October 24, 2005

iTunes at Stanford

Writing about web page http://itunes.stanford.edu

Stanford University has done a deal with Apple to host a collection of audio files at the Apple iTunes store. Here's what the Stanford home page looks like in iTunes:-

You can look for yourself if you have iTunes installed by following this link. It's not entirely surprising that Stanford would be doing this, since they're located close to Apple headquarters, and historically they have worked with Apple on other projects. And in fact, they're not the only, or even the first, university to do this; Apple mentions Duke and Brown universities as other institutions which are distributing content via the iTunes store. And quite a few individual academics have created podcasts and distributed them via the iTunes store (try going to the Podcasts page of the store and then searching for "university").

So what kind of content are Stanford distributing? Here's a screen-grab of the lectures that are currently available:-

It's a mixed bag, but there's some reasonably heavyweight stuff in there as well as some more general-interest oriented content. So why would Stanford – or any HE institution – want to distribute content in this way? I think there are pros and cons:-

  • At the moment, they're clearly trying to reach not just current students, but alumni and anyone with an interest in the institution. But it would be perfectly possible to deliver content which is restricted to a smaller audience such as current students or just students taking a particular module.
  • Right now it's just audio. But as iPod screens get bgger and better, I bet that future iterations will include images such as PowerPoint slides or photos, or even video.
  • But isn't it a bit risky to distribute on such a locked-down platform? The iTunes store only works if you use the iTunes client and the client in turn only syncs with an iPod. So these aren't podcasts which just anyone can use; only iTunes using, iPod owning students can play. Bought a Sony MP3 player? Tough.
  • Set against that, though, is the beautiful end-to-end experience that using the iTunes store gets you; students will be able to subscribe to series of podcasts (eg. all the lectures in a course) and whenever iTunes starts up it'll go and look for new episodes and download them automatically, and when they plug their iPod in, the content will immediately be synced.
  • Plus they'll get the benefits of Apple's very well-distributed network to serve their content; Apple use Akamai to make sure that iTunes content is replicated at lots of servers around the world, so Stanford's content will presumably be similarly replicated.
  • It's not clear to me whether the content that's being created is being recorded specifically for distribution in this way, or whether they're just recording ordinary lectures and other teaching events. If it's the latter, then I wonder whether the absence of the blackboard or the OHP or the PowerPoint will matter. If it's the former then I wonder how easy it will be in the long term to keep academics enthusiastic about this additional task of creating iTunes content.

So I'm not sure whether it's a smart choice or not. The same content could have been delivered as podcasts from Stanford's own servers almost as easily, and then there wouldn't be this iTunes/iPod lock-in. But they've had some good press about the deal; more than any of the many institutions who make audio files of lectures available for download in the boring old-fashioned way. The test, I guess, will be in a year or so, if they're still going strong and have grown the library as much as they currently say they plan to.


- 7 comments by 3 or more people Not publicly viewable

[Skip to the latest comment]
  1. The iTunes store only works if you use the iTunes client and the client in turn only syncs with an iPod.

    I've got no problems using the iTunes client on my laptop. Might be misunderstanding you again here, though.

    About the presentation issues: glancing over the titles of talks, they seem to be general [homecoming] speeches and colloquia, that usually don't rely on visual elements of presentation. If the presentation relies on PowerPoint [it's usually a rubbish talk anyway, and] it would be easier to offer the PowerPoint file online than the talk!

    24 Oct 2005, 22:09

  2. John Dale

    I've got no problems using the iTunes client on my laptop.

    Sure. What I meant, but didn't say very well, is that if you want to use a portable audio player, the iPod is your only choice; iTunes doesn't auto-sync with any other portable device.

    I agree with you about the current corpus, but it's also Stanford's stated intention to move towards offering actual course content in the future, and as and when they do, the question of the PowerPoint slides, or the OHP scribblings, or the blackboard, will become more important. Most lecturers use some form of visual aid.

    24 Oct 2005, 22:22

  3. Steve Rumsby

    iTunes doesn't auto-sync with any other portable device

    Not without some help, anyway. I have an external app that syncs a playlist from iTunes onto my phone. It should work with anything that appears as a USB disk drive, and I think it syncs smartlists as well as normal playlists (haven't tried it…) Not as seamless as an iPod, but not a major pain either.

    25 Oct 2005, 10:12

  4. Steve

    Steve,

    any chance you can give me more details regarding this application to sync to other external devices other than an iPod? Is it public domain?

    Thanks in advance.

    Regards

    Steve

    06 Dec 2005, 10:04

  5. Steve Rumsby

    You want the Mass Storage Synchronizer by Tea Vui Huang. Works perfectly for me – YMMV, as they say.

    06 Dec 2005, 10:30

  6. Charlotte

    John Dale–
    U'm the girl who restricted commenting permissions back on your BCLC page. I'm hoping on pins like the entry boxes are coming back!

    26 Jul 2006, 17:33

  7. Charlotte

    John Dale: I don't want to make you annoyed, but I've been wondering when your BCLC entry boxes are coming back! You are going to change your mind, aren't you (I restricted the commenting permissions, remember?)

    24 Aug 2006, 08:58


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