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Free As It Gets (original article
June 11, 2009
The cost of a download is all you'll pay for iTunes U, writes Garry Barker.
It is a golden rule of commerce and the media that there is no such thing as a free lunch. It might be a splendid spread at the Bistro Guillaume, or a burger and beer with a shady character in a back street cafe, but one thing is certain: it won't be free.
But free, or the notion of it, is now a currency with considerable value in the marketplace to those who offer it, and even, sometimes, to those who buy it.
The book trade has used "free" as a marketing tool for years. Sign up to buy a bundle of books and you get 15 volumes of Swahili folk poems bound in real imitation ostrich skin, "absolutely free". Buy another book and you get a zebra skin tom-tom and a genuine plastic vulture-feather kilt - all free! Who could resist such a bargain?
But one of the more remarkable repositories of knowledge and information on the internet is truly and absolutely free and worth heaps more than a zebra skin tom-tom. All you pay for is the data download. The often-priceless information you get costs not a bean.
I speak of iTunes U (U for university), founded by Apple in 2007 as a free public-service adjunct to the hugely successful iTunes Music Store.
The list of universities using this global resource is impressive. In our case it ranges from the University of Melbourne to the Australian National University, Griffith, Swinburne and the University of WA. They stand alongside many imposing outfits: Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford, Lausanne, McGill and more.
But it's not only universities. In an area called Beyond Campus, iTunes U hosts a great array of other knowledge. There's the exemplary US Public Broadcasting Service offering President Obama's inaugural address, Garrison Keillor's weekly Writer's Almanac, Krista Tippett's conversations on faith, ethics and ideas and stacks more.
If you are into science, there's the Cassiopeia project offering educational science videos. If art is your bag, try the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, the Chateau Versailles, the Brooklyn Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and dozens more.
This is an Aladdin's cave of intellectual riches, served so that even those whose mental muscles are more like Pooh Bear's than Albert Einstein's will find it absorbing and rewarding.
The audio and video lectures and tutorials on iTunes U are open to anyone, although it is possible for an institution to password-limit a lecture site for particular groups.
Susan Elliott, acting provost of the University of Melbourne, sees iTunes as "a wonderful resource" that could help attain the Government's goal of 40 per cent of the population having a bachelor-degree level education.
"That means mature-age students who will need to combine their university work with family and other commitments," she said. "So mobility and flexibility - having material available wherever and whenever it's needed - becomes important."
Professor Elliott hopes to extend the use of iTunes U by establishing discrete sites where students can access the 800 lectures the university records every week. "Lectures available on a tram, a train; anywhere."
Melbourne and Swinburne were among the first non-US universities to join iTunes U and have found it a powerful means of connecting with the public as well as their students.
Lisa Germany, academic co-ordinator for digital learning at Swinburne, is making extensive use of iTunes U, to show the world what the university is doing and also as a resource for students.
"For example, we film graduation ceremonies so that families, particularly of overseas students, who cannot attend can see the ceremony," she said.
The university has its own recording system but also feeds lecture sessions to a private, password-protected site on iTunes U. "It means students have access to lectures when they are off campus."
Find iTunes U in the source panel of the iTunes Store. An iPod or iPhone is not essential, but is the essence of the experience. To that end, I suppose, even iTunes U is not a free lunch, but it's a good deal closer than most.
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