What's new in iTunes U 3.0

iTunes U 3.0 has just shipped, so what's new? The answer, as is usual with iTunes U, is a small number of big features. Before I list them, it's worth taking a moment to survey the landscape as it existed prior to this release.

The venerable Showbie (sponsor of my podcast) has long been the go-to assignment submission tool for iPad classrooms. It offered class groups, assignments within those classes, the ability to annotate documents and provide private teacher-to-pupil comments as well as shared class folders.

The newcomer, which has already been impressive, is Google Classroom. Google Classroom is focused on assignment setting, submission and grading. It currently does not have quite the same kind of "course content" features as iTunes U (course outlines, posts, etc.). It does have strong integration with Google Docs, Drive and YouTube. Classroom is a new product and, as such, has a few rough edges to work off. That said, Classroom is a massive boon for Chromebook schools and, until iTunes U 3.0, was also useful for iOS schools. The Classroom iOS app is nowhere near powerful enough yet but it does let you do the basics.

Prior to version 3.0, iTunes U was a very competent teacher-to-student content delivery platform. It allowed teachers to specify the outline of their course, provide posts with content in them, upload materials in various formats and create assignments that students could be notified of.

The one thing that iTunes U didn't do was deal with the inbound half of the assignment workflow. Google Classroom came along and proved that this was important enough to be a major plank of the first-party solution, and now we have iTunes U 3.0.

Key Features

iTunes U 3.0 brings three key features to the platform:

  • Assignment submission, grading and feedback.
  • Per-assignment private communication between instructors and students
  • A unified course grade book for all assignments given in the course

I'll look at each of these in more detail.

Assignment Creation

iTunes U now supports assignment grading, submission and feedback. The new features support many different types of assessment. The teacher will create the assignment as normal, but there are now three additional fields in the assignment creation window.

The "Enable Grading" switch opens another field where the teacher can set the maximum mark for the assignment. The second switch enables file submission to this assignment.

Various combinations of these switches cover a wide range of common assessment situations in the classroom.

For a task which is not graded, such as an optional or extension task, disable both switches. No grade will be recorded and no files can be submitted, but the student will still see it in their assignment lists.

Assignment Creation Options

Assignment Creation Options

For those tasks which are graded but for which there is no concrete digital artefact created, such as a performance or presentation: enable grading but disable file submission. This will allow the teacher to enter a grade and engage in private dialogue with the student without allowing the student to upload files. The teacher could video or photograph the student or complete a PDF rubric and return that material privately to the student as an attachment in the private message thread.

For a task that requires submission but isn't graded: enable the submission switch but not the grading switch. This could be useful for situations where a teacher has to gather evidence of something being done but does not need to award a specific mark for it beyond "it exists". This could be powerful for check-pointing or draft submission tasks, where the teacher sets specific deadlines for the student to show progress but the grading isn't done until the final submission. In this way, iTunes U could be used as a kind of learning log.

The likely most common task - one that requires a submission to be graded - enable both switches.

I think, overall, these four types of assignment cover many of the situations that teachers find themselves in when assessing student work.

Assignment Submission

Students can submit work to an assignment in one of three ways:

  • They can use Open In to send a file from any app to iTunes U. They are then presented with a picker to choose the appropriate assignment. This is very familiar to anyone who has used Showbie or Google Classroom.
  • iTunes U supports Document Provider extensions. This means that any cloud service app that has a document provider extension can present its files right inside iTunes U and the student can pick from there. In practice I was able to pick a file from Google Drive and submit it for an assignment without leaving iTunes U.
  • If the assignment has a PDF attached, say a document to be filled in, the student can mark up the PDF right inside iTunes U and return it to the teacher.

It is possible that a student may occasionally not perform to the best of their ability. In such circumstances a teacher may wish to ask fair a re-submission. As long as the assignment is still unlocked, the student can re-submit a new document. The old submission remains in the private message thread but a new one is added afterwards.

PDF Markup

iTunes U now contains a basic PDF markup tool. It allows pen drawing, with a selection of line thickness and colours but not transparency; a definite oversight for highlighting on top of documents. The markup tool also allows text entry with a choice of five fonts, colour, a size slider, alignment and borders on the text box.

PDF Markup Tools - Teacher View

PDF Markup Tools - Teacher View

I would liked to have seen text box presets in here - commonly used combinations of size, font, border and colour that would carry specific meaning in a marking scheme. I was initially confused that there is apparently no eraser tool for the pen, although there is an undo. It was later pointed out to me that you can tap on any annotation - whether text or pen - and delete or duplicate it from the black edit bar.

I was initially under the impression that all PDFs are flattened on submission. This is not actually true. It is possible for a student to save an editable copy of their markup, but this must be done manually before submission. There are two buttons in the PDF markup UI: "Hand In" and "Save". If the student opens the teacher-provided PDF, edits and taps Hand In, the document is flattened, submitted and closed. There is no opportunity to save the document in an editable state. On the other hand, if the student opens the teacher-provided PDF, edits, taps Save, and then taps Hand In, the document will be submitted flattened and also saved in an editable state. Honestly, this is so annoying and non-obvious I'm assuming it's a bug in iTunes U (I've filed it as #21569632.

Grading

I'm really pleased that iTunes U has gone a step beyond Google Classroom in doing a better job of providing a course-wide grade book. In Classroom, you have to go into each assignment individually to see the scores, but iTunes U contains a really well done grading dashboard.

Grading Dashboard

Grading Dashboard

This view does so many things. Let's get into them.

  • Firstly, students are represented by rows and assignments are the columns.
  • Tapping on a row header allows you to focus the row down to that particular student. This is a very good data protection feature if you were using this screen at a parent conference.
  • Tapping on a column header brings an assignment status popover. This popover shows the progress of the assignment in terms of how many have been handed in, how many graded and how many returned. If you have graded some or all of the submissions, this popover also allows you to return all draft grades at once.
  • Tapping on a cell opens the private message thread between the teacher and the student. Assignments can be accessed here.

The appearance of a specific cell changes as students work through the assignment:

  • A dash in the cell indicates the student has not yet looked at the assignment.
  • The cell will show "viewed" when the student has read the assignment.
  • The cell will show a document icon when something has been submitted to the assignment.
  • A number in the cell indicates the teacher's grade for the assignment. It is shown in light italics if it's a draft grade and solid regular text if the grade has been returned.
  • If a student has made a comment in the private thread, a blue dot will appear in the cell and in the assignment header.

Assignments can be locked, and locked assignments can be hidden or shown. Locking can be done manually from the header popover. As far as I can tell right now, assignments do not automatically lock when their deadline passes.

It is also possible to export the entire course's data from the marking dashboard as a CSV, which is a great way to archive the data or start working on a mark report.

Private Student Communication

Every assignment in iTunes U carries a private communication channel with every student in the course. Students and teachers can chat in this channel as well as post pictures, videos and documents.

Teachers and students can attach documents to the private communication channel

Teachers and students can attach documents to the private communication channel

This channel is how the document submission is implemented. Submissions are just special file attachments on the private message channel. Teachers can also send documents back to students this way. This might be particularly useful in situations where one or more of the digital artefacts that result from the work is actually generated by the teacher. For example, the teacher might video a student's performance or complete a marking rubric based on the student's work and return that document to them privately through this channel.

The private message channel supports document provider extensions so you can pull straight from Google Drive, Dropbox, Box or iCloud Drive.

The private message channel supports document provider extensions so you can pull straight from Google Drive, Dropbox, Box or iCloud Drive.

Limitations

There are a few limitations on this current release, but not many.

While the teacher gets a very usable marking dashboard for the course, the student gets no such overview of their grades (bug: #21569689).

There is no mechanism for a teacher to see an overview of a student across courses. This would be ideal for guidance staff and, in principle, the student's Apple ID could be the primary key (bug: #21570607).

There is no mechanism for limiting the number or type of files a student can submit for an assignment. In some scenarios, that's totally OK. Maybe the submission is composed of multiple items. On the other hand, I would very much like to be able to force the students to submit either a PDF or another specific kind of file (bug: #21570640).

There's no mechanism for automatically locking an assignment when the deadline has passed (bug: #21570691).

The marking dashboard does not calculate any max, min or average stats for the class (bug: #21569771.

Attachments in the private message channel are seemingly never cached on the device. I posted a 25MB movie to a student and the student had to wait for it to download entirely every time they wanted to play it. It couldn't be streamed, apparently. This might be a rather hard limit on the scalability of this feature. Hard to imagine a 250MB feedback video being watched much if the latency is that high (bug: #21570782).

Bugs

Assignments with submission but no grade can only be submitted to via open in. Students can add photos to the discussion but that doesn't count as submission. Effectively you can't submit from Photos to an assignment that does not have a grade, because Photos does not support Open In. A task which is graded and has a hand in can be submitted to from the paper clip. This is different to ungraded assignments. (bug: #21569879)

If a student opens a PDF, marks it up and then immediately submits, the annotations are flattened and then lost. It is possible to save the PDF with editable annotations but this has to be done manually. The student has to manually save the edited version before handing in. (bug: #21569632)

Conclusion

The iTunes U release cycle is long - too long, I would argue - but it does tend to bring good results when releases do arrive. iTunes U 2.0 brought us Course Manager on iPad. iTunes U 3.0 brings us a whole new document submission and grading workflow that is easily as good as anything that currently exists.

In the post-iPhone 6 Plus era, I remain more than a wee bit disappointed that the Course Manager component is not available on the iPhone despite iTunes U being a universal app. Students can submit files and participate in private messaging with teachers from an iPhone, but the PDF markup tools are not available to either teachers or students on a phone.

When you look at it as a whole, though, iTunes U is clearly the most complete native mobile learning platform there is right now. Showbie has done stellar work for years on the document submission aspect of the problem. Google Classroom, too, has attacked the hill from that side.

iTunes U started with the courses, the materials and the learning content. Now it adds the assignment submission and grading components too. When you take that all together, nothing else comes close as a complete solution for delivering a course on iOS.