Hands on with Apple’s iTunes U: An education

In university, I used a single clipboard/portfolio to store my notes from every class, then mostly piled the day’s work on the floor according to subject matter. Now Apple (s aapl) has launched a new iTunes U dedicated app, which makes keeping track of course material ridiculously easy compared to my days of academic foraging.
Most students and educators who’ve been in school in the past 10 years have probably run across Blackboard, or some similar system for managing courses online in an interactive digital environment. Generally speaking, those systems are lacking in a lot of ways: navigating them can be difficult for new users; the same content can easily be filed in multiple places, leading to confusion; they usually aren’t engaging or attractive in terms of visual design.
Apple’s iTunes U addresses all those problems. It uses a UI that mimics the real world, which some people say is the wrong approach, but should help students and education professionals who grew up using traditional tools transition to digital methods. iTunes U also organizes things organically and according to common-sense logic, which should provide a greater uniformity of experience regardless of who’s putting together the course package. Finally, like all Apple products, it invites touch and interaction. There’s actually something satisfying about tapping off tasks and assignments listed in each course package.

The courses in iTunes U work on a subscription model, so you’re automatically kept up-to-date as a course proceeds. The course catalog makes it easy to find what you’re looking for, with specific sections for post-secondary education, programs from outside universities and colleges, and K-12-targeted material. Like Apple’s other digital marketplaces, it also provides highlighted courses chosen by Apple’s team, as well top charts and categories.
From the perspective of someone who’s designed a course syllabus and planned a class of study, this definitely seems like a great tool for educators. You can lay out exactly the course of action students need to take, complete with videos, slides and assignments listed as items in a list, where you can access them directly. It not only makes it easier for students to follow an instructor’s thinking, but should also help instructors better plan, organize and imrpove their courses.
If there’s one major downside to the iTunes U app, it’s that it’s most definitely exclusionary; students need an iPad, iPod touch or iPhone to take full advantage. Obviously, that’s Apple’s goal: to attract more users by providing appealing software experiences, and I definitely think it’ll succeed based on what I’ve seen so far.