In its latest move to broaden its iPod and iTunes franchises, Apple Computer Inc. has introduced "iTunes U," a nationwide expansion of a service that puts course lectures and other educational materials online and on-the-go via Apple's iTunes software.
The maker of iPod portable players, the iTunes online music store and Macintosh computers had been working with six universities on the pilot project for more than a year and expanded the educational program this week, inviting other universities to sign up.
Internet access to college lectures is nothing new, but listening to them anytime, anywhere on portable gadgets is a more recent phenomenon of the digital age, spurred in part by the popularity of podcasts, or downloadable audio files.
The University of Missouri had already been offering podcasts of lectures through its school network before it signed up with Apple last summer as a pilot school. But "iTunes U" offered a software and service package, in Apple's reputedly easy-to-use interface, all for free, said Keith Politte, the development officer at the university's School of Journalism.
The market dominance of Apple's iTunes Music Store and iPods, which helped spawn the podcast movement, also was key.
"Our students are digital natives. We seek to meet our students where they are, and iTunes is the interface that most of our students are already familiar with," Politte said.
Apple's free, hosted service offers universities a customized version of the iTunes software, allowing schools to post podcasts, audio books or video content on their iTunes-affiliated Web sites. The iTunes-based material would be accessible on Windows-based or Apple Macintosh computers and transferable to portable devices, including Apple's iPods.
The service lets institutions choose the audio and video formats they want in producing the content. Universities can also control how they want to limit access to the online materials to restricted groups or open to the public.
For instance, Stanford University, which joined the pilot program last fall, gives the public free access to not only some lectures but also audio broadcasts of sporting events through its iTunes-affiliated site.
Universities can also choose to let students, and not just faculty, upload material to the site. The University of Missouri, for instance, is using iTunes U as a communication vehicle, letting students post their work on the site for quick feedback from professors, Politte said.
Schools and universities have historically been major contributors to Apple's computer sales. Now with the free iTunes U service, Apple "is leveraging the ubiquity that we've established on campuses with iPods and iTunes," said Chris Bell, Apple's director of product marketing for iTunes.
The service could make students regular, if not daily, visitors to iTunes. Click once on a lecture and the digital audio file will show up on the student's iTunes jukebox library, ready for playback on an iPod or a computer.
And it only takes a slight movement of the mouse to go from a university's section of iTunes to a link to the commercial site, where songs are sold for 99 cents apiece, and TV shows and music videos are sold for $1.99 each.