or effective at finding specific content such as “high school Spanish 2″ lesson ideas, or video podcasts.
  3. Good collections of content are there, but they’ve been constructed by humans with an interest at making finding content easy for end-users such as teachers. One such example is Michigan’s MI Learning page. Virginia, for instance, has long had a page curated by the Virginia Department of Education. But the quality of content, even when you find a well-curated page, can be sketchy.
  4. How can I borrow content across different sources to make my own course? It’s not immediately apparent, although I see others have created courses. Sharing among different content providers isn’t easily supported.
  5. How do I get my own content online? There are a couple of methods, one of which is very technical, involving publishing with RSS feeds, in a separate web space, with a UI that is often not easy to understand and lacks the typical Apple polish or “magic.”
  6. I can add apps to courses, but then that means kids have to pay for them. Yes, unless you’ve prepaid and pre-installed them. I wish Apple had a subscription plan that allowed unlimited access to apps rather than a purchase model. That way, teachers could self-assign apps to students and when payment stopped, the apps would ghost away. Installing apps is many times not a teacher task, but an IT task.
  7. In the course construct, how do I use the technology to interact with my students? There is currently no interactive elements to the course, save for the app which allows students to take notes.

First, I’m not suggesting that we don’t use the resource. After all, I know there are some quality resources to be found. They simply aren’t easy to find. They are also not easy to manipulate.

I have a few recommendations if Apple wants this resource to be helpful to students and teachers in the K-12 space:

  • Getting content into the space needs to be easier. I know the directory model that debuted with podcasting is still in place and works, but it’s not accessible to so many educators.
  • Contributed content needs to come with a Creative Commons license. When you contribute content, it’s there for others to use.
  • All content needs to be tagged with information such as subject area, grade level, level of rigor, modality (listen, watch, read), and maybe even some standards. This information should then be baked into a search feature that’s more robust than a single search bar that looks for game apps, music videos, and hit movies.
  • All content should be easily dragged or dropped into a course construction. I should also be able to do the same using my own learning management system, not just Apple’s.
  • The browsing experience needs to be better. I love the big bold colorful boxes Apple presents like “App Toolkit for Teachers.” But clicking those links shouldn’t just provide access to content that’s been curated recently into a collection. As a science teacher, it should be my landing page to always look for fresh content.
  • Apps. I am not sure they’d ever consider the subscription model I mentioned above. But trying to spend $x of dollars on apps as an instructional technologist (and not a teacher) on content is tedious and frustrating. Teachers are in the best position to choose apps. But they can’t experiment without first spending a lot of money to see what’s out there. They can read reviews, but so many reviews on the store are either not educator-created and online blogs and review portals are fly-by night by well-intentioned teachers but many run out of steam. They also often don’t have the perspective of say an app review in a magazine like Macworld, by naming the “best” app for this or that.
  • Interactivity. The apps Apple has continually update for iOS to “talk” to iTunes such as iTunes U and Podcasts are not bad. They have polish and they work. However, Apple’s not seriously gotten into the learning management business aside for a new container model for content (e.g. courses). I am not sure from a business standpoint, however, they should. There are other experts already doing this, and I’ve attended too many ADE workshops at places like ISTE to know they aren’t content with just iTunes U courses. They’re using Moodle, Schoology, Haiku, and Edmodo with their iPads, Macs, and iPhones. If I were Apple, I’d maybe start over, and make the iPad the most compelling education purchase for a school by bundling a school’s purchase with free access to a first-class LMS. iTunes K-12 would migrate to that web-based system that had tight integration with a first-class app. An iTunes account for students wouldn’t be required (but optional), and instead, a school could choose from different account models (directory sync, Google accounts, etc.) People who are looking at the competition might just say “Wow, if I buy Apple, I’d get this top-tier learning system that no one else gets access to.”

I only mention this not because what exists now is awful, or the only solution. We use Apple tools in conjunction with a lot of other services and sources for content. But I see an opportunity for Apple to solve a problem so many educators are facing now, with the panache and magic that few other companies seem to consistently able to provide. Content in the form of apps, media files (books, video, audio, text) needs to be corralled into an easy to manage and search system of digital assets. These assets then need to be delivered to students. That’s the basic gist. I could go into more detail about how I would do that, but I don’t currently have the time nor desire to publish that at this point.

Now, iTunes U is a sharing space, but it’s one that I personally find difficult to approach with significant depth. I’m challenged on how to get my teachers to share in this space with the technical requirements for publishing. I believe the lack of quality content in the K-10 space is directly correlated with this technical hurdle. In conclusion, I hope my criticism illustrates that a system designed for selling music or loading podcast episodes on an MP3 player isn’t best equipped to help teachers deliver quality instruction with digital resources. We have a vision for what they might be like, and waiting for it is tedious when we already have great technology hardware in our hands.

All that said, I did find some content that may be of interest to our teachers.

As we look at replacing textbooks with digital content, we need a place to park it (sometimes called a learning management system), a medium to access it (say, an iPad), and lessons that describe instructional experiences to use these resources for learning.

One source where we can find a lot of freely available content is iTunes U. That said, it takes some clicking and browsing to find the gems. I found a few worth checking out.

  1. MIT + K12 videos. 99 videos that cover science topics.
  2. The Brain Channel These videos are appropriate for high school students interested in learning more about topics related to neuroscience, medicine, and understanding current research related to the brain.
  3. Khan Academy on Banking and Money. Over 60 videos related to the topics of banking and finance.
  4. University of South Florida Checkout the Lit2Go and other topics produced by USF in conjunction with the Florida Department of Education.
  5. The Virginia Department of Education has a number of series: The Empire of Mali Series, the Virginia Trekkers, Union or Secession: Virginians Decide, Civil War Series, Virginia Studies, Professor Garfield Introduction to Comics,
  6. There is also learning for teachers: Teaching Mathematics – Middle school videos for teachers (not students) on math pedagogy from the Virginia DOE, Radford University Tech Tutorials.
  7. National Archives Collection – collections of information from across all periods of U.S. history.
  8. Apsen Ideas Festival – HS content for social studies