Carrying Content 130 courses carried by Purdue BoilerCast in its first year 15,000 tracks per week downloaded from Stanford's iTunes site

Apr 23 2007

Teaching via Special Content Delivery

Schools discover a way to create and distribute multimedia content without making a huge backend infrastructure investment.

Schools use iTunes University to create and distribute content.

Quick startup and little infrastructure investment: Those two items appeal to any systems chief. It was just that reasoning that made Arizona State University's decision to push out course materials through iTunes University a no-brainer. Officials at the Tempe, Ariz., university began considering iTunes University because it offered a way to push out content for many users without requiring a huge backend infrastructure investment, says Sam DiGangi, associate vice president of the University Technology office.

“We were excited about the possibilities but concerned about getting the program to scale to our needs,” DiGangi says. “We have 63,000 students and a goal of 100,000 students on four campuses in Phoenix and Tempe.” In contrast, two other early iTunes adopters, the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University, have 34,000 and 19,000 students, respectively. The size of the ASU implementation made due diligence a difficult proposition, and “that made it riskier,” concedes ASU Technology Officer Adrian Sannier. Balancing that risk, “Apple had already worked out how to distribute content, manage digital rights, bring publishers to the table and had made a model that works.”

DiGangi and Sannier worked to ensure that the university's authentication and authorization system and its single sign-on for students and faculty would integrate with iTunes.

The school's decision to set up separate channels – one public and another for students and faculty – was a strategic one, DiGangi says. “Faculty members are more accepting if they know the materials they're preparing are for their students only, rather than the world at large.”

Ready for Prime Time

Last June, after six months of preparation and testing, ASU had a work flow for course creation, single sign-on and authentication and authorization, and course databases linked via ASU's wide-area network to the iTunes University portal.

The response to the initial podcasts was amazing, says DiGangi. “Not only from within the university, but we got responses from all over the world, people who had downloaded our podcasts, saw what we were doing and wanted to know more about it, how they could be part of it.”

The cool part was how quickly the university was able to ramp up. DiGangi says: “Today, we have 5,000 courses online.”

Now, in addition to the classroom course materials, each ASU campus also crafts podcasts and videocasts from a host of other sources: presentations by visiting speakers, sporting events, student films and even off-campus life, such as work-study students teaching classes in Central and South America.

The initiative has changed the way Sannier and DiGangi view how ASU will keep pace with technology. The university will seek forward-thinking strategic allies to create and distribute course material, Sannier says. “We're looking to partner with companies that have a product and a technology strategy in a domain that we think will be important for us,” he says.

Different Strokes

With a student body of 69,000 and eight campuses, Purdue University is similar in size to ASU, but its plans for pushing content for portable players such as iPods and MP3 devices are quite distinct from the Arizona school's. Nearly 60 percent of Purdue's students attend courses on the main campus in West Lafayette, Ind., but another 30,000 students are dispersed at seven other campuses.

For Purdue's iTunes pilot, which began in January, iTunes were integrated with the school's homegrown course-creation and course-casting service, says William B. Collins, digital content director and assistant professor of communications at Purdue. BoilerCast, which Purdue rolled out in the fall of 2005, links to the university's WebCT Vista course-management system to let faculty post audio content for automatic “push-casting” to subscribing students.

The chief issue was BoilerCast's faculty settings feature, says David Eisert, a digital media developer at Purdue. It let faculty determine which parts of a cast they were willing to release for public consumption and which they would share only with students.

Getting iTunes to work also meant Eisert had to redesign BoilerCast to let it handle podcasts. The original version relied on audio content created in specially equipped classrooms, but iTunes-compatible BoilerCast 2.0 “will be able to cast audio, video, hybrid files with hyperlinks, Adobe Portable Document files and other files.”

Money Talks

For many schools, the low investment threshold is a draw.

The breathing space it can give IT budgets made iTunes University a sensible approach for the State University of New York (SUNY) in Cortland, says Alex Reid, professional writing director at the campus. “For years, we'd been trying to figure out how our film students could share multimedia files,” he says. Now those files are easily available via iTunes, “and iTunes doesn't cost the college anything at all.”

Technical Support

There are technology issues that must be addressed. First, users must have enough bandwidth to download the podcasts. Podcasting also requires faculty and staff to use new technologies, such as video conferencing and other broadcasting capabilities, to create the content. These technologies must be made available and often require training.

Will the college set up help-desk support for the new hardware and software used to record and playback content? There can also be compatibility issues between different types of hardware and software used.

Each participating school supplies up to 500 gigabytes of its own content as audio or video podcasts to iTunes University.

Apple hosts the iTunes application and schools' data, but the schools provide access via their own Web pages. The schools can create the level of access they give to their content. Most offer less extensive content to the public than to authorized students, Wilder says.

On its public site, iTunes University pioneer Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., offers lectures, guest speakers, sporting and other events. It reserves a separate, access-restricted site for students and faculty.

But UC Berkeley offers everyone full access to all content, Wilder says. “They felt very strongly that they're a public university, and it's their responsibility to make their content available to the public.”

Must-Have Items for Getting Started

  • 500 gigabytes of free storage space
  • Mechanism for uploading and managing all content created by the univerisity
  • Access via links on the university's Web pages to the online iTunes store


Singing a Different Tune

Not everyone in education is a fan of the podcast.

Take Dr. William H. Graves, mathematics professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Offering content through podcasts at iTunes University may be “terribly convenient,” but it may not always pass muster as a financial best practice, Graves says.

“Does it improve the outcome, the quality of education or reduce the unit cost?” asks Graves. “I don't think it does.”

“Content is important, but it's not king” on the college campus, at least, he argues. “If it were, we could just build libraries and send students to learn on their own.”


Taking a Bite

Arizona State University Technology Officer Adrian Sannier offers these tips to colleges and universities weighing the use of iTunes:

  • Find out which school's implementation is most like the one you are planning and talk to its IT chief and project manager.
  • Use your authentication and authorization for students and faculty to make iTunes access part of your single sign-on
  • Have a clear concept of how you're going to engage the faculty during the rollout, not as an afterthought
  • Standardize podcasting technology and publish guidelines. To see ASU's policy, go to .
  • Plan ahead for growth of your iTunes program in both size and complexity.