Turn your iPhone or iPod into a Portable University

8/1/08Follow @wroush

You can’t earn a college degree just by watching iPod videos (at least, not yet). But if it’s pure knowledge you’re after, there’s a veritable bounty of it available at the “iTunes University” section of Apple’s iTunes store, tuition-free.

iTunes U isn’t new—Apple launched it on May 30, 2007, the same day it introduced iTunes Plus, a new category of DRM-free songs with higher-quality sound. But the company has been adding new content to the “U” continuously, and the count of colleges and universities contributing audio and video recordings of faculty lectures is now up to 72, including such standouts as Carnegie Mellon, Duke, MIT, Northeastern, Stanford, UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt, Wellesley, and Yale. There’s also a variety of lectures and videos from prominent non-academic institutions like American Public Media, KQED, the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Public Library, the Smithsonian, WGBH, and the 92nd Street Y.

The top download at iTunes U right now is one I highly recommend: “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” a.k.a. “The Last Lecture,” by Randy Pausch, a virtual-reality researcher at Carnegie Mellon. Pausch succumbed to pancreatic cancer on July 25, but not before inspiring a worldwide audience with his infectious, irreverent optimism and his stories about how he got to live out his own dreams of being in zero gravity, working for Disney Imagineering, and the like. The unexpected viral response to Pausch’s lecture—more than 5 million people have viewed the YouTube version—got him a book contract and even an appearance on Oprah, which is all pretty remarkable for a guy who was a big software geek at heart. If you watch the video, I guarantee you’ll start envying the kids who were lucky enough to take his classes at CMU.

Walter Lewin\'s MIT physics lectures on iTunes UA lot of the material at iTunes U is like Pausch’s lecture, falling somewhere between education, as we traditionally think of it, and entertainment. But I think that’s all to the good. There aren’t many other places where you can find a lecture by Stanford neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolksy on what baboons can teach us about stress and coping, a conversation with the Dalai Lama about nonviolence, and a Charlie Rose interview with Steve Martin. (Not to mention a presentation by Xconomy editor-in-chief Bob Buderi and Xconomy Seattle editor Greg Huang about their book Guanxi.)

Apple deserves serious credit for bringing all of this content together and making it easy to transfer it to your iPod or iPhone (or just watch on your laptop). Of course, it’s not an entirely philanthropic operation—the more free, high-quality content that’s available for iPods and iPhones, the more people will want those devices. But Apple wouldn’t have been able to build iTunes U at all if it weren’t for the effort and money that schools like Stanford and MIT have already invested over the past half-decade in digitizing course materials, including lectures, notes, and readings, and making them available to the public for free.

MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, launched in 2002, was the pioneer in this area; it offers materials for 1,800 courses from MIT alone, from Walter Lewin’s legendary 8.01 freshman physics course to an undergraduate-led course for high school students on Douglas Hofstadter’s geek-cult classic Gödel, Escher, Bach. MIT’s example is catching on worldwide; the global OpenCourseWare Consortium now spans 26 countries and includes 150 universities and affiliated organizations; each of which has committed to publishing at least 10 courses online. (It’s worth noting that most of this material is available straight from the websites of participating universities, so you don’t have to go through iTunes, if you don’t happen to be an Apple junkie.)

Charlie Rose interview with Steve Martin on iTunes UThere’s one downside to iTunes U. Considering the richness of the material it contains, it’s a real shame that the interface is so clunky, making content hard to find. This might surprise you, since Apple’s devices and programs are generally known for their friendly interfaces. But the problem, as I see it, is that iTunes was originally developed as a music store. As Apple tries to use it to distribute so many other kinds of content—album notes, audio books, TV shows, music videos, movies, podcasts, iPod games, iPhone apps, and lectures—it’s showing signs of strain.

To take just one example: the iTunes Store’s search engine is built to err on the side of inclusiveness rather than exactitude, returning many results that represent spelling variations on your original query. This is very helpful when you’re looking for that band you heard on the radio last week but you can’t remember their exact name. But it’s not so great when you’re searching iTunes U for lectures about Leonardo da Vinci and you get back hundreds of results for Leonard Cohen (the singer-songwriter), Leonard Maltin (the film critic), and Leonard Susskind (the closest of the three—he’s a Stanford physics professor).

My other complaint—though it’s a minor one, keeping in mind that the iTunes U cornucopia is entirely free—is that you can’t get detailed information about the individual programs, short of actually downloading them and viewing/listening. The titles of the recorded or videotaped lectures are often cryptic, and the “Comment” area of the iTunes interface isn’t large enough to convey a useful synopsis. It’s yet another awkward result of shoehorning things like lectures into the music-store format, in which everything is a “track” that has to have “artist” and “album” names and a “genre.”

But before your next trip to the gym, I urge you to stop by iTunes U and download a lecture or two to your iPod. It’s a great way to fatten your brain while slimming your fanny.

* * *

Before I close, let me return for a moment to last week’s column, where I agonized over whether to give up cable TV and just watch my favorite TV shows on the Internet.

In the accompanying poll (where you can still register your own vote), a surprising number of people—35 percent, so far—say they have already done just that. More than 52 percent say they could imagine giving up their cable TV subscriptions, but simply haven’t yet, and 10 percent say they’d consider abandoning cable if there were more content available online. Only 2.5 percent say they could never give up cable.

A couple of people left comments saying they were pretty happy subsisting on a mix of Netflix DVDs and videos from sites like Hulu and iTunes. And a few more said they’d quit their cable habits as soon as they found ways to get their favorite TV content, such as English Premier League soccer, online.

Overall, I’d say that’s pretty bad news for the Comcasts, Coxes, and Time Warners of the world. Thanks to readers, I’m feeling emboldened to take the plunge myself. In a future column, perhaps, I’ll report back on life post-cable.

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.