Nerds of the World, Unite! iTunes U Just Got Interactive

Stanford is adding a social layer to its most popular class on Apple's platform.

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If you are a nerd, or just an aspiring one, there are few things more fantastic on the Internet than iTunes U. One of the earliest online education initiatives, the feature -- a little corner of the broader iTunes content environment -- brings together video- and audio-recorded lectures from colleges and universities around the world. Want to learn philosophy from Oxford? Download the 41 lectures from the university's eight-week-long General Philosophy course. Curious about the history of ancient Greece? Turn Yale's lectures on that subject into podcasts that you listen to as you're doing your dishes. iTunes' education initiative is an occasionally overwhelming and often enlightening smorgasbord of digitized, customized learning.

And! The whole thing is free for users. Which means that you -- the nerd, whether current or aspiring -- can recreate the university lecture experience for pretty much any subject, for pretty much nothing save your time.

iTunes U has been great at replicating the sit-and-listen part of the college learning experience. It's been less great, however, at replicating the thing that has traditionally made the university such a great learning environment: class discussion, the lively back-and-forth that can come from the seminar setting. And it's been less great at that, of course, because it hasn't tried to be any good: iTunes U has been a clearinghouse for college lectures, and that, so far, has been more than enough.

Until today, that is. Now available for registration on the iTunes platform is a Stanford class, "App Development for the iPhone and iPad," which will allow, for the first time, interactive class discussions. The class' lecture-only version is, to date, the most popular among Stanford's many iTunes U offerings. Its souped-up, conversation-optimized counterpart will employ the course discussion infrastructure of Piazza, which Stanford has already been using as an online supplement to its in-person discussions. Students in the class -- which will still be free to take -- will get to interact with each other, asking questions and working through problems.

"We're very excited to see how social intereaction and social learning will come into play," says Brent Izutsu, who oversees Stanford's course outreach efforts on services like iTunes U and YouTube. Stanford has been delivering iTunes U content for years, and it's gleaned, in the process, some great data on education as it takes place online, divorced from the traditional classroom setting. What courses are people, left to their own devices, most interested in? What times of year are people most inclined to download some lectures?

The interactive elements of the new class will offer a new body of data, allowing Izutsu and other school administrators to understand not just what people choose to learn about, but how they choose to go about the learning. They'll be looking, in particular, at retention rates, Izutsu told me -- "seeing if people stay engaged longer because there's a cohort that they can ask questions of and interactive with." And because today's launch will repurpose Stanford's App Development lecture from Fall 2011, Izutsu and his colleagues will be able to measure -- to some degree -- the extent to which interactivity itself is a selling point for online classes. Will the course prove more appealing to people now that it's interactive? Will some take it again? Now that you can take the class with friends -- well, "with" friends -- are you more likely to sign up for it?

An interactive App Development course is a pilot, both for Stanford and for iTunes. But the hope, Isutzu says, is eventually to expand interactivity to other courses to add a layer of peer learning to them. So, listen to Oxford's philosophy lecture, then argue about the categorial imperative with fellow course-takers. Or discuss the plays of Aeschylus. Or try to outwit your fellow nerds in game theory.

This kind of social integration, says Pooja Sankar, Piazza's founder and CEO, is the next logical step in the digital education revolution. Services like iTunes U -- and TED-ED, and Udacity, and all the many, many other platforms that are slowly transforming how we think about learning -- have already gotten the content thing down. As of January 2012, iTunes U had seen 700 million downloads of its educational material, which speaks not only to the demand for online education, but to the supply. The stuff of learning -- the lectures, the course materials, the instructional videos, the explanatory songs, the syllabi -- is largely in place, Sankar says. The next challenge, she believes, will be figuring out how to make all that stuff social. "How do you take all that content that's out there -- that's being hosted by multiple parties -- and create engagement around it?"

Cultivating conversations around digital coursework could be one way to do that. "It's amazing how much learning can happen when you let students interact with one another -- and learn together, rather than in isolation," Sankar says. "It really makes all the difference."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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