A first look at the new iTunes U app

I am, at this moment, watching a video of famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, thanks to the new iTunes U app. It's yet another gorgeous and rich app from Apple, with a huge library of resources. iTunes U has long been available in iTiunes, but the app changes the game. It has an interface almost exactly like the iBooks app, with a Catalog and a Library, making the content much easier to access and organize.

I enjoy anthropology and archaeology, and so that was what I first searched for when I booted up the app. There are many complete courses from the top universities in the world, some with audio lectures, others with video. And when I searched on paleoanthropology, I was delighted to find videos by some of the most famous paleoanthropologists: Richard and Meave Leakey, Donald Johanson, and Desmond Clark. If you find something you might like, you click on it, and it gets added to your Library, just as when you purchase a book in iBooks. In this case, though, everything is free. If the resource you select is part of a collection of lectures on a topic, then the icon in your library shows the course image and title. If it's a full-fledged course, then the icon shows a spiral binder. If it's an individual video, then that appears in your library. When you play a downloaded audio or video, it plays within the iTunes U app.

As with other Apple stores, the app offers featured items, top charts, and categories. Plus, you can search by key word. The top charts section is divided into top courses and top collections. As I understand it, an offering is referred to as a course when it has all facets of an actual course that you take: course overview and outline, lectures, lessons, assignments, etc. A collection is simply a group of audio files or videos by an individual on a specific topic. Everything seems to be free. In the course on Darwin, there are two books available for the course that you download for free and read in iBooks. As you read, any notes that you take are collected in the notes section of your course notebook.

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CNET has a helpful article, complete with screen shots, giving you a picture of how an iTunes U course appears in the app. When you download a course, you download a document, appearing as a spiral bound book, that outlines all of the facets of the course: the lessons, the materials, the posts from the teacher, etc. But then as you take the course, you download each resource separately as needed, such as a video lecture.

The main iTunes U page also lets you view the latest additions and points you to introductory courses. Drop-down menus let you see the entire list of providers — uniiversities, schools, and other organizations. Click on a specific one, and you see all of the materials it has made available in iTunes University.

This is an astonishingly rich offering from Apple, and the app makes it all fun and easy. It took me a while to get oriented in the app, and to understand the various types of offerings, but once I understood I felt that Apple had done a great job. I hope it all continues to be free.

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Jim Karpen holds a Ph.D. in literature and writing, and has a love of gizmos. His doctoral dissertation focused on the revolutionary consequences of digital technologies and anticipated some of the developments taking place in the industry today. Jim has been writing about the Internet and technology since 1994 and has been using Apple's visionary products for decades.