iTunes U – The Rise of the 800 Pound Guerrilla

by | Dec 18, 2009 | Business Trends

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker iTunes U The rise of the 800 pound guerrilla


In April 2009 Stanford University announced that its iPhone Application Programming course had broken the 1 million download mark from the Apple iTunes site. And it did it in record time – less than seven weeks.

The course is nothing more than a series of classroom videos being taught by a team of Apple engineers. But the price was set at that very attractive price point of “free.” One catch though, only people who were enrolled at Stanford University received credits for the course.

With over 200,000 courses from over 200 different institutions to pick from on iTunes U, and all of them free to anyone who wants to take them, Apple is quickly becoming the world leader in courseware aggregation. The obvious question to ask is “what is Apple’s motivation for doing this?” and “how do they intend to make money?”

History of iTunes U

Shortly after Apple opened its iTunes Store in April 2003, the company started receiving requests from colleges to post courses on the site. Initially the requests were directed to the podcast section, but as the numbers grew, Apple devised a strategy for adding an entirely new division.

iTunes U was formally in May 2007. The service was created to manage, distribute, and control access to educational audio and video content for students within a college or university as well as the broader Internet.

In October 2008, Apple hired Dr. Joel Podolny, the Dean of Yale University’s School of Management, to run what was quickly becoming known as Apple University. This move, while very curious to most Apple observers, signaled a much farther reaching strategy than what most were anticipating.

The Missing Pieces

While Apple is doing a good job of aggregating existing courses from existing institutions, they haven’t made any moves to open the floodgates, and we are talking serious floodgates here, to engage other potential courseware providers.

In our way of thinking, communications and search have been the two dominant forms of use for the Internet. However, the one application that could become far more dominant that either of those uses is education. What’s at stake is the creation of the largest and most influential site on the Web.

Here’s what’s missing:

  • Easy Authoring Tools: Currently the realm of online course creation has been reserved to learning professionals, not topical experts or passionate amateurs. In much the same way Wikipedia started, a simple online system for creating new courses could cause a tsunami of new content to flood the Internet. Some will be good, but most will be below average. In the middle will be a few shining examples of unique new ways to present course content, and these will be the ones that the pave the way for the next wave.
  • Courseware Standards: Existing college courses are too long, too dry, and too boring. While we may not be able to create standards that prevent boring content, we can certainly do something about the length. All courses need to be standardized around 60 minute (one-hour) course units. Standards can also be created for testing comprehension, student records, transcripts, pricing standards, and a variety of other variables that will help streamline an emerging new system.
  • Profiling Engine: The system needs to know the student before it can recommend courses. Profiling software has been used for many things and can be easily adapted for this. The trick will be to imbed learning objects that can read the learning style and adapt the course to the precise level of student’s skills, knowledge and confidence.
  • Recommendation Engine: After the completion of every course a recommendation engine needs to list several options for the next course, but the options need to be closely synced with the whims and desires of the student.
  • Feedback System: Courseware authors need to have a real-time understanding of student engagement, confidence, achievement, and enjoyment.
  • Credits and Certification: Every course that is completed needs to be accompanied with a system for marking the progression of the student. And the system needs to lead to levels of accomplishment as certified by the organization that bestow them.
  • Courseware Monetization System: If iTunes can change $1.29 for a three minute song, they can easily charge $1-$5 for a one-hour course. Money can be parceled out to the course author, distribution system, recommendation engine, profiling engine, record-keeping company, and possibly a few more. A little friction in the system will help deter the spammers and those intent on disrupting the system.

Apple has dabbled some in the courseware authoring arena with the Woolamaloo Automator, but it’s still a far cry from the fully integrated modality agnostic, language agnostic system that we see coming. You can see a more extensive look at the future of colleges and universities.

Colleges are on the verge of a significant transformation, and Apple is currently in the driver’s seat. But as we have seen so many times in the online world, new players can spring to life over night, and one that is positioning itself as one of the key players is a little startup in Denver called SatoriEDU.

Newspapers, travel agencies, yellow pages and record labels are all industries that have been greatly affected by the Internet, and each of them tell a different version of what may lie ahead for colleges.

The current system was designed for slower times and a different culture. In a world going through major upheavals in technology, culture, and lifestyle, our current college system has continually rearranged the deck chairs, but has shown virtually no ability to grasp the bigger picture. The next couple years will indeed be fascinating to watch, and for Apple, it’s currently theirs to lose.

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