Stanford using iTunes to take lectures global

Working hand-in-hand with Apple, the university is using iTunes to reach alumni. Everyone else can use it, too.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
When Stanford University graduate David Sellinger arrived on campus last month for reunion weekend, he was too busy to attend a talk by one of his favorite history professors.

But thanks to a pilot program the university recently launched, called Stanford on iTunes, Sellinger didn't have to miss much.

Stanford on iTunes' debut, in late October, marked the first time a university made audio content from lectures, interviews, commencement speeches and the like publicly available through a system like the iTunes Music Store.

"I absolutely love this," said Sellinger in an e-mail to the university's alumni relations department. "I missed all of the lectures last weekend, and this allows me to take my Stanford spirit everywhere. This is one of the greatest things ever. Hearing (historian) David Kennedy's voice again almost makes me giddy to learn and keep on learning."

When it launched, the service had around 400 audio programs available for download through a branded iTunes Music Store site. Stanford alumni relations officer David Vargas said that number will grow exponentially over time and will soon include video content as well.

Content from the Stanford program is accessible to anyone free of charge. Interestingly, that may be no more than a happy coincidence: Vargas said Stanford on iTunes is really about providing the university with an easy and inexpensive way to distribute all manner of content to its 180,000 alumni in 151 countries.

"One of the challenges (we face) is: How do you maintain an intellectual connection to the university" for alumni? said Vargas.

iTunes, with its wide reach, was the easiest way to do it.

The alumni factor
"We're effectively a repository of content that resides here," Vargas said. "The ability to make it available to alums is hugely powerful." Still, he acknowledged that the public is benefiting from that alumni outreach.

While Stanford is the first university to use iTunes as a tool for the public distribution of content, several other schools have been utilizing Apple's technology to get content to students and faculty for some time.

Duke University became the first when, in the fall of 2004, the school gave 1,600 iPod music players, preloaded with orientation materials, to first-year students. Now, the school plans to incorporate iPods into classes throughout the university as a way of storing class materials for use any time and anywhere.

Other institutions, including Brown University, the University of Michigan's School of Dentistry and Stanford itself have partnered with Apple and are using iTunes as a way to distribute class content to students.

A podcast menu
In addition, the University of Washington has started a pilot program for podcasting lectures for future use by students.

"They wanted mobility. They've already listened to the lecture once and they wanted the ability to review."
--Lynn Johnson, director of dental informatics, U. of Michigan School of Dentistry

"We offered this to anybody teaching in the five lecture halls" in the building in which the experiment was started, said David Aldrich, the assistant director of classroom support services at the University of Washington. "There were only three takers. But I'm already getting inquiries for people teaching in the winter and spring quarters. I have a feeling there's no way to put this genie back in the bottle."

At the University of Michigan's dentistry school, the iTunes program has become popular among students as a way to get a second shot at complex first- and second-year lectures.

"They wanted mobility," said Lynn Johnson, the director of dental informatics at the dental school. "They've already listened to the lecture once and they wanted the ability to review."

Johnson said that recording equipment is set up in certain lecture halls at the school and that students are responsible for starting and stopping recordings. Once recorded, the content is automatically made available through iTunes in a matter of minutes, she said.

"It's up to the students to get the faculty's permission," Johnson added, "and no faculty member has ever said no to a student."

At Stanford, undergraduates also have access to classroom content via a private iTunes program, said Scott Stocker, the director of Web communications in the university's communications department.

The university is experimenting with distributing audio from courses such as Introduction to Humanities, Stocker said. Stanford had first implemented the initiative in four courses. That number has already grown to eight during the current fall quarter.

In the meantime, however, it's Stanford's decision to make content available to the public that has some in academia excited.

"It's fascinating to me, the opportunity that schools have to get knowledge beyond the borders of the campus," said Danah Boyd, a Ph.D. student at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Information who has blogged about Stanford's initiative. "The thing about Stanford on iTunes is that they're making it blatantly and notably accessible to everyone," she said.

Boyd acknowledged that public access to Stanford on iTunes is possible because the university wanted to make it easy for alumni to use. But she also said the notion that Stanford might be giving away its assets for free is not accurate.

"We've always assumed (universities) are about knowledge production," she said. "They're not. They're about building particular social networks in a dense four-year period. You'll never be able to get that from a podcast."