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Five things that could make Apple's new iTunes U a winner

iTunes U may seem like an afterthought, but it could be the glue that holds Apple's educational concept together.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

The official iTunes U app announced at today's Apple educational event is a coming out of the closet for iTunes U, in a more profound way than Apple's Newsstand was for magazines and newspapers. Launch iTunes U, and you're even greeted with a similar wooden bookshelf, albeit in a darker shade. That's where the similarities end.

I remember my college days fondly: course packets picked up from the local copy shop, stapled lecture notes with the year's lecture breakdown, and the mandatory binder or folder to jam all these papers into. That's before I even thought about buying a single book.

iTunes U started as a collection of free-to-watch video lectures and audio podcasts created by a variety of universities, all available to download on iTunes. For most people, iTunes U lived as an overlooked button on their iPhone's or iPad's iTunes app. Some great content is on iTunes U, but most people probably never used it. That may change now--in fact, it looks like Apple's banking on it. If you're going to be interacting at all with Apple's iPad-driven vision of the future of education, odds are your journey will start at iTunes U.

So far, here's what's most impressive.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Courses are bundled in binders. I subscribed to Yale's course on death and dying and a single course icon appeared on my iTunes U bookshelf. Opening that, I was greeted with a three-ring virtual binder of the course, complete with descriptions of all lectures and videos, and materials like books. Why is that a big deal? Because, finally, course materials in a digital form can begin to resemble those on paper.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

iTunes U courses combine videos, books, and other documents in one place. Inside a course binder, you can download all relevant videos, books from iBooks, apps, and even standalone notes and documents provided by the professor. Books actually get stored in the iBooks app, but you can use the iTunes U binder as a launcher. Each section of the course also has a check box so you can check off your progress as you go.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

You can add your own notes, or incorporate note cards and highlights from course books. A virtual tab in the binder allows users to add on-the-fly notes, and any of the highlight/annotation study cards taken in any iBooks will be incorporated here. This approaches the virtual note-taking concept that's holding most digital educational tools back.

Courses can host their own documents outside of the iBooks Store and App Store. While many courses seem to offer links to iBooks-hosted content, many of the documents are directly downloadable only from within that course. This means course-specific lecture notes, study sheets, and PDFs can be attached to any part of the syllabus. This could be a boon for collating materials. It looks like professors could also make their own documents via iBooks Author and provide those documents within the iTunes U class binder.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Most of the content seems to be free at the moment. That might change once schools decide to monetize some of the course materials--or, once more iBooks textbooks are added to the course materials list--but much of the initial offerings are completely free, just like the iTunes U lectures used to be. The organized materials make home education even easier for those who are interested in brushing up on philosophy, chemistry, or even introductory playwriting. Still, real-world applications for iTunes U as it would apply to many public schools remains a mystery.

This is only Day 1 for the new iTunes U, but it's already a more intriguing concept than Newsstand ever was. It just might bring Steve Jobs' vision of free education on the iPad to a near reality. Then again, there are still plenty of questions we have about the whole initiative. Right now, though, I'd be far more likely to use iTunes U than Apple's new textbooks portal of iBooks.