From Paper Calendars to iTunes U

When I first entered university in 2003, my dad was fond of reminding me of what his academic experience was like back in the day. As I laboriously leafed through my school’s phone-book-sized calendar in search of course offerings (yes, it wasn’t that long ago that paper calendars were the norm), in order to plunk them into an online course registration system whose ease of use can best be described by the phrase “brain-punch,” there was no paternal sympathy to be found.

The story goes that my dad and students of his generation had to actually run around to various departments and classrooms on campus (no easy feat at a school equal in geographical area to a small town) in order to have the professors themselves register students for their classes. Due to limited class sizes and high demand for certain classes, students would frequently have to sprint from one location to another in order to get a spot in their desired classes.

When I imagine it, I can’t help but chuckle to myself. The whole procedure seems like something out of an old black-and-white movie, set to jovial piano music.

Of course, I also heard plenty of stories about how dad’s assignments were all painstakingly composed on a typewriter while I grudgingly word-processed my way through various introductory English essays. Being 18, I didn’t give my dad’s sentiments much more than a cursory thought —somehow other matters were more pressing.

It’s funny how things come full circle sometimes, though. A little while ago, Apple launched iTunes U. Being an interested observer of and participant in matters pertaining to post-secondary education, I decided to check out the app on my iPhone. Within a span of less than 5 minutes, I had downloaded access to a real astronomy course, complete with course materials, textbooks, assignments, and videos of every lecture for a class offered at Yale.

On my phone. Without paying a cent.

I’m not sure what my dad would have to say about that—I should probably ask him. Regardless, I still have a bit of my own shock to deal with. I don’t fundamentally believe there’s anything truly groundbreaking about iTunes U; after all, course content has been online for years now. What’s really impressed me about it is how accessible and neatly packaged it all is.

Obviously, new technologies have the ability to change the way universities go about their business—this is nothing new. However, developments like iTunes U (which is totally free) could be the start of a new way of thinking about higher education. Combined with Apple’s concurrent move to begin selling textbooks via iTunes (I apologize for coming off as a major Apple enthusiast, but I haven’t yet heard of other companies doing stuff like this), it’s clear that today, higher education is more accessible than it ever has been.

And, as a major proponent of the accessibility of higher education, I can’t help but see this as a great thing. So, while there aren’t any credentials to be gained from it, don’t be surprised if you start seeing people like me trying out astronomy assignments, reading lecture notes on Shakespeare, or even watching political science lectures on their phones during their commute.

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