Case Study of iTunes U Deployment: Open University - SCORE Project

Case Study of iTunes U Deployment: Open University - SCORE Project
Terese Bird
                       University of Leicester, Beyond Distance Research
SCORE Project          Alliance and OU SCORE Project

    Case Study of iTunes U Deployment:
                        Open University
                                                            Terese Bird

                                                          31 October 2011
Case Study of iTunes U Deployment: Open University - SCORE Project
The Open Educational Resources movement is often traced to 2001 when Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced it
would begin publishing its entire course catalog free on the internet (Perkins, 2010). UNESCO announced its support for open
educational resources in 2002 in its study into the impact of open courseware on higher education in the developing
world(UNESCO, 2011). Finally the CapeTown Declararion in 2007 encouraged all governments to subsidise the creation and
publication of open educational resources (Cape Town Meeting Participants, 2007). Also in 2007, iTunes U was launched by
Apple Inc. as a channel for universities to publish free multimedia learning materials, quite separate from the OER movement.
And yet it quickly was seen to be a possible channel of real OER. While many OER projects were launched through infusions
of special project money such as from the Hewlett Foundation (which supported UNESCO and the Open University's
OpenLearn), iTunes U sprang up as cooperation between Apple and several universities (Acosta, 2008). This report examines
the iTunes U implementation of the Open University and will be of interest to educators, managers, and technologists
considering launching an iTunes U site or who wishes to know more about open educational resource issues.

This report is an output of a SCORE project with Shared Solutions of the UK Open University, entitled SPIDER: Sharing
Practice with iTunes U Digital Educational Resources, from November 2010 through October 2011. Information presented is
from a number of sources, including an online survey advertised worldwide through social media, capture and analysis of
Twitter tweets containing the keyword itunesu, articles, reports, books, and interviews.

Open University                                                                                                                 2
Case Study of iTunes U Deployment: Open University - SCORE Project
Open University: Background and Open Educational Interests

The Open University welcomed its first students in 1971 with an enrollment of 25,000 – launching a new concept of distance
education as distinct from traditional higher education (Nasseh, 1997). The idea for the Open University (OU) was first floated
by educationalist J C Stobart, who envisioned a ‘wireless university’ at which students who could not access traditional campus-
based universities could earn degrees. Throughout its history, it has been a goal of the OU to make use of technology to
facilitate learning more efficiently and innovatively, using radio, television, CDs, DVDs, and eventually the internet so that the
education would be not an imitation of a traditional education but a new endeavour for a new clientele (Fragniere, 1976).

In 2011 the OU has an enrollment of more than 250,000 students, employs more than 7,000 tutors, more than 1,200 full-time
academic staff, and more than 3,500 support and administrative staff. Since its launch, the OU has served more than 1.6 million
students worldwide. The OU is the largest university in the UK, the largest provider of distance learning, and the largest
provider of higher education for people with disabilities. OU students are accepted not only from the UK but also throughout
Europe and other countries such as Russia, Kuwait, and African nations (OpenUniversity, 2011).

                                               Figure 1. OU iTunes U home page

From its first enrollments onward, the OU’s educational mission has included the promotion of social justice and opportunity
through education that is available to all regardless of background or previous advantage or disadvantage. To this end, it
established a partnership with the BBC and for many years provided lectures and learning material on radio and television, free
of charge and free to copy. However, permission was not given to use even for educational purposes without a separate license
or prior permission. This background and resulting library of archived recordings well positioned the OU for participation in the
open educational movement as well as set the stage for its particular methods of participation.

Open University                                                                                                                 3
Case Study of iTunes U Deployment: Open University - SCORE Project
In 2006 the OU received a grant from the Hewlett Foundation to begin to build OpenLearn, their browser-based repository of
open educational resources with workspace and comment areas (LearningSpace and LabSpace). This project was considered to
be an experiment and was based on their huge inventory of learning material recordings. To quote the OpenLearn proposal,
“The University has an extensive reservoir of high-quality materials available in a variety of formats. It proposes to explore how
best to make some of these freely accessible in an international web-based open content environment and, in so doing, to
advance open content delivery of informational research-based knowledge about modern pedagogies for higher
education.”(McAndrew, 2006) Sustainability of OpenLearn was thought would be achieved when the university made use of
open educational resources (OER) as a matter of course in all of its business (Wiley, 2006).

OpenLearn launched in October 2006. With OpenLearn, the OU became the first UK university to join the OpenCourseWare
Consortium.The OU’s YouTube channel of learning content was launch in January 2008.

OpenLearn is Moodle-based and offers study units consisting of multimedia assets. Text is offered as xml and pdf, sounds are
offered as mp3, images are offered as .jpg, and animations are included as Flash. Figure 2 shows a music theory learning unit
with built-in quiz. Figure 3 shows a discussion forum around the music theory module. The discussion forums require the
learner to click away from learning material to the discussion forum.

Figure 2. OpenLearn study unit for introduction to music theory        Figure 3. Discussion forum for introduction to music theory

OpenLearn included the concept of a community of learning around the learning materials from the beginning, and thus
included discussion forums as well as LabSpace, the segment in which learners can adjust and change the learning material,
repurposing it for their own needs. From 2008 through 2011, the LearningSpace portion of OpenLearn (the portion in which
users 'enroll' in a course and discuss) has atracted over 17 million visitors.

iTunes U: Introduction and Preparation
In January 2008, Apple Corporation approached the OU to invite them to launch one of the first iTunes U sites in Europe.
iTunes U had already been launched for United States universities in 2007. It was decided that iTunes U would be treated as
another public channel of free learning material, and would be launched as an addendum to OpenLearn with Hewlett funds.

Apple requested that OU go live with their site in June 2008. By the time the initial discussions had taken place and the decision
to go with the June launch date had been made, there was only 9 weeks until the launch date. Because of the short deadline, it
was decided that only previously-released, actual teaching material would be released into iTunes U. This material was
guaranteed properly-vetted and of good teaching quality because of the OU’s vetting processes already in place. Therefore the
only work necessary was to choose material, reformat it, if necessary, to mp3 for sound, mp4 for video, and pdf for text, post it
to the server, configure server to communicate with Apple servers, and create graphics and artwork for the iTunes U page and
album covers. In most cases in the USA, iTunes U-participating universities post their learning material onto Apple servers, but
in Europe the material is kept on the university’s own servers which simply have the correct RSS feeds.

At that time, Apple required 175 unique items ready to go for a site launch (now it requires 150). Included in this 175, there
cannot be, for example, the same event recorded as an mp3 and as an mp4. Having two different kinds of recordings of the
same event is encouraged, especially for the sake of users with various disabilities, but the two different recordings of the same

Open University                                                                                                                      4
Case Study of iTunes U Deployment: Open University - SCORE Project
event would only count as one item for the list of 175 for the launch. The university must also be ready to release new material
not too long after launch. Some universities prepare for this by holding new material in reserve even at launch, and then release
it some weeks later.

Staff and Procedure for the Launch

A team was put into place to facilitate the iTunes U launch. None of these were newly-hired for that task; all were existing staff
whose work priorities were adjusted for this work.

A project manager whose job was to keep checking that everyone was doing what they were meant to do and that all tasks
were kept on schedule.

A software developer was put in charge of the servers onto which the files were being loaded. He checked through files and
uploaded to servers and technologically enabled the launch to happen. He later began to experiment with the creation of
multimedia-rich epub documents – learning material in ebook format. In 2010, the OU became one of three universities to
release ebooks. This software developer works for the Knowledge Media Institute, whose remit is to innovate for education and
continue to look to the future.

A creative producer with a background in film and BBC experience was put onto the iTunes U launch. Her remit was to
maintain the OU’s editorial values in all released pieces. Especially after the launch, her role became that of producing quality
new content. Academics with a research story to tell will pitch their story to the creative producer, often after having attended a
day-long media-training workshop at the OU in which they learn to tell their research story in a compelling way. The producer
makes a judgement call as to whether the research story will make a good video piece; if so, the video is planned and shot,
edited and produced for iTunes U. She cited evidence that after a particular researcher’s video became very popular on iTunes
U, he received many more, and better quality, applications from potential PhD students --- one important aspect of iTunes U

The creative producer has a technical assistant to help with the nitty-gritty of editing and processing film and audio.

The OU launched its iTunes U channel on 3 June 2008. University College London and Trinity, Dublin also launched their
channels on that day. These three were the first to launch iTunes U channels in Europe, in fact the first outside of the USA.

On its launch day, the OU’s channel offered about 300 audiovisual items from about 30 of its courses. Unlike most university
sites, it offered no recorded lectures, since as a distance learning institution it does not hold lectures. In October 2010, the OU
became one of the first universities in the world to offer e-books in its iTunes U offerings. These e-books are in epub format, and
include built-in sounds and video, optimised for reading on iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch using the iBooks app. The OU's
ebooks are created from their actual distance learning material.

The OU's OER policy encourages all instructors to freely share out 5%-10% of their actual learning material. The material on
iTunes U is not creative commons copyrighted. This fact is related to the historical stance of the OU giving free material by
broadcast but restricting that it could not be reused for educational or commercial purposes without express permission.

iTunes U Metrics

    These metrics and figures are taken from which is updated monthly.

Since 3rd June 2008, OU states as of 26 September 2011 that it has had:
    1. 39,918,200 downloads
    2. the above were downloaded by over 4,621,400 visitors
    3. an average of 229,300 downloads per week in the immediately previous 4 weeks
    4. 89.5%1 in 28.8 downloaders go on to visit the OU website (measured to 31 July 2011)
    5. total of 3,462 audio and audio-visual tracks
    6. 422 OpenLearn study units as ebooks in ePub format

Open University                                                                                                                   5
7. of visitors to the site are from outside the UK

    Figure 5 shows downloads by country:

Figure 5.OU iTunes U Downloads by Country

Some interesting notable facts are that there are roughly three times as many downloads from visitors in the US as in the UK, a
fact which did not go unnoticed by those of the OU wishing to encourage enrolment amongst US residents. Perhaps even more
interesting is that roughly a third of all downloads are from many smaller countries combined. This demonstrates the great
demand for free, good-quality learning material in places where access to learning material is restricted. This is remarkable
when one considers the common association (at least in the UK) of iTunes U with Apple handheld devices, which are not
inexpensive. Of course, iTunes U does not require any purchase from Apple of any kind; its materials can simply be
downloaded onto any computer or laptop running the free iTunes U software. Another interesting point is that China represents
the fourth-largest number of downloads by country, even more than Australia, despite the language difference. China does not
have access to YouTube and to many other web channels, but iTunes U is seen as pure learning material and thus access is not
blocked. This is corroborated by comments found on the 'Chinese Twitter' Weibo, in which the value of good free university-
level materials is praised especially for its propensity to assist with English language learning. The following is a rough
translation of a Weibo user responding to another's comment about class material: "Just been spending a lot of time downloading
and viewing iTunesU courses Conic Section, including Intro to hyperbola; their contents are similar but in a different language, so you
can take this opportunity to practice your English listening very well." China's OU has its own presence on iTunes U.

Figure 6 plots cumulative downloads against unique ip addresses and indicates that each visitor downloads many files. This is
attributable to the 'Subscribe' function and the iTunes U method of arranging files into collections, each with its own 'album
cover', and the ease with which one can subscribe to an entire collection. This is corroborated by theme detected in Twitter

Open University                                                                                                                      6
comments concerning iTunes U, in which a preference for a series of lectures comes out: Really enjoying listening to a series of
lectures from iTunesU...EXCEPT for the annoying laugh of the woman in the front row! and Excellent videos to review
Clinical Anatomy from Stanford University, presented by R.Snell. Fifteen episodes downloadable free from iTunesU.

Figure 6. Cumulative downloads and unique ip addresses against dates

OU Content on iTunes U
The OU's iTunes U strategy can be discerned from the way it organises its presence. On 1st October 2011, its front page
displays 4 sections:
         1. World Heart Day - 29 September 2011
         2. Discover the Solar System
         3. Reflections on Colonialism
         4. Top Downloads (which seems to appear on every iTunes U homepage)

The first three sections seem to be specially chosen to attract interst given what is going on in the news at the time. Every week,
Apple chooses collections to highlight on the front page of iTunes U, and these chosen collections naturally attract many
visitors. Every university would like to be chosen, and it must be that highlighting its own best guesses as to what might attract
the attention of Apple is a a wise way for an iTunes U site manager to attract attention.

Besides these four sections displayed on the OU's iTunes U homepage, like all other universities, there is a list at the right of the
subject areas for which material is offered: Business, Economics, etc.

With its distance education model, the OU has no lectures to be captured for iTunes U, which is the most common sort of
learning material offered on that platform. Therefore, the audio and audio-visual material from the Open University consists of
teaching material of another kind: specially made podcasts and videos corresponding to OU courses and research areas. Some
of these are fairly long and professionally-made videos of the academic explaining and demonstrating his/her research or
teaching subject area. The OU offers media training sessions to its academics, to train and film these videos. With its strong
background in audio-visual media and army of learning technologists, the OU is uniquely equipped to create high-quality

Open University                                                                                                                     7
audio-visual material. The site manager has a background at the BBC, and the commissioning of work for iTunes U seems to
flow from professional broadcast instincts rather than academia. This can be seen as a negative, making the material seem 'too
slick' with an emphasis more on entertainment than on education.

Evidence from Twitter comments by iTunes U users suggests that not only are recorded lectures valued, users enjoy listening to
an entire series of lectures, perhaps the entire module's worth. For example: "Also, I'll admit my bias as well. I listened to an
entire semester of Searle on philosophy of mind through iTunesU this year." "Amazing lecture series about human behavioural
biology. I watched all 25! This guy is amazing. #biology #iTunesU" and "Multiculturalism Bites: a 10-
part podcast series also on iTunesU". It can be inferred that users prefer an entire series to a couple of
tasters. A blogger who devotes much time to recommending different iTunes U sites comments of the OU that it gives away
tasters for courses which cost 'nosebleed prices.' (Dara, 2011) Universities considering iTunes U should be aware of such user
preferences. It it notable that in recent months, the OU has produced new series of videos for its iTunes U site.

iTunes U in context with the other OU public channels
Since OpenLearn and subsequently and iTunes U began somewhat experimentally, it became clear as time went
on that they needed to be analyzed and optimised for their purposes. In the case of OpenLearn, it was hoped that these open
offerings would embed themselves into day-to-day university practice and even attract funding, but this did not happen exactly
as expected. The OU has a duty to serve the public with quality educational material -- that was its remit from the beginning. In
decades past, and still at present, it has achieved this by airing its shows on the BBC. Now, the BBC is only one of four public
channels of educational material run by the OU: BBC, OpenLearn,, and iTunes U. Now, the OU is pulling these
together into a single framework and trying to address issues of delivery, sustainability, and key performance indicators, in line
with the business purpose of the OU as well as its social purpose.

As of 2011, there is a new commissioning unit at the OU, which comissions the production of materials for the various public
channels. At the same time, each channel 's metrics is being observed and analysed for the key perfomance indicators -- signs of
success or not. Success is defined as both usefulness to learning and encouraging recruitment of students. Each channel offers
its own metrics and thus care must be taken when comparing. iTunes U generates an almost incredible number of downloads --
the OU has enjoyed the most downloads of any site on iTunes U -- however the other channels do not necessarily offer
downloading at all. In terms of unique visitors, in a recent six-month period, OpenLearn got slightly more than iTunes U,
followed somewhat distantly by YouTube. One negative point for iTunes U: in April 2011, Apple rearranged some items on the
home site and made links, such as to the university's website, less prominent. As a result, iTunes U visitors are clicking through
to the university's homepage less often.(Law, 2011a)

There is a community manager watching the various channels for comment content. Open discussion is encouraged, but what
should be done when someone writes that s/he is considering suicide? What should be done when someone offers to sell drugs?
The community manager watches and cleans up these issues.The active communities are the OpenLearn discussion forums and
YouTube's own built-in comments. iTunes U does not really have a community built around it; one can leave comments but
not many do.

Evidence suggests that the market is encouraging OER distribution. For example, Oxford may not have felt that they needed to
share out OER to enourage its own recruitment. So why did they do it? Most likely, it is because the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology and the OU. There is no doubt that many OER endeavours began with this kind of motivation.(Law, 2011b)

The OU's iTunes U channel is the most successful, in terms of downloads, of any iTunes U site anywhere. It was a sensible fit
for the OU to launch this channel given its history of broadcasts and archive of recordings. Its iTunes U presence is unique in
that it includes no recorded lectures, which are extremely popular as can be seen in the case of Oxford. However, the OU's
status as the major distance learning university in the UK allows for the production of creative and professionally-made
teaching and research material of other kinds. These developments along with Apple's innovations have led to experimentation
with new types of learning material, most notably media-rich epub ebooks, and other mobile-ready learning material. This
specific aspect is unique to iTunes U among open content channels. iTunes U has extended the OU's international reach,
especially to the significant regions of China and the USA.

Open University                                                                                                                  8
Acosta, A. (Stanford U. (2008). Stanford on iTunes U Setting the power of knowledge free. Cupertino, California.
Cape Town Meeting Participants. (2007). The Cape Town Open Education Declaration. Retrieved October 31, 2011, from
Dara. (2011). Guide to iTunes U | The Do It Yourself Scholar. The Do-It-Yourself Scholar Blog. Retrieved November 1, 2011, from
Fragniere, G. (1976). Education Without Frontiers: A study of the future of education from the European Cultural Foundation’s Plan Europe 2000 (pp.
      122-126). London: Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd.
Law, A. (Open U. (2011a). Impact of Open Media at the OU.
Law, A. (Open U. (2011b). Interview with Andrew Law. Milton Keynes, UK.
Mcandrew, P. (2006). Motivations for OpenLearn : the Open University ’ s Open Content Initiative. October, (October), 1-10.
Nasseh, B. (1997). A Brief History of Distance Education. Ball State University.
OpenUniversity. (2011). Facts and figures | About the OU | Open University. Retrieved September 27, 2011, from
Perkins, R. (2010). Reflections on Relief: Open Educational Resources. ICT International, 54(3), 14-15. doi:10.1007/s11528-010-0394-3
UNESCO. (2011). Open educational resources | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Retrieved October 31,
      2011, from
Wiley, D. (2006). On the Sustainability of Open Educational Resource Initiatives in Higher Education Paper commissioned by the OECD ’ s
      Centre for Educational Research and Innovation ( CERI ) for the project on Open Educational Resources. Higher Education.

Open University                                                                                                                                   9
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