Driving the Classroom with iTunes U

There was a time when iTunes U was just a section of the iTunes store where you could download audio and videos. Since Apple's recent education event, that's all changed. iTunes U is still a part of the iTunes Store but there's now a dedicated iTunes U app for iOS devices.

The other major change to iTunes U was a policy change. iTunes U was previously only available to universities. At the January education event Eddy Cue stated that "starting today K-12 schools can sign up" to iTunes U. We didn't get pre-announcement access but I signed up as soon as I could and Cedars has been accepted to iTunes U.

I've made a Flickr set of iTunes U screenshots. It's embedded here, or you can go and watch it bigger (and in HTML5) at Flickr.

I've been obliquely but enthusiastically tweeting about iTunes U since its launch. Here's why.

What iTunes U Provides

Most people understand iTunes U as a part of the iTunes Store where you can download academic content for free. That content was usually an ordered playlist of videos or audio files. Some courses also offered PDF versions of slide decks, reading lists or other notes. That was pretty much it.

If you wanted to use these materials, you just downloaded them to your computer or iOS device and listened to or viewed them.

What Apple announced at the recent education event was a new iOS app dedicated to iTunes U content. The app looks a lot like iBooks except the shelves are Harvard-mahogany instead of Ikea-birch.

The idea now is that you can create a complete course in iTunes U, not just a playlist.

What is an iTunes U Course?

There are two types of iTunes U Course. The first, and most familiar, is what's called a "self-paced" course. A self-paced course is a complete syllabus, along with materials and assignments that you can download and work through at your leisure.

For schools, though, the beauty is in the "in-session" course. This is how you use iTunes U to run your classroom. An in-session course is one that's currently running and you, as the teacher, add to it in real time.

An iTunes U course of either type can contain three things: Info, Posts and Materials. The app provides a fourth space for you: Notes. These four sections represent the structure of the iTunes U app. Each gets its own tab.

I want to talk about each of these in turn, but slightly out of order.

Course Info

Course info is basically a number of styled text pages containing information about the course. There are three pages created by default:

  • Course Overview - General information about the course, contents, dates and so on.
  • Course Instructor - Biographical information about the teacher who created the course.
  • Course Outline - a syllabus list.

There's no restriction on these pages and you can add others. Some examples of others you might include:

  • Information about specific equipment required in class
  • Lab safety rules
  • Plans for class-related trips
  • Dates and places of exams

Basically, anything that's germane to the course can be put into an info page.

Materials

In the original incarnation of iTunes U, all we had was a list of course 'materials' - where materials was defined as audio, video and PDFs. In the new iTunes U the definition of materials is substantially expanded and the integration of these materials with the course is far deeper.

There are basically three kinds of material you can add to your course:

  • A link into an Apple storefront: iTunes Store, iBooks Store, iOS App Store
  • A file you upload from your computer
  • A link to something on the web

There's a lot of power in that first item. You can link to almost anything that Apple vends through a store front:

  • iOS Apps
  • iBooks
  • Movies
  • Audiobooks
  • Individual items in a podcast feed
  • Individual songs in an album
  • Individual items in another iTunes U course

There are some objects in the stores you cannot link to:

  • Albums in iTunes
  • Podcast feeds in iTunes
  • Other iTunes U courses

When you link to something in the store, iTunes U will fill in the metadata for you. When a student subscribes to your course, there are controls right in the iTunes U app to buy or download the store items.

You can also upload files from your computer. The files will be hosted on Apple's servers and made available to download by students. This is pretty important because what this means is that you don't have to rewrite all your materials in iBooks Author or publish them on an Apple store in order to adopt iTunes U. Just take your PDFs, images, videos, whatever and put them in your materials list.

Finally, you can link to anything on the web. Along with the URL itself, you can attach some metadata to the link:

  • Name
  • Author/Speaker
  • Description
  • "Explicit" flag

iTunes U will do a nice job of pulling in metadata from the iTunes Store for links into the stores but it doesn't do anything for URLs. It would be hard to do that in the general case but perhaps a little more could be done for the big sites like Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo and Wikipedia.

When you subscribe to an iTunes U course, the app does not download the course materials automatically. In the app, the student can tap a "download" button to cache the materials on the device. If space becomes tight, it's always possible to delete the material and re-download it later. This is particularly useful if you have a situation where students might not have internet access at home.

If you have plentiful internet access and storage on the device, you can enable an auto-download setting. This will make the iTunes U app download any materials that are subsequently added to the course over time.

Notes

The third tab in the iTunes U app is called Notes. There are two kinds of notes:

  • Course Notes
  • Book Notes

A Course Note is simply a text note that you enter in iTunes U. It is a bit of a shame that you can't attach an image from Photos to a note but perhaps that will come.

A Book Note is a highlighted or annotated section of an iBook that is associated with the course through the materials list. The idea goes like this:

Say you subscribe to a course and download the course textbook. As you're reading in iBooks, you highlight and annotate the important parts of the book. Back in iTunes U, the Notes tab is accumulating all of these notes and annotations in one place for review.

You can't highlight the text of a book from within iTunes U but the annotation sync between iTunes U and iBooks goes both ways. If you annotate a highlight in iBooks, that annotation appears in iTunes U. If you highlight a section in iBooks, that highlight appears in iTunes U. If you then add a note to that highlight in iTunes U, it appears next to the highlight in iBooks.

It's worth noting that you don't have to publish a book to the world through the iBooks store to get this integration. It also works for ePub and iBooks files that you upload and deliver as a downloadable course material item.

Posts

I come to Posts last because Posts are the beating heart of iTunes U that integrate the materials and drive the course. A post is a styled-text message with a subject that can be attached to any part of the course outline.

Posts can also have an assignment attached. An assignment is an additional piece of explanatory text with an optional deadline and one or more course material items attached.

When the teacher posts a message to the course it automatically appears in the Posts section of the course in every student's iTunes U app. More than that, though, it will send a push notification to every device subscribed to the course.

Each post has a read/unread status and the iTunes U app provides a unified inbox for posts. The inbox has two views: all posts, sorted by date received, or assignments only - sorted by due date.

So how might you use Posts in class? Well the most obvious use case is to send out a message to the students. Since we started the iPad project, I've been looking for a simple way to push-notify pupils about things. iTunes U provides it.

Secondly, you can use it to set homework assignments. We currently use email to do this but we've found that some students struggle to adequately process their email to extract actionable information. With iTunes U, all of the actionable items arising from homework appear directly in a list called "Assignments", sorted by most-immediately-due. Huge win.

Some quick ideas for course materials:

  • Test paper in PDF with embedded forms that can be completed on the iPad
  • A partly-completed artwork for pupils to build on and submit via email
  • Links to study materials on the web
  • A template for a moodboard or digital collage that pupils have to complete on or afer a school trip
  • A framework OmniGraphSketcher document for pupils to identify parts of and complete
  • Any kind of course notes document in some readable format
  • Photo captures of whiteboards used in class or PDF exports of iPad-based digital whiteboards

I can further imagine teachers subscribing to the other courses that the children in their classes are taking. They'll be able to see what other teachers are planning and the materials that are being used. They'll be able to see other teachers' homework due dates and maybe even get ideas for cross-curricular links or project work that could tie-in with other classes.

Finally, we are often asked by parents to notify them when their children are set any homework at all so that they can ensure it gets done. With the best will in the world, it can be hard enough to administer homework to all your pupils without having to administer it to their parents as well.

One major use case I can see for iTunes U is simply having the parents subscribe to the courses their children are involved in. They'll see all the goings-on in the course; they'll be push-notified of any additional information and they'll have a pocketable list of all their child's assignments. Schools pay very good money for systems like this and iTunes U provides it for free.

Syncing and Deployment Implications

iTunes U syncs through iCloud. Subscribe to a course on your iPhone, it's subscribed on your iPad. Annotate a book on your iPad, the notes appear in iTunes U on your phone. There are a couple of deployment considerations arising from this.

Primarily, this is another nail in the coffin of the "shared Apple ID" deployment model that we've been using up until now. If you have multiple pupils and devices all using the same Apple ID, you're going to get sync issues all over the place. Pupils' notes will intermingle, their read/unread statuses will get mixed up. It will be a hot mess.

This is one of many reasons why we're moving to individual Apple IDs next year. I'll write more on that in due course.

Beyond that, though, there are no other major infrastructure or deployment issues around adopting iTunes U. You administer the course through a website and access it through iTunes U on iOS.

Subscribing, Security and Privacy

How does a pupil subscribe to a course? For self-paced courses, they navigate to the school's iTunes U page and click the Subscribe button. For in-session courses that won't be listed on iTunes, the course administrator can copy a URL from the course management portal and share that with students.

Opening the URL on an iOS device will launch iTunes U and prompt the user to subscribe to the course. There is no other authentication. It's important to realise that what you're creating on iTunes U is not a "private course". It's an "unlisted course". It doesn't appear in iTunes search but, if someone acquires the URL, they will be able to subscribe to the course.

Nowhere in iTunes U does there exist a "list of subscribers" to a course. This means that the teacher must treat the contents of the iTunes U course as if it were being posted on the public internet. After all, it is being posted on the public internet - it's just that unlisted iTunes U courses are part of the deep web, not the surface web.

It will be important for teachers to keep aware of this fact and avoid posting personal information through iTunes U. For example, one might be tempted to post digitally-marked test papers back through iTunes U. That's not a suitable approach and it's why iTunes U is not a replacement for a real school-wide email system.

Rebuilding on Top of iTunes U

In Scotland, we're in the middle of curriculum transition. Secondary teachers are preparing to start teaching all-new National 4 and 5 courses. Knowing that these new courses were coming, we have not spent time rebuilding the old courses and materials for the iPad-enabled world. Starting now, though, we're going to base everything we do in Secondary on iTunes U.

There are two sides to digital workflow in school. There's the information distribution and communication side and there's the submission, grading and feedback side.

It's important to understand that iTunes U only attacks the first part: information distribution and communication. It is not a test-taking, file submission and grading system. Neither does it track student progress through a course.

Here's how we currently handle information distribution: email. It's almost all through email. Files as attachments, course announcements and all kinds of other information go out to the kids by email. For the most part, this works. We all know the down-sides of email very well but it is at least free, fast and reliable. For files that are larger than email can handle, we're using shared folders through Dropbox. The pupils use a combination of Course Notes, Calendar and Notes to manage their assignments.

We're going to replace all of this with iTunes U.

iTunes U will allow us to unify:

  • Class announcements
  • Homework setting (and homework diary)
  • Access to digital course materials
  • Other class information

…into one app that everyone can use.

I stand by my earlier analysis that iBooks Author and iTunes U were the two most important parts of Apple's recent education announcement. With iBooks Author, we now have a very simple way to make high-quality electronic texts for use in the classroom. It will be to course materials what Keynote was to presentations.

iTunes U is a massively powerful tool for running a classroom full of iOS devices. It's extremely simple to use for teachers and the overhead of adoption is as close to zero as you can get: install iTunes U, upload some materials and post class messages and assignments as you go along.

I'm incredibly excited about iTunes U.