Apple’s new iTunes U: A critical review

English: Apple iPad Event

Image via Wikipedia

First off, a round of applause for Apple. This is a wonderful push and the world can be better from it. As you’ve shown us time and again in many industries, an idea is only so good — it’s the implementation that determines if it succeeds or not. With the initial implementation of iTunes U, I give you a B-. Call it a beta and I’d be more forgiving, perhaps, but it’s uncharacteristically unpolished for an Apple product. I’d expect this as a first release from Google1, but not you. Here’s a breakdown of what I like and what needs improvement.

Note: these compliments and criticisms all refer to the iPad iTunes U app unless otherwise noted.

The 9 differences between the B- and the A+

  1. Poor — nay, horrible — organization. Seriously, have you even browsed this yet? Did you really think, “Ah, 13 categories, that should be enough division to make this content browsable.” Add subcategories. I can’t browse “computer science”, I have to browse engineering and weed through all engineering courses to see CompSci courses.
  2. Prerequisites and linear(ish) learning flow. Anyone who’s seen a college course catalogue will tell you what’s wrong with an entirely a-la-carte model of browsing for courses: If course C extends upon knowledge learned in course A, one needs to know to first take course A. I’m not suggesting that you make literal requirements, but  give suggested prerequisites that link to said courses. Likewise, craft linear course models that I can follow to learn a subject. I’ll concede that it’s possible that this exists and educators aren’t leveraging this yet.
  3. Many languages melted together. I’m ecstatic to see that courses aren’t just in English. However, since I don’t speak Mandarin, a Mandarin course does me no good. Give me a way to filter by language or set a preference for language (or languages).
  4. Add a way to bookmark courses.
  5. Allow subscribing to “Collections” direct from the catalog. You need to download a video and then go into it in your library to subscribe. You can, on the other hand, directly subscribe to the packaged courses.
  6. This system is an iceberg. The three main tabs at the bottom, “Featured”, “Top Charts”, and “Categories” only offer access to what’s above the surface. It seems like there is a remarkable wealth of information that one can’t browse to except by provider. See #1. (Note that one can browse deeper using iTunes).
  7. It crashes considerably.
  8. Ability to create courses for personal use. I have many training/tutorial videos that I’ve downloaded from awesome resources like and I would love to organize information that I already have using the amazing tools you’ve delivered in the new iTunes U.
  9. Catalog UI has inconsistent usability, missing buttons, etc. and is not what we expect from Apple.

Where iTunes U thrives

Let’s call a spade a spade: this thing is flat-out awesome. It’s a game-changer. The new courses are extremely well-organized on the inside and offer an insanely impressive, high-quality learning experience. I could list out and go on and on about all the amazing features, but there are too many. There is one in particular I’d like to call out because it contains a plea to Apple:

  • Speed control. Wow, finally! Where has this been in iOS? Please bring this feature to other video areas of iOS. I much prefer to watch any sort of tutorial video at 2x speed and always watch such video on my computer instead of my iPad for this reason.
All in all, I’m really jazzed about this product. As someone who loves to learn, this my equivalent to being a woodworker when the first electric lathe was introduced.

1This is not intended to be a jab at Google, for whom I hold the highest respect. Apple and Google have two radically different philosophies on launches: Google’s being “release early, release often” and Apple’s being “it doesn’t launch until it’s done.” Both work equally well (as both companies’ bottom lines will tell you), but they work well because of the expectations set by each company.

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