Learning Online

By Christina Morin

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:

  1. Oxford University’s lecture series on ‘Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family’.
  2. 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.
  3. Emory University’s Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature series, with four lectures each on Umberto Eco and Margaret Atwood.
  4. 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.

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6 Responses to “Learning Online”

  1. Brian J Goggin Says:

    I think you’re making the wrong comparison near the end, though, when you say:

    “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.”

    The valid contrast is not with “traditional classroom learning” (unless that’s a shorthand phrase) but with other learning resources. Broadly considered, such resources might include libraries and their contents, lectures (by the course lecturer or by someone else, perhaps even somewhere else), tutorials, feedback on written or oral work …. However, such resources by themselves do not constitute a degree [or other] course or programme, any more than a selection of iTunes items does so.

    Is it possible to design and deliver a degree course that is not predominantly classroom based? Yes: see the Open University, for instance.

    Within a course that is predominantly classroom based, is it possible and useful to use online (or other non-traditional) elements? Yes again, but it is important not to mistake the ingredients for the cake.


  2. Tina Says:

    Good point, Brian. I was using the term, as you suggest, as a kind of catchall phrase for the learning resources traditionally associated with the university experience: lectures, tutorials, assessments, necessary visits to the library to study/work/write, etc. Again, as you suggest, all of these work in conjunction to produce the end result, and iTunes U, like lectures, tutorials, etc., can be part of, but certainly not all, of that experience.

  3. Juliana Says:


    Great post. I can vouch for the fact that it’s not just literary studies that have patchy cover. Irish history is, as far as I can tell, only covered by a few public lectures at Boston College and other places rather than by any full courses. The Irish universities on iTunes U seem to have almost exclusively internal content with the occasional public lecture available to the public. There is a dominance of courses on the American Civil War and on the 20th C.

    I’ll also note that not all lecturers are cut out for podcasts. Some of the ones I have sampled are monotonous in their delivery and just downright boring. So nothing different from the traditional classroom there!


  4. Tina Says:

    I definitely agree on the importance of delivery, Juliana! I think in the lecture hall you might be able to get away with a slightly monotonous delivery if accompanied with hand gestures, slides/powerpoint presentations, etc. In the virtual, audio-only classroom, though, monotonous delivery is a bit of death knell. If it’s not engaging, no matter how interesting the subject matter, I tune out immediately, as I imagine a lot of people would.

  5. Jim Monaghan Says:

    I work for the Open University (though UCD 1966 tp 70).
    The above is a lot of their online material.
    I feel that with broadband, a lecturer and the students can be anywhere. And the competition for students is any college anywhere.

  6. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks for the link, Jim. I’ll definitely have to have a look through the material!

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