iTunes U vs. Blackboard – A Look at Apple’s New Online System

When I was in college, Blackboard was used for several classes. If you’re unfamiliar with Blackboard, it’s an online system that both teachers and students use to access resources like power point presentations, videos, animations, and other applications.

It also includes message boards for class communication and discussion, tools to connect teachers with students, online quizzes and tests, grades, and access to class information like the syllabus and assignment schedules.

While Blackboard was leagues above having no online class access at all, it was always been a bit complicated to use and fraught with errors, lag, and other problems. In every class, there were always students who had a hard time navigating and learning the software, leading to lowered grades when they couldn’t submit assignments and take tests on time.

Even students who became familiar with the program had a hard time using it because of a confusing file structure and interface that often had information scattered across several areas. Blackboard was never known for being particularly engaging or fun to use, and in short, there have always been areas that needed improvement.

Last Thursday, Apple announced its new publishing tool, iBooks Author, designed to accompany iBooks 2, and at the same time, the Cupertino-based company announced an overhaul and extension of its iTunes U, adding an iTunes U app for the iPad and the iPhone.

Previously, iTunes U primarily supplied lectures to students who missed class and to other distance learners, but now the functionality has been extended.

The update puts it on par with other online class management systems like Blackboard, and if there’s one company that can completely overhaul an existing system that’s in need of improvement, it’s Apple.

All of the issues that I mentioned when describing Blackboard have been fixed by Apple in iTunes U. The interface is intuitive and easy to use, with all assignments and updates from professors in a single place, making it simple to keep track of work.

Apple has streamlined content management, and all course materials, such as audio, video, books, and more, are all readily available, and organized in a way that’s easy to navigate. And of course, iTunes U is not limited to college students with a login and password – there are free courses available from prestigious universities that anyone with an iTunes account can utilize.

Unlike Blackboard, the courses in iTunes U are available by subscription model, which keeps students up-to-date on what’s going on in the course. Notifications are sent when the course is updated, and the interface allows for following multiple courses at once – this is a task that’s overly complicated in Blackboard.

There’s a course catalog that can be found by searching for your school, or, if you’re not a student, by searching through categories. Apple curates the catalog, choosing the best courses to highlight. Blackboard is used primarily for college students, but iTunes U is designed for K-12, college, and adult learning.

iTunes U will be a simpler tool for students to use, because it allows teachers and professors to set up a direct course of action for students to follow week by week, with assignments and all of the instructional material, such as videos, reading, and audio clips, to accompany them. It’s also an easy transition for professors to make, since over 1,000 universities already use the software. I’ve tried it out, and it’s leagues beyond Blackboard.

Unfortunately, iTunes U will not allow for the total replacement of Blackboard, as it requires an iPad, an iPhone, or an iPod Touch to be fully functional, which is exclusionary for students who might not be able or willing to pay for an iDevice.

iTunes U also lacks much of the connectivity that Blackboard has, without the tools for classroom discussions or interactivity. At this time, it’s just a way to provide course information without receiving feedback, though professors are allowed to send messages out to students.

It’s a great first step, and I think we’ll see some significant updates as time goes on and the new iTunes U is fully embraced by both educators and learners. At the very least, it may inspire services like Blackboard to step it up a notch and include more competitive features, and it’s sure to be a boon for Apple, encouraging more students to adopt iPads as college tools.

Want to try your hand at one of the free courses? You can download iTunes U from the App Store for free.

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About Juli: Contact me via Twitter: @julipuli

  • http://twitter.com/nateevans Nate Evans

    I’m very hesitant to begin calling the new iTunes U an online class management system “on-par” with Blackboard.  The omission of discussion boards and assessments in is actually quite substantial, given that learning often happens in the context of community.      Secondly, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect every K-12 or College student to purchase an iDevice in order to access content (as you mention).  With this in mind, do you see iTunes U and Blackboard as supplemental to each other or something different?

    • http://twitter.com/julipuli Juli Clover

      Honestly, iTunes U can only be supplemental until the iPad is more widely adopted in schools (with schools purchasing them for student use), and for that to happen, there probably needs to be a price drop. It is absolutely not realistic to expect students to purchase one, but in the future, we might see it included as part of college tuition.

      iTunes U is no replacement for Blackboard at this point. It might work for a class that is only using Blackboard to get instructional materials, but for totally online classes or classes that take advantage of the inter-class communication tools like the discussion boards and chatrooms, iTunes U can’t compete. I’ve had classes that used Blackboard for both purposes. 

      I’m not sure if Apple wants to compete with Blackboard and other similar systems, but if it does, more in-depth communication tools will probably be the next step in iTunes U.

    • Peter Hanley

      In Apple’s perfect world, the schools buy the devices for the student.