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iTunes U (iPad app)

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      09.12.2012 05:30
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      One of the biggest and best apps out there. Try it.

      U who?

      If 'geniosity' isn't already a word then it ought to be. It should be used to describe whoever thought up the iTunesU application at apple. It could well pique the interest even of those of you who have no intention of downloading any app. Ever. It's really a very simple idea. iTunes have developed a basic framework and made it available to colleges or schools interested in uploading some of their courses content online. For a couch potato user like me it's a cross between lingering in a virtual bookshop - the longer I spend browsing, the more I find that I want to download - and walking through a European Christmas market where some iTunes stalls have more enticing wares than others.

      "Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe" ~ Thomas Jefferson.

      Though a brilliant wordsmith, by his own admission Jefferson was a poor orator. One disappointing aspect about iTunesU are the number of highbrow lecturers featured who aren't good public speakers.

      Take 'Great Writers Inspire' from Oxford University. I had optimistically downloaded a short video hoping to watching a lecturer explain Beowulf in engaging terms. Disappointingly he barely glanced up from his notes and fidgeted throughout. I lasted about 2 minutes, although not before learning that the work was slightly singed thanks to once having been thrown from a burning library.

      Equally, there are authors who are far more comfortable orators yet they readily spend long periods of time in seclusion. One such person is Alexander McCall Smith. The Academy of Achievement ("The Academy") invited him to talk for 15 minutes at their rather pompous sounding International Achievement Summit for authors and poets. The Academy is probably one of my favourites on here. Unlike the majority of institutions featured, it's a non-profit organization which brings together high profile, successful people from various fields and college kids to inspire them to succeed.

      ~ It's all academic isn't it? ~

      Far from being dry, the content on iTunes U can be fun and arguably relevant. The Music category of The Academy features performances from Taylor Swift in 2008 and James Brown in 2004. Their Entertainers category features interviews with the likes of Morgan Freeman from earlier this year to Olivia de Havilland in 2001. I wonder if she expected her interview to be as accessible as it is, or merely gone with the wind?

      Another 10 minute speech was given by Barack Obama in 2007 (under 'Challenging the status quo') once he had announced he was standing for election. While I enjoyed watching him explain how a teenaged encounter with two ANC members became a turning point in his life, the funniest part comes about 8 minutes in when Bishop Desmond Tutu who has joined him on the stage, shushes him.

      What you could get...

      * Mr Burns from The Simpsons *

      Would Montgomery Burns give his time for free? No. but what you will find is a far more charismatic man called Michael Sandel who bares an uncanny resemblance. 'Justice with Michael Sandel' is the subject which first introduced me to iTunesU. Although called Justice it would be more aptly called Moral Reasoning. In less charismatic hands this might leave me cold, but Sandel keeps discussions about utilitarianism and free market exchange interesting by drawing on real life scenarios from egg and sperm donation to same-sex marriages. It's also undeniable that Mr Burns looks remarkably like Sandel (as well as having the same signature hand gesture), and that many Simpsons writers have studied at Harvard, but their writing team is staying silent. Characteristically the two may be poles apart, as Sandel is one of the more popular tutors at Harvard, with over 1000 students listening to his lectures.

      Its not all perfect though. The videos sometimes spend too long focussing on the students, who are either fidgeting, looking bored or taking notes. Some judicious editing wouldn't have gone amiss. There is also some tiresome American advertising to skip over at the start of every lecture.

      * Heroin in the New York Public Library *

      More accurately Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker and Doug Yule not only being interviewed but performing as the Velvet Underground in 2009. A shame it's audio only. I suppose one upside is that I can carry on surfing or check emails while listening, but I would much prefer seeing them perform. I should warn you that about 11 minutes into the session, while they're playing the song Heroin the screeching viola nearly made me ears start bleeding. I'm not a Velvet Underground fan but I've listened to this twice, despite it being 1 hour 20 minutes long. If Lou Reed discussing his relationship with Warhol isn't your thing, perhaps conversations with Christopher Hitchens or Antonia Fraser are? These can all be found in 'Live at the NYPL' along with 130 other interviews.

      'New York beyond sight' is another audio series where this library really shines. Like many others, when I've been to New York I've barely left Manhattan. What surprised me was the rich seam of history that New Yorkers still hold dear in the four other boroughs. Queens is home to the Adriance Farmhouse from the 18th century, while NYC's oldest house is the Wyckoff Farmhouse in nearby Brooklyn. Both are typical Dutch style Quaker homes more suited to rural Pennsylvania yet a stones throw from Manhattan. Fast forward a century and the house where Edgar Allan Poe spent his last years is also now open to the public in the Bronx. Meanwhile, Staten Island might be best known for a ferry crossing, but the Coney Island fairground sounds like its worth a look as does the Marchais Tibetan museum. These talks are given by people who know them well and last only around 4 minutes each. Well worth listening to.

      * Double trouble *

      I didn't get to see Lenny Henry in last years production of The Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre but his performance won rave reviews from the critics. The NT has a presence here too. Aside from a 30 minute interview with Henry most of the content seems to be aimed more at those interested in backstage roles with sections on wigs & makeup and special effects. Their series on vocal exercises might not have as large an audience as their theatre but could help any festive Cinderella's.

      I give you musicians from the Velvet Underground to Taylor Swift, an equally swift look at utilitarianism which is more pleasure than pain and some Dutch masters in New York and yet you're still nonplussed? What you will personally find appealing on iTunesU naturally depends on your own tastes and interests. A look at the weekly Charts (or most popular downloads) reveals Spanish to be the most popular subject by far. Interestingly, a secondary school Academy (go Essa!) in Bolton, Lancashire has 5 of the courses in the top 20 downloads as of today (double that of Yale and Harvard combined). 'iPad and iPhone Application Development' and 'Developing Apps for iOS' are both in the top 10 collections too. Perhaps there are lots of wannabe Zuckerbergs out there hoping to create the Next Big Thing. Another popular topic seems to be creative writing courses which is how I chanced upon McCall Smith's interview I've mentioned above.

      Not everything is rosy in this apple application though. Some of the content is decidedly old hat. That may not be a problem with courses such as those above, but I would have thought that any financial ones should be bang up to date. The New York Public Library has a finance course aimed at locals wanting to start up their own business in the city with chapters like 'How to start a fashion line in today's market' and 'Good business practices for entrepreneurs' both dating from 2008. Perhaps the basic tenets of starting up a business haven't changed but getting finance and staying afloat might need more tenacity now.

      The material doesn't have to be exclusive to iTunes either so it may well appear in a similar format elsewhere. I'm fairly sure that some of the 'Justice' content has been broadcast by BBC3 or 4.

      Some institutions could do with making their site more appealing. I had high hopes that the Museum of Modern Art in New York would at least be visually engaging. I was wrong. 'Edward Munch - the modern life of the soul' dates from 2006. The MoMA exhibition featured nearly 90 paintings although they've only uploaded discussions on 18 here. What's really irritating is that they only display one generic painting for all of the talks. Why would anyone want to listen to a depiction of a painting without seeing what's being discussed? You have to skip along to their own website to view the paintings. The same goes for their 'Explosive with lots of colour- Pixar- 20 years of animation'. Sadly they've missed a golden opportunity.

      Those niggles aside, I would still recommend iTunesU. They claim to be the world's largest online catalogue of free educational content which is believable although I doubt it's available worldwide. The range of subjects, not to mention the universities which offer them is immense. Oxford university was one of the earlier adopters and they claim to have had 19 million downloads of their courses in the last four years which testifies to its popularity. Despite what I've written, it isn't too US centric or even English speaking either. It's easy enough to find content in Japanese and various European languages for those that speak them.

      For those that don't, why not brush up on a language? Not having studied French for years I picked a beginners course from the Open University in anticipation of a day trip to France. Having downloaded it onto my iPad, I can now sync it to my desktop, and in turn sync my iPod from my desktop. Should I want to take my iPod with me, I would then have some very basic French to listen to on the way over there.

      Also, part of its charm lies in simply not knowing what I might find. Glamorgan Uni has uploaded a performance of a play written by Hollywood screenwriter Diane Lake. It was recorded in front of students in 2010 and hasn't been edited since - a few stumbles over words bear witness to that.

      Recommended.

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