iPhone University?

As reported on AppleInsider and elsewhere, Apple has launched a new program, much like the existing iTunes U with pilots at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Yale, and Abilene Christian University (yes, I know, cue the one of these things is not like the others music). One of the primary differences of the iPhone and iPod Touch is the wifi capacity to share files directly. I’m sure there are a variety of technical/security issues that might be associated with this process, but I want to point to two other issues.

1. If you check out the comments on the AppleInsider article, you’ll see they quickly diverge toward a discussion of Apple as a corporate entity. I suppose it that since Apple has long presented itself as quirky and individualistic, going right back to that 1984 ad, that there would be a backlash. There seem to have been a slew of recent attacks on the supposed core demographic of Apple enthusiasts: white, male, affluent, educated, green, liberal, and so on. Needless to say, I imagine any variety of computer technology enthusiasts would be largely comprised of people with the first four of those characteristics. But there is some critical response to the idea that Apple is different from any other corporate entity out to improve the bottom line.

In this case, this criticism is directed somewhat toward the issue of education and concern over corporate domination or influence on campuses. If you go on my campus, or most any campus, you’ll find 95%+ of computers are running Windows and MS-Office. On my campus, they are all Dells. You can by Coke products, but no Pepsi (if that matters to you). Of course, you can also count the major textbook publishers on one hand. Then there’s Blackboard and its patents. And school-branded clothing. And Google searches. And instant messenger. And facebook. and so on. Of course not all of these are college-sponsored, but they are all part of the corporate environment of the campus.

None of this is a defense of Apple or a way of suggesting that we ought not to be aware of such issues.  However in the scope of corporate monocultures, students with iPods are just one of many. (BTW, my personal story of Windows vs. Mac is quite dull. In the 20 years I’ve spent working with computers, primarily as a writer, I spent the first dozen or so with Windows and the last eight with Mac. I switched b/c I found Macs more pleasing to use. I could give more detail but it’s really as simple as that.)

2. What I find more pressing is that we are still really lacking in a substantive way to make use of these technologies. Students can see this of course. Typically they seem to say, "Sure it’s great that I can download a lecture if I miss it… I guess." That’s obviously not what it’s about. This is what it’s about (again)

  • Pedagogy has always been a technologically mediated practice. That’s an argument that begins with saying language is a technology. But even if you don’t want to go there, certainly writing, books, chalk, buildings, desks, pens, etc are all technologies that have mediated all of our learning lives and similar technologies go back a long way.
  • Those technological mediators condition the relationship between students and teachers. Obviously there are other kinds of mediators as well.
  • When the technologies change the relationship between students and teachers change as well. Maybe the change isn’t significant. Maybe we work very hard to mitigate the effects of that change. Maybe we see the effects as being negative or potentially negative. My point here is simply that a change happens.
  • To understand that change we need to investigate the specific material contexts at work. That means we can look specifically at iTunes U and podcasting and audio-video production and make some useful generalizations at that level. But ultimately we have to look at a particular campus and curriculum and classroom to see what’s going on.
  • If you believe that it is potentially valuable to have students and faculty across a department or campus or discipline or beyond sharing a variety of media to communicate ideas that are important to them, then I think you can look at iTunes U as a potentially useful tool.

That said, there is much work to make that happen from training faculty to rethinking campus policies to introducing students to a new way of learning that demands much more from them.

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