- The Washington Times - Monday, July 6, 2009

The lights dim at the front of the room. Eight scientific graphs flash into your view on white projector screens. Then comes the professor’s voice, in a soft German accent. And there he is, in his tweed suit, stalking across the lecture room floor.

“Good afternoon. Last time we spoke about light … We have seen that light is defined as an electromagnetic wave…”

But you’re not in the classroom. You’re not even in this professor’s class. And you’re certainly not paying tens of thousands of dollars a year to attend college and listen to this lecture.

Instead, you’re sitting at home, watching it for free on your computer, iPod or iPhone. Plus, thousands more lectures, from universities across the nation, are yours for the downloading.

They’re all part of the latest phenomenon in online knowledge-sharing and classroom technology - iTunes U.

iTunes U makes thousands of classroom lectures, speeches and student work available to the public for free. University officials call it a boon to the global dissemination of knowledge. It’s changing the way students learn, inside and outside the classroom.

American University professor Patrick Thaddeus Jackson uploads supplemental lectures for his international relations classes on iTunes. His students listen, and so do others. He has received feedback from as far away as Scotland.

“If you’re an academic, in terms of producing knowledge, what’s better than having the knowledge that you produce be listened to?” he asked rhetorically. “People I don’t know in Scotland can listen to my stuff, can contact me and tell me, ‘You know, the next time you talk about James I, you might want to know there’s this controversy about his religious affiliation …’ That kind of accessibility is really quite interesting.”

Apple provides free storage and bandwidth to universities through iTunes U. Schools can display content both publicly - one click away from the iTunes store’s main page - and privately, through password-protected features, satisfying professors who prefer that their lectures reach only their students.

Several Washington-area universities have jumped on the opportunity. George Mason, Georgetown, and American universities and the University of Maryland are all iTunes “providers.”

Georgetown launched its iTunes program two months ago. George Mason has been posting courses for 1 1/2 years but plans to significantly expand its offerings in the fall.

“We think Apple has the right idea about how contemporary education should be,” said Judith Paras Kaul, director of Web communications for George Mason’s university relations office. “The learning, we feel, is moving out of the classroom and into online in a major way.”

Teachers do more with iTunes U than just post lectures for the public.

George Mason professor Jessica Matthews used iTunes University in her English composition class to display her students’ work. With a class full of accounting majors, she required them to write five-minute podcast scripts about how globalization would affect their future careers.

At American University, iTunes has provided Mr. Jackson a global platform for podcasts he has been making for years. After growing frustrated with the traditional 50-minute lecture format of college classes, he decided to deliver reading notes via podcast instead of using class time for them. That way, students arrive at class with a “knowledge base,” ready for discussion and more engaging assignments than a simple lecture, Mr. Jackson said.

Stephanie McDaniel, a recent American University graduate, said she enjoyed Mr. Jackson’s technological teaching style, especially when she read German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

“Any extra time with the professor is useful in understanding works like these. … It helps you get into the book,” she said. “My only caveat is that professor Jackson is actually quite engaging, and so his podcasts are fun. Some people may not be able to manage being interesting.”

His students are not the only ones who find Mr. Jackson engaging. Twenty-eight-year-old Scott Carmichael, of Sparta, Tenn., started listening to lectures on iTunes U about a month ago and has listened to five of Mr. Jackson‘s.

“I feel like I learn just as much from listening to the podcast as I did when I was in college,” he said.

Nevertheless, he missed “interpersonal contact” with the professor - but he e-mailed Mr. Jackson on Tuesday, asking for clarification on a lecture point, and got a response.

“So as far as I can tell, the only thing missing is I can’t go up and shake his hand,” Mr. Carmichael said.

Schools are betting that iTunes listeners are missing a lot more than a handshake, which explains why they’re not afraid to put free content on the Internet.

Bigger universities such as Yale, MIT and Stanford are uploading classes not just through iTunes U, but also platforms such as YouTube and academicearth.org.

Mara Hancock, director of educational technologies at the University of California at Berkeley, said the school gives away lectures on iTunes U and other platforms as part of its mission to further global access to knowledge. That doesn’t mean the university will lack tuition-paying students anytime soon.

“What we’re doing now isn’t a full education. The real aspects of learning take place in the engagement and interaction and the assessment and all that. And that’s what the learners, who are watching the lectures, don’t get,” she said.

In fact, the openness has had at least one positive promotional side effect for Berkeley. Some prospective students are choosing Berkeley based on the content they watched on the Web, Ms. Hancock said.

In addition, students value the ability to review lectures via video or podcast. Seventy-three percent of incoming Berkeley freshmen wanted courses webcast or podcasted, Ms. Hancock said. They can use the online content to choose future classes, catch up on lectures they may have missed or review and fill gaps in notes.

Dani McKinney, a researcher at the State University of New York at Fredonia, is studying the benefits of this kind of instruction with podcasts. Her initial findings, published in November, showed that students who listened to a podcast and took notes scored significantly higher on an exam than those who attended the lecture and took notes.

But she said the podcast alone didn’t make the difference. What mattered was what students did with it. The students who listened to the podcast more than once and took notes scored the highest.

Ms. McKinney said she thinks the real benefit lies in the ability to review difficult passages in the lecture because students attending the actual lecture often shy away from asking for repetition or clarification. She said the podcasts could be especially helpful to struggling students, a conclusion Mr. Jackson also reached.

Though Ms. McKinney expressed enthusiasm for both podcasts and iTunes U, she said her research didn’t show that students who routinely skip class could get by with a podcast or that online lectures could one day replace physical universities.

“Even if you are video-chatting, that’s still not the same as a classroom environment where everyone is learning together,” she said. “When I’m teaching, I’m constantly watching their eyes. I’m seeing, are you with me, are you still with me? … In the same way, do you think telecommuting will ever replace offices? No, I don’t. Because you lose too much.”

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