Last Wednesday, there was an interesting piece in the Irish Times called ‘The University of YouTube’ by Edel Morgan. The idea behind the article was to ascertain whether ‘teaching yourself on the web [is] as effective as interacting in a classroom’. As part of the experiment, three individuals undertook three separate challenges designed to test the quality of online tutoring. Morgan’s husband, for instance, used an uploaded lesson by hairdresser-to-the-stars, Richard Ashforth, to learn how to reproduce that ever-so-difficult-to-achieve just-out-of-the-salon look. The result of his newly acquired blow-drying skills was, as Morgan herself admitted, pretty good. The two other challenges involved learning sign language and a sequence dance, with varying rates of success. Both of those challenges, in fact, concluded with mixed feelings towards online learning, suggesting that it could flesh out but not wholly replace classroom learning… which got me thinking about iTunes U, an enterprise that attempts to merge classroom and virtual learning by allowing individuals to access, among other things, lectures recorded by experts in their fields from a broad range of universities. Juliana has written about iTunes U before, emphasising its potential helpfulness in lecture preparation, but I had never explored it until Morgan’s Irish Times piece prompted me to wander through its virtual halls.
Taking as its slogan, ‘Learn anything, anytime, anywhere’, iTunes U allows you to search through a quite extensive range of free material uploaded by prominent universities, libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions. Although iTunes U claims that upwards of 800 universities maintain iTunes U sites, many of these are apparently used by the institutions to share information, presentations, lectures, etc., solely with enrolled students, much like systems such as Blackboard and Moodle. This obviously limits content freely available to the general public. Nevertheless, there are some quite interesting offerings, as I found out when I perused the Literature category. Some of the (free) things I’ve downloaded for later listening include:
- Oxford University’s lecture series on ‘Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family’.
- Yale Library’s ‘Book Collecting’ series featuring several different lecturers, librarians, and curators speaking both on the act of collecting books and on Yale’s various library collections.
- Emory University’s Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature series, with four lectures each on Umberto Eco and Margaret Atwood.
- Several of The Bodleian Libraries’ fantastically named ‘BOD casts’.
As you can see from this rather miscellaneous collection, one of the apparent drawbacks of the various literature offerings is the collection’s eclectic nature. This is not the place to go if you want to learn everything there is to know about a given topic. Moreover, there are vast gaps in coverage; eighteenth-century and Romantic-era literature is under-represented, and there are no offerings on Irish literature whatsoever (at least as far as I saw). Much like the subjects of Morgan’s Irish Times challenges, therefore, I came away from my first trawl through iTunes U with mixed feelings. Although I appreciate and applaud what iTunes U is attempting to do, I don’t think it is now or ever will be (nor, indeed, should it be) a replacement for traditional classroom learning. This is, of course, something many of us have already come into contact with in a negative sense when faced with students concerned only with lecture notes, powerpoint presentations, and even lectures themselves, being posted on the aforementioned Blackboard/Moodle so they don’t have to attend class. If we view such online material as a supplement or additional aid to the learning process, I think they work quite well, but on their own, their application is limited.