A Head Full of Headphones: The Rise of iTunes U

Peter Wood

Apple has recently begun to snack at the table of higher learning.  Its iTunes U presents course lectures from 45 colleges and universities that have donated audio and video files of lectures that can be downloaded free.  Among the contributors are Carnegie Mellon, Duke, MIT, Texas A&M, University of Southern California, Stanford, and Yale. Each posts dozens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of tracks of material.   People listen generally for the sake of learning something.  Apple isn’t testing anyone, and the courses don’t come with academic credit. 

It seems unlikely that there is cause for worry in iTunes U, at least the kind of worry that the National Association of Scholars harbors over such dour developments as the Delawar-ization of residential life programs or the oft sinking of the Western Civilization into the Slough of Postmodern Despond.   Perhaps the worst that can be said for iTunes U is that it may spoil the appetite of some students for more strenuous kinds of learning.  After all, the stuff that leaks into the brain via a pair of earbuds, good as it might be, can never match the urgency of a live professor who calls on you in class and expects an intelligent answer, nor can it match the quickening that comes from conversation with fellow students. 

Apple’s iTunes U is another small step toward making the acquisition of knowledge painless, easy, and maybe fun.   This has been happening for a while.  Perhaps we should honor George Chapman, who began publishing his translation of The Odyssey for Greek-less Englishmen in 1614, as the pioneer of the field.  Picture Keats, when a new planet swims into his ken, clutching his headphones.

In any case, iTunes U has catapulted colleges into this generation’s most popular technological medium: iEverything (iPod, iPhone, iMac, iTunes, iVideo). Trumpeted on its website in slogans like, “The road to knowledge is wider than ever,” “Join the movement,” and “Transforming learning,” iTunes U makes some extravagant claims.  Let’s see how it rules its demesne.

First, unlike iTunes music and movies, lectures are all available for free. The database is a wealth of information with complete open access; it is to the classroom what Wikipedia is to the encyclopedia. Anyone can listen to and watch lessons from elite schools, no tuition necessary – not even a download fee. Of course, the difference between iTunes U and Wikipedia is that here, the contributors are scholars and professors, whereas anyone can edit a Wikipedia article.  The grandparent, the stay-at-home mom, the curious 14-year-old can all drink from this well.  Let’s not exaggerate the novelty.  They could also go to the public library and read books by many of the same scholars, and by reading those books, they might learn more than would by listening to the recorded lectures.  It just wouldn’t be as much fun.

That’s because iTunes U has a drive-through-style convenience. Its users can quickly download, then plug in headphones and listen in the car, at home, wherever they are.   Students enrolled in courses that happen to be posted on iTunes don’t even have to go to class.

This leads to the third characteristic – iTunes U promises people control over their overstuffed schedules.  So say the advertisements:   iTunes is “Your kind of school” that enables you to “study on your own schedule — no matter how crazy. Learning has finally caught up with your lifestyle.” This deserves a moment of reflection.  One aspect of a college curriculum, of course, is submitting to its discipline; and another is submitting to the intellectual authority of people who know more than you do.  The education-as-entertainment dodge has long had trouble with both ideas.  Discipline is a downer; and authority, we are told authoritatively by high-dudgeon bumper stickers, exists only to be questioned.  iTunes U shuffles these old familiar anti-intellectualisms.  But it is precisely because it treats college lectures as the equivalent of last season’s episodes of Lost that this new medium is to be greeted with indulgence.  It isn’t serious. 

Indeed, the trouble comes in the opposite direction—not from iTunes snacking at the table of higher learning, but from higher learning all too often wanting to be part of the picnic.  We don’t ask too much from students by way of responsibility. They don’t do chores (there are exceptions, such as the military academies); they needn’t cook or clean; and on most campuses students face few rules beyond the commandments to kiss the toe of diversity, smile on sustainability, and abide by the speech code.  On a fair number of campuses, class attendance is encouraged but optional.  iTunes U just makes the option of sleeping in a little easier. 

A generation ago, Neil Postman wrote about the increasing trivialization of education as a form of amusement.   His characterization of TV may be equally applied to iTunes lectures:

We now know that "Sesame Street" encourages children to love school only if school is like "Sesame Street". Which is to say, we now know that "Sesame Street" undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents. Whereas a classroom is a place of social interaction, the space in front of a television set is a private preserve. Whereas in a classroom one may ask a teacher questions, one can ask nothing of a television screen. Whereas school is centered on the development of language, television demands attention to images. Whereas attending school is a legal requirement, watching television is an act of choice. Whereas in school, one fails to attend to the teacher at the risk of punishment, no penalties exist for failing to attend to the television screen. Whereas to behave oneself in school means to observe rules of public decorum, television watching requires no such observances, has no concept of public decorum. Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means to an end, on television it is the end in itself.

The danger we face is not that iTunes will displace the pursuit of real learning, but that universities, ever eager to compete with popular culture, will sink still further into mere entertainment. 

iTunes U’s probably will accentuate the atomistic individualism of contemporary students.  The listener inside the headphones is typically in a world apart, and likes it that way.   In headphones world, you are separate from discussions, questions, answers, eye contact, and that helpless guilty feeling when you haven’t done the reading and you’ve just been called on to talk. Because you’re alone now, you don’t need anyone else.  But to be fair, there are plenty of students already living in this world without any need of headphones.

For colleges and universities today, posting lectures on iTunes U may be a smart business move. For one thing, not every track is a professorial lecture.   Some are talking admissions reels to tempt prospective students to “experience Aggieland,” or take a virtual campus tour of UC Berkeley; and with 200 million iTunes users and a disproportionate representation by teens, iTunes U looks like a good promotional platform. Colleges are not really giving away materials for which they’d usually receive tuition dollars.  They are just offering enticing samples.  Each institution keeps tabs on its iTunes U traffic, in order to say “We have ___ thousand downloads per day.”

Professors with particularly winsome personalities and intriguing topics earn fame in just the same way that singers top the charts: with popularity. Right now, one of the top five iTunes U downloads is “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” by Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor of computer science who was dying of pancreatic cancer when he gave this “last lecture,” September 18, 2007. Another is a talk given by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman at MIT, summarizing his book, The World is Flat.  And another is by the vice president of corporate social responsibility at Starbucks, Dennis Macray, who percolated at Stanford on “Starbucks Reinvents the International Coffee Trade.” The other two are “Earth Day Reflections” by the Dalai Lama and a public television report on bees.

iTunes U appeals to faculty members to “reach your students where they live” and “transcend the classroom.” Having seen the efforts of residence life officials at the University of Delaware and other campuses literally to reach students where they live with an array of political indoctrination programs, we at NAS are a bit shy of this particular iTunes U sales pitch.  Transcending the classroom often seems to mean a combination of leaving behind intellectual coherence and inflating a lighter-than-air balloon with ideological slogans.  The iTunes folk certainly don’t intend to join that company, but the pursuit of coolness has its dangers.

How central are colleges and universities to iTunes U?  The presence of authors like Tom Friedman flogging their books, and corporate spokesmen like Starbucks’s Macray extolling the historical significance of their product lines suggests that the transcendence of the classroom has gone pretty far. Other “educational” institutions are also humming iTunes in the “Beyond Campus” section, among them: American Public Media, PBS, the Museum of Modern Art, and Smithsonian Global Sound. 

Complete with alluring pictures overlaid with probing questions like “Promoting Democracy Abroad: Should We? Can We?” the iTunes U homepage invites us all to the media fest.  And we at NAS are suitably grateful for the opportunity to listen to lectures from Stanford and Vanderbilt from the comfort of our berths on the Titanic

Possibly iTunes U will transform the university by making learning free, convenient, student-controlled, entertaining, and individualistic. But perhaps more possibly, it will be one more charming distraction from the business at hand, of providing an education that is rigorous, disciplined, engaged, humble, and honest.

Don’t get us wrong.  We like entertainment.  And we are as pleased as anyone that professor of archaeology Indiana Jones will be returning to the screen this summer.  So far, however, his lectures have not shown up on iTunes U.

May 15, 2008 (Subscriber link):
Chronicle of Higher Education article: The Lectures Are Recorded, So Why Go to Class?

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