Michigan Tech Makes a Splash on iTunes U

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

It’s free. It’s easy. It’s even fun.

It’s iTunes U, and Michigan Technological University is part of it in a big way. Students—and anyone else, for that matter—can download Robert Nemiroff’s introductory astronomy course and Faith Morrison’s lectures on polymer rheology, along with the latest Smashing Pumpkins album. The difference is, you don’t have to pay a dime to learn the basics of cosmology, whereas “Zeitgeist” will cost you $11.99.

Michigan Tech is one of 16 universities nationwide that have posted courses on iTunes U; see http://itunes.mtu.edu . Educational Technology Services records the lectures in a special classroom that features an overhead camera and jazzed-up computer connections. The lectures can also be dressed up with graphics and music.

“Students from the Net generation get music and videos from iTunes,” says Patty Lins, director of educational technology and online learning. “Now they can get their courses at the iTunes store.”

Again, for free. Which begs the question: why do it? According to Lins, MIT will offer 1,800 classes free on the Internet “because it’s the best way to advance education throughout the world.”

“It’s also a great recruiting and retention tool,” she adds. “Prospective students check out our iTunes classes, and they’ll want to come to Michigan Tech.”

Michigan Tech does iTunes U so well that its classes are regularly featured on Apple’s site; go to www.apple.com/education/itunesu/ and click on the link at the bottom of the page.

“Michigan Tech is highlighted because of the quality of the classes, the faculty and the production,” Lins says.

Though anyone can play, perhaps the most important iTunes U audience is students who are taking the class.

Walter Milligan, a professor of materials science and engineering and the university’s CIO, offered Mechanical Properties of Materials on iTunes U for the first time in spring 2007. The benefit for at least one student was enormous.

“He wouldn’t have been able to enroll in the course because of a schedule conflict, even though it was required,” says Milligan. “He couldn’t enter the senior year of our program without it. Having the lectures available online saved him a year of his life.”

Typically, students came to Milligan’s lectures in person and then replayed them later at iTunes U, where they could also pause, rewind and fast-forward. “One student said it’s so much more convenient to lay on the couch and watch me on TV,” Milligan said.

“Also, in the studio, the technology makes it easier to prepare lectures,” he says. In particular, the overhead camera allows the teacher to show examples and experiments on a small scale that would be almost impossible in a typical lecture hall.

“I think it helped the majority of my students learn better,” Milligan said. “And here’s the real whopper for next year. I’m not going to lecture; I’m going to use the videos from last year, and the time I spent lecturing will be used for interactive learning—lab experiments, open-ended problems, all kinds of stuff wouldn’t be considered making progress on a lecture series, but is better for learning.

“One of the critiques of online learning is that instructors never meet students in person, and this hybrid model attempts to address that.”

Physics professor Robert Nemiroff’s astronomy lectures have been on iTunes U since last year and are the second-most-downloaded, just after MIT’s intro to psychology and ahead of Steve Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford.

It’s pretty stellar company, and Nemiroff thinks his popularity may be due to the title of his first lecture, “A Grand Tour of the Universe,” or perhaps some level of name recognition associated with his books and his popular website, “Astronomy Picture of the Day.”

But also, the course, with its images of spiraling galaxies and other cosmic phenomena, lends itself to online viewing. As for concerns that iTunes U makes an expensive college education available for free, Nemiroff is skeptical. “The information is already out there,” he notes. “You could always go to the library or the web. If you want the degree, you have to go to school somewhere.”

And, says Lins, that somewhere doesn’t always have to have four walls. “We are creating learning spaces, which are what we used to call the classroom,” she says. “You can listen to a lecture on a treadmill, in your car, on the bus to an away hockey game . . .

“This doesn’t take the place of students coming together in class,” she stresses. “This is simply a different space.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.