What's New in iTunes U

As you know, I'm a fan of the new iTunes U app and course management service. Apple just released an update to both the app and the service that brings a few new and important features.

You might want to review my previous article on iTunes U if you're not familiar with it.

The iTunes U App

The iTunes U app was updated to version 1.2 today and contains a couple of cool features.

Firstly, you can now search across all your subscribed courses or within a course. The search encompasses materials, notes and posts. If you can't find how to search across all your courses, the magnifying glass is tucked up underneath the 'top shelf' - pull the bookshelves down to find it.

There are enhancements to note taking. The first iteration of the app would allow you to create two kinds of notes: Course Notes, which were plain text notes typed into iTunes U, and Book Notes which were annotated book highlights synced from iBooks. Until now, it's been pretty difficult to take notes on a video you're watching because, well, you were already using the screen to watch the video (unless you had an AppleTV!).

In iTunes U 1.2, there's now a split-screen mode for taking notes on a video while you watch it. Each note is timecoded to the video and you see markers in the video track for the related notes. As you watch the video later - say, for review - the notes will scroll into place as the playback head passes their timecode. These notes created from audio or video resources also now have their own section in the Notes tab in iTunes U.

Here's a little screenshot I posted earlier to Twitter, showing the new in-video note taking UI:

iTunes U Course Manager

Course Manager is the part of iTunes U that an individual teacher uses on a daily basis to run their course. It has previously been possible to create a 'private' course (i.e. a course that is not listed on the iTunes U Catalogue). The latest Course Manager update introduces a Roster feature that provides true private courses, with control of who can subscribe to the course.

Previously, the only way to share a course was by sharing a URL. Beyond the assumption that the obscure URL wouldn't be guessable, there was really no way for a teacher to know who had subscribed to the course.

Now, you can share an invitation code with students that they can use to enrol in your course. There is an "Enrol" button at the bottom of the iTunes U Catalogue in the new course. When a student enters a code here, they are asked to provide their Apple ID password and agree to their details (name and email address) being shared with the course creator. As before, you can generate a link which has the enrol code embedded in it for easy enrolment via email.

As far as I can tell, all enrolment requests require approval by the course creator. It is possible to close a course to new enrolment requests, as well as blocking certain individuals and regenerating the course enrolment code if it has become too widely known. There appears to be no feature to pre-load a course with an approved roster.

Finally, there's another feature in Course Manager that I've wanted for a while: draft posts. When you create an in-session course (that is, a course that's built up as teaching progresses), you add content in the form of materials attached to posts. Previously, when you created a post, it immediately went live. Now, we have an option to save a post as a draft and send it out to students only when you click "Post".

This is useful in all sorts of ways. I'm particularly looking forward to being able to get my Monday all set before I step into school that day. It will also be helpful in situations where a teacher is off sick - as long as they have the strength to log into Course Manager from their death-bed, they can still set the lesson work. As an enhancement, it would be nice to have the ability to schedule posts.

So, all in all, a nice update to both the app and the backend service that supports it.