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Universities reluctant to use iTune U

In keeping with Steve Jobs’ vision of transforming education, Apple has expanded its iTunes U so that professors can now offer entire courses, not just lectures.

So far, though, not many colleges and universities are rushing to drop the platforms they already use for online learning and adopt the new application from the technology heavyweight.

Apple bills the expanded iTunes U as “an entire course in one app,” with the capacity to accommodate lectures, assignments, books, quizzes and syllabi. Although the application is free, the courses can be accessed only on an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch, Apple products whose prices may be unaffordable for college students with limited financial resources.

Created in 2007, iTunes U is touted by Apple as “the world’s largest catalog of free educational content,” including lectures by distinguished professors at Harvard and Stanford universities, for example. There have been 700 million downloads, according to the company.

“The all-new iTunes U app enables students anywhere to tap into entire courses from the world’s most prestigious universities,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice-president of Internet Software and Services.

The expansion was announced in January to allow professors time to gather and put together material for courses starting in the fall. Six schools have already placed a total of about 100 courses on iTunes U, including MIT, Yale, Stanford and Duke. It is unclear how many other schools are moving to take advantage of the new app, which faces challenges in gaining wide acceptance.

“It’s competing with some of the traditional learning management systems that have been around a number of years,” said John Flores, executive director of the Boston-based US Distance Learning Association, who has not seen major movement to iTunes U. “It’s almost like changing bags or changing doctors or changing barbers. You get comfortable. You want to go to the same resource. The same happens with using a technology.”

The dominant player in online learning is Blackboard Inc., which was formed in 1997 and says its platform is used by 2,000 educational institutions of all levels. Three weeks after Apple’s announcement in January, the company released an upgrade of Blackboard Learn that it says makes the platform easier to navigate and more efficient to use.

North Carolina A & T University, a leader in distance learning among historically black colleges, uses Blackboard Learn. So does the University of Massachusetts Boston, which has a diverse student body and an African American chancellor, J. Keith Motley.

Staffers who help professors at UMass Boston design online courses say there are no plans for an immediate switch to iTunes U, which the school has used only for posting promotional videos of campus events such as commencement exercises.

“It’s tempered enthusiasm, I would say,” said Apostolo Koutropoulos, an instructional support specialist at UMass Boston. “When you get something new and you already have existing structures, it takes time to change to something else.”

Koutropoulos  and Christian deTorres, an educational technology consultant at UMass Boston, cited the relatively high cost of an iPad for students who may not even own a laptop, easier access to Blackboard Learn on any computer, and potential copyright and student privacy issues if UMass Boston courses were available on iTunes.

The school has been working in vain for three years, deTorres said, to create an interface with Apple’s platform so that only paying students would be able to access its courses if they are posted there.

“If you have a $600 iPad, it’s great,” said deTorres, speaking of iTunes U. “Any discussion of educational technology has to tie into access issues.”

Some iPads are available for as low as $400, but that is still pricey for many students who struggle to pay college costs and, in many cases at commuter schools like UMass Boston, also work to pay living expenses or support their young families.

Flores, who is also executive director of business and organizational relationships and a program professor at Nova Southeastern University, said colleges usually invest in professional development for staffers and professors to train them how to use a learning management system, and then devote time and effort to making patches so it works as they want. Switching to another would take time and money.

He suggests the expanded iTunes U may win favor more quickly among devotees of Apple products than with professors and university staffers more inclined towards PCs. Even then, Koutropoulos said, Blackboard Learn has an advantage — it works well on either kind of computer.

“With Blackboard, students can go to a computer, open up Internet Explorer and just go to their Blackboard account, and they’re set,” he said.

The other two leading systems in online learning are Desire2Learn and Moodle, which is an open source platform. Besides A & T, Flores cited Howard University and University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff as black colleges with considerable distance learning programs. Both use Blackboard Learn. Another, Morehouse College, relies on WebCT, which Blackboard Inc. bought in 2009.

No black colleges use Desire2Learn, according to a map of higher education clients posted on its website.

For a few years, Flores has been urging black colleges to form a network to share their distance learning courses, just as Jesuit schools and liberal arts colleges in New England have formed networks. He has discussed the idea with John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the executive director of the black colleges’ initiative at the White House, but has received limited response from black colleges.

“I’m not sure if they’re really talking to each other. They’re obviously working in vacuums,” said Flores, who grew up in Dorchester. “I think that there should be the opportunity to build that kind of coalition to bring them all together towards a common goal.”

Nova Southeastern University, Florida International University and Northern Arizona University are three Hispanic-serving institutions that also use Blackboard.

Any university switching to iTunes U would have to grapple with copyright issues, the UMass Boston staffers said, because such material would be available to anyone, not just enrolled students. “Professors use copyright material in every course,” deTorres noted.

And students who are actually in the classroom having their images and possibly words distributed widely, he added, could also raise legal issues about student privacy rights. At the moment, Apple may be gearing its educational technology efforts more to K-12 schools than colleges.

Besides expanding what can be done on iTunes U, the company has also opened the platform to elementary and secondary schools for the first time. The announcement was coupled with another about making available e-textbooks, some with video illustrating lessons, for an initial price of $14.99.

That is an attractive price for college students, but Apple’s initial target in electronic publishing are K-12 schools, a larger market with a potentially higher volume of textbook sales. The texts could be used in iTunes U courses. Apple has the brand name and marketing prowess to get its share of the online learning market for higher education, but it may take some time.

DeTorres of UMass Boston predicted that iTunes U would enjoy some success, eventually.

“With the freedom and flexibility of iTunes U, as long as it’s following professional criteria to build a quality course, I think eventually it will be readily accepted,” Flores said. “It’s a new product. It’s a new service. Time will tell.”

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