The iTunes-U Universe

Westmont College Integrates New Apple Service That Could Revolutionize How Students Learn and Study

An innovative tool that was introduced at the recent SEED National Collegiate Venture Forum is now being integrated at Westmont College and could have large implications on the way students study and on what is often deemed “the college experience.”

iTunes-U, a new service created by Apple, has set up podcasts at a variety of larger universities, allowing students to retrieve class lectures and information from an online site. Westmont is spearheading this innovative education for liberal arts colleges. Dr. David Newton, a Westmont business professor, is using his classes as the pilot program for the product this spring.

The podcasts can be used in three ways. First, professors can use them for audio purposes, enabling students to listen to the professor discuss topics and terms on different subject matter. Second, professors can post PowerPoint presentations so students can go through the slides, viewing videos and charts while listening to audio commentary. iTunes-U also allows professors to video record themselves in front of a white board as they go through a mathematical equation or process, allowing students to review the class demonstration whenever they like.

The program is similar to the iTunes music site in that information is uploaded to the site and students have access to log in and search different classes and topics. The only difference is that the material is free of charge. Beginning this summer, the service will be open to the public.

Dr. Newton says professors will be able to post a variety of topics they wish students to focus on prior to class. Any content, such as discussion questions, background on an experiment, mathematical equations, will be available online for download and consumption before students even enter the classroom.

Along with the preview of class material, the program also offers a review of class lectures. Students are able to listen to key terms and areas of high importance for upcoming exams and can download the podcasts to an iPod, allowing them access to study material anytime and anywhere, whether it’s during exercise, while driving around town or simply lying in bed. The podcasts will allow students access to information they may have missed during class lecture and will provide further explanations on confusing or difficult topics.

With the new technology students will be able to plug into classes they are not enrolled in, providing them access to an area of interest in a certain lecture or topic. The podcasts allow Westmont students to research within larger universities as well. Students can find related subject material and listen to professors from different universities lecture on any topic of their choosing.

“The podcasts will benefit all classes, not just business and sciences,” says Cody Holquist, a Westmont senior who is studying business. “For example, English majors can post discussion topics on novels. They can also record readings of novels or poetry for others to listen to, enabling students to compare and contrast the difference of listening to a work rather than reading it.”

One of the highlights of the iTunes-U service, says Dr. Newton, is that it gives students access to updates and new information that wouldn’t be found in old editions of textbooks, which are normally released only three to five years.

“I think it has the potential for broad-reaching, comprehensive changes to take place in all courses here at Westmont,” says Westmont student Evan Greene of iTunes-U.

Some professors at Westmont are responding to the iTunes-U integration with more caution. Greg Spencer, the head of the communications department at Westmont College, says he sees the technological benefits in the program but worries traditional learning components of the “college experience” will be lost in the process.

For starters, he wonders whether students will be discouraged from attending class and from experiencing academia the old-fashioned way, in front of a teacher. What a teacher can provide is a live demonstration of chemical experiments, mathematical equations, medical performances and writing techniques. Relying on iTunes-U technology, says Spencer, can only endanger a student’s understanding of the subject.

“It is what happens in that class that is important: the questions that are asked, the conversation that takes place, the unpredictability of it all,” he says.

Spencer also sees iTunes-U as another vehicle in the modern movement away from interpersonal communication. People e-mail more frequently, leave voicemails continually and are on cell phones daily, all activities, the professor says, that diminish face-to-face interaction.

iTunes-U would “really take away from the college experience,” says Jocelyn Himmelreich, a Westmont senior. “It’s the relationships made in class and the discussions that take place between students and the professors that makes Westmont so unique. I worry this new technology would slowly take that away.”

Responding to the skepticism, Dr. Newton says a school like Westmont, where the classes are small and the professors know their students, won’t be affected for the worse. “It will lead to a more vibrant lecture within the classroom,” he says. “The pros outweigh the cons.”

Spencer bases a large part of his teaching philosophy on the idea that “education is not the dissemination of information.” The distribution of information, he says, is only part of teaching and education is far more than the transformation of that information. Students won’t get by in his classes if they only come to take notes.

“Learning in college is having ‘the great conversation,’” Spencer says. “I worry that we are slowly drifting away from that.”