iTunes U still competitive in online education

Feb. 5, 2013, 1:35 a.m.

While massive open online course (MOOC) platforms such as Coursera and Udacity continue to gain traction in the world of online learning, outdated platforms such as iTunes U are still attracting millions of remote learners interested in Stanford courses.

According to Brent Izutsu, Stanford’s director of digital media, over 1.35 million people have subscribed to a Stanford course on iTunes U. Stanford-produced content, including video and audio recordings of lectures and speeches, has been downloaded more than 64 million times.

Izutsu said that the iTunes U program offers a valid alternative to programs like Coursera for remote students who want to take a Stanford course at their own pace.

“A lot of the other platforms have people taking the courses together at the same time, which is a much more intense learning experience,” Izutsu said. “With iTunes U, you are working at your own pace and can invest as much or as little time as you want.”

Stanford’s use of iTunes U has evolved significantly since it began using the platform eight years ago. While the University’s iTunes U site now hosts 17 full courses, it was originally used to broadcast commencement speeches and other notable events to alumni around the world.

“When we launched the public site in 2005, it was very much geared toward re-engaging alumni,” Izutsu said. “We very quickly realized that our audience was not just alumni but the general public at large.”

In 2007, videotaped lectures from 10 courses were added to the Stanford iTunes site. The content on the site consisted solely of audio and video files until January 2012, when Apple launched the iTunes U app. This app allowed professors to upload additional materials such as homework assignments and class handouts, giving remote students more of a comprehensive course experience.

While remote students can now participate in a course by completing homework assignments and even taking exams, they are still not able to ask questions in class, receive feedback on homework and exams or collaborate with classmates. Several iTunes U courses have attempted to bridge this gap through Piazza, an online forum that allows students from around the world to ask and answer questions and discuss the course.

One such course is Coding Together: Developing Apps for iPhone and iPad, taught by Professor of Computer Science Paul Hegarty ’87 M.S. ’88. Hegarty first videotaped and uploaded lectures from his course in Fall 2010, and he uploads a new version of the course with each curriculum update. There are currently four versions of the course on iTunes U.

“I’ve taught iTunes U a number of times so it’s kind of like it’s an old hat,” he said. “When I first did it years ago, I probably thought that everyone was watching my every move and I couldn’t screw up, but not so much anymore.”

Hegarty is teaching an updated version of the course this quarter and has been uploading the lectures and class materials on iTunes U. This class is currently the top iTunes U course by downloads.

Remote students are able to register on Piazza to discuss the lectures and assignments with other students, although Hegarty says that iTunes U students often reach out to him for help instead.

“Many, many people have watched my class on iTunes U, and I get emails from all over the world from people asking me questions about everything from the content of the course to whether I can grade their homework,” Hegarty said. “I have to ignore it all. It’s just too much stuff.”

In some cases, however, iTunes U students are able to communicate directly with professors and offer suggestions about the content of the class.

In Election 2012, a one-unit lecture series, guests such as Professor of Economics John Taylor Ph.D. ’73 and University President John Hennessy spoke about a variety of topics related to the election. Before each lecture, both remote and Stanford students used a Piazza forum to suggest questions for the speakers. Other students were able to vote each question up or down, allowing the most popular questions to rise to the top and catch the attention of the moderators.

Associate Professor of Political Science Rob Reich M.A. ’98 Ph.D. ’98, one of the course moderators, said that Election 2012’s professors intended for Stanford students and remote students to discuss issues together through Piazza, but ran into privacy issues and had to create three separate forums – one for Stanford students, one for Continuing Studies students and one for members of the general public.

The issue stemmed from the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prohibits Stanford from releasing the names of students taking a specific course.

Reich said that because the course was filmed and uploaded on iTunes U, students in the audience at lectures were unable to directly question the speakers, since the professors did not obtain permission from every student to have his or her image online.

Though some students were disappointed with not being able to directly interact with the speakers, Reich said that the online system benefitted students who may have been reluctant to ask questions in front of the class.

“Having a microphone in the crowd means people who jump up first and have a question to ask immediately get their questions asked,” Reich said. “Online, it’s not like a 100-yard dash to get to the microphone stand. In that respect, some students might prefer being able to propose questions online.”

While the Election 2012 lecture videos were posted 72 hours after each class, other iTunes U videos have to go through an intense editing process before being approved for the iTunes U site. Videos undergo copyright scrubbing, which requires that all copyrighted materials – such as a diagram from a textbook that the professor projects to the class – be removed from the video if the professor does not get permission to publically broadcast them.

Associate Professor of Computer Science Andrew Ng, whose Machine Learning course is the ninth-most popular class by downloads on the Stanford iTunes U site, complained that copyright scrubbing made uploading his class to iTunes U much more expensive and time consuming.

“We recorded the videos in Fall 2007, and there were many months of editing and removing copyright content, which was a large part of the cost,” Ng said. “Copyright scrubbing is one of those things that doesn’t seem that difficult until you actually do it.”

Ng, the co-CEO and co-founder of Coursera, said that while iTunes U courses have historically been attractive to remote students, iTunes U has become outdated as a platform.

“If your goal is to only distribute video, I think iTunes U is a fine platform,” Ng said. “But new technologies are much more interactive, allow students to get feedback and earn certificates for their work. In the future, I will put my online courses on Coursera because I believe that technology is much better suited for online courses.”

While the future of Stanford’s involvement in iTunes U is still unclear, Hegarty is certain that online education will continue to evolve.

“There’s no doubt about the fact that this online education thing is just in its infancy,” Hegarty said. “It’s hard to know and hard to predict what’s going to happen in the next 10 years. There’s going to be a lot more going on in online education in 10 years than there is today.”

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