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The Online Learning Perfect Storm

online learnerAwhile back, edX CEO Anant Agarwal wrote in Forbes "How Four Technologies Created The 'Perfect Storm' For Online Learning." The four technologies are cloud computing, video distribution at scale, gamification, and social networking. A commentary by Stephen Downes doesn't question the impact these four have had on online learning, but he does question Agarwal's claim that each is a part of edX.

For example, he notes that the claim that "social networking" is present is because it uses a discussion board. That is certainly a stretch. For gamification he cites "simulation-based games, virtual labs, and other interactive assignments," none of which is integral to edX.

Downes considers the article "lightweight" but though there may not be a perfect storm it is worth noting the impact of those four things beyond edX.

Cloud computing has allowed exponential scalability in many sectors including online learning. Online learning platforms (Does anyone say learning management systems anymore?) became more responsive and faster.

Scalability was certainly key to the emergence of MOOCs. When some colleges tried their own MOOC offerings they realized that they couldn't handle the jump from courses with 25 or 100 students to ones with thousands of students. Of curse, even if you are still offering smaller online courses, the cloud allows all students to benefit from faster, more responsive platforms.

Video has been a part of online learning for 40 years if you go back to ITV, videotapes, CDs and DVDs. Broadbandallowed video to stream and sharing and distribution really hit about the same time as MOOCs were starting to gain initial momentum. YouTube and Vimeo allowed some smaller institutions a way to distribute high-quality videos.

When I was at NJIT, I got the university to sign on in 2007 as one of the first of 16 universities to use Apple's iTunes U. That gave us a much larger presence in online learning. I wrote about it extensively on this blog. But iTunes U didn't grab the market share the way MOOCs and YouTube did. The interface was not friendly to universities or to users. You don't hear it mentioned much by educators now and I doubt that it will exist in 2020.

iTunes U was important for sharing university lectures and some supporting documents. It was more open than what we would expect from Apple because the content was opened up by the institutions (colleges and also educational institutions like museums). I consider it an early tool in the MOOC movement. 

Gamification has been a buzzword for a long time, but it still hasn't made its way into most learning platforms by for-profits or in colleges. There's no doubt that instant feedback and more active engagement in the learning process produces better success, but I find faculty still back off at the word gamification. Some of that fear or disdain is because they associate it with videogames and gaming sounds less "educational." This is a misconception, but one that has persisted. I always used to say that just say "simulation" instead of gamification and you'll get more buy-in from faculty. Sometimes that worked.

Simulations that use game strategies and components can be used in virtual labs and many interactive activities, knowledge checks (graded or not) and assignments in order to promote higher-order thinking tasks such as design, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The "fun factor" shouldn't be ignored although that is part of the hesitation from faculty. There is this sadly persistent idea that learning is supposed to be difficult and not fun.

Social networking came on strong in the era of Web 2.0. Today it comes in for a lot of criticism. I believe that many educators who were using Twitter, Facebook and other social sites in their teaching have backed away. part of that is the criticism and privacy issues on such sites and part of it is that there are some tools built into platforms that allow for a more private social experience. However, posting your thoughts in an LMS for the rest of the class really doesn't duplicate or approach the experience of posting it online for a large part of the world. Twitter boasts 330 million monthly active users (as of 2019 Q1) and 40 percent (134 million) use the service on a daily basis (Twitter, 2019).    The chance to interact and possibly collaborate across the globe is no small thing.

What will create the next perfect storm in online learning? Agarwal suggests that the next four high-impact technologies will be AI, big data analytics, AR/VR and robotics.

Farewell to Apple iTunes

Whether you loved or hated Apple's iTunes, it was a big step iTunes as a media player, media library, Internet radio broadcaster, and eventually as a mobile device management application. Now it is being unbundled and essentially phased out, according to press release from the latest Apple Worldwide Developer Conference.

Apple Inc. announced it as a new service and tool on January 9, 2001. It was used to play, download, and organize digital multimedia files, including music and video, on personal computers running the macOS and Windows operating systems. It forced you to purchase through the iTunes Store.

My own professional interest in it focused on iTunes U which allowed universities to offer content, including courseware (mostly lectures at first) and other "podcast" materials and even print content, in a open way. I have been writing here about iTunes since 2006.

The latest move by Apple is probably much more tied to changes in the music industry and the way consumers listen to and purchase music. Apple has been pushing users to its Apple Music subscription service, like Spotify and others. That is a better deal for them since it means a guaranteed monthly fee instead of waiting and hoping that a customer will buy songs. I have not subscribed and I have not purchased music from their store in several years, and I suspect I am not alone in that trend.

Apple is phasing out iTunes in favor of three apps called Music, TV and Podcasts. This is very much how those services are already divided on iPhones and iPads.

From what I have read, iTunes will still exist as a standalone iOS app and on Windows PCs and your previous purchases and libraries will be maintained in each new app on Mac computers.

podcasting at NJITI have not found any information on the future of iTunes U. My university, NJIT, was one of the "sweet 16" schools to be there for the launch of iTunes U in May 2007. But with iTunes version 12.7 (August 2017), iTunes U collections became a part of the Podcasts app.

NJIT stopped using their iTunes U instance several years ago. They were not alone in higher education. That is a trend that does not please me as it took away one source of open courseware. But some schools have moved that content to other MOOC platforms which offer richer environments for full course offerings.

Apple says that it will not be remotely deleting years of downloaded and purchased songs and movies, but will probably find a way to bridge, manage and access downloaded content in other ways. A clear cut-off date for iTunes has not been set.

Making Educational Content Accessible

disability symbols
You might have read earlier this year that the University of California, Berkeley started removing more than 20,000 video and audio lectures from public view that they had made freely available online. Why? It was the result of a Justice Department accessibility order requiring them to make the educational content accessible to people with disabilities.
UC Berkeley was one of the colleges in the forefront of posting to YouTube, iTunes U and their own webcast.berkeley.edu site. Accessibility for people with a wide variety of disabilities has been an issue with online courses for many years. Mostly, schools have "gotten away with it" when it comes to following requirements that largely came into focus primarily after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990.
It's curious that the Justice Department’s investigation did not look at how Berkeley actually serves students with disabilities, but only the accessibility of content it offers to the public. As a result of this order the university will also require users sign in with University of California credentials to view or listen to them.
This is a scary ruling for other institutions who have been "getting away with it" and now may have to do the same as UC. 
All it took was complaints from two employees of Gallaudet University, the world's only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students. The employees said that Berkeley’s free online educational content was inaccessible to blind and deaf people because of a lack of captions, screen reader compatibility and other issues.
Unfortunately, to remedy these issues any university would need to implement measures that are very expensive to continue to make these resources available to the public. Since they were offered for free, there is really no business model that applies here other than charity. So, the immediate solution was to make them "inaccessible" to everyone by removing them. 
Berkeley can continue to offer massive open online courses on edX. They also plan to create new public content that is accessible.
One concern that many educators have is that this ruling will result in the disappearance of much Open Educational Resources.

Virtual Reality on the Cheap

Assembled Google Cardboard VR mountImage: Google Cardboard via Wikimedia Commons
Remember when Google Cardboard was shown at last year's at I/O?  This cheap virtual reality (VR) device made of cardboard and rubber bands turned out to be the big buzz for many people. Sure, it wasn't the fancy Google Glass, but it was Google.
It has been a year and is anyone really talking about Glass anymore? The official website is a dead end.  Google Glass is wearable technology with an optical head-mounted display (OHMD). The idea was to experiment with a mass-market ubiquitous computer. It has information in a smartphone-like hands-free format and a wearer can interact with the Internet via natural language voice commands.

Google Glass sold for $1,500. In January 2015, Google announced that it would stop producing the Google Glass prototype but remained committed to the development of the product.

Cardboard, on the other extreme, is decidedly low-tech. It is cardboard, with lenses, a few patches of padding and Velcro, and a rubber band to keep it from sliding around. The expensive part is that you need to add your phone.

cardboard
You download the Cardboard app from Google Play or Apple's App Store. There are a number of versions of Cardboard that you can buy now.

It is not meant to be Google Glass. It is closer to using Oculus Rift or Samsung's Gear VR.
You hold Cardboard up to your face like the old toy View-Master I had as a kid. Now, that old toy is coming back with some help from Google as part of Google's goal to expand Cardboard's use.

Though the term "virtual reality" has been around since 1938, the use of it to mean an artificial reality in a technological way is from the 1970s. One should not confuse virtual reality with augmented reality. VR and AR are similar in immersing the user, but AR users continue to be in touch with the real world while interacting with virtual objects around them. VR takes you out of the real world and immerses you in another world. Sometimes that immersion is so immersive that users get dizzy or nauseous, especially with software that emphasizes motion like the early days of wide screen cinema and 3D films.

The DIY nature of Cardboard is appealing and with a phone and an investment of $20 or $30, you can give a VR headset a try.