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Screen Shot 2013-03-01 at 11.22.01Recently more and more articles express the idea that Apple is no longer innovating and has lost it’s edge against competitors. I feel the position is rather narrow-minded and too much focused on gadgets. Apple is not just a gadget company – and this is what the negativists fail to understand – it’s a company whose success is based on an intelligent blend of hardware (iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc.), content (App Store, iTunes, etc.) and usability (iOS, Mac OS). And it is the blend of those parts that quietly brings innovation where people least expect it.

In the same way iTunes and iPod slowly changed the music industry and iPhone and App Store change our usage of the mobile devices, there is something silently changing the world.

Introducing iTunes U. If iTunes gave you music (and later video) iTunes U will give you knowledge in the form of college and university courses. In a press release Apple indicates that there are now over one billion downloads for iTunes U content and more than 250,000 students enrolled.

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The collection of courses is mind-blowing and the quality of teaching is expectedly high. With names like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Caltech, Open University, just to name a few (apologies for the ones not named but equally worthwhile of admiration for their participation)  the selection is endless.

For the past two months I have been following a course in iOS programming from the Stanford university. It’s called “CS193P Winter 2013: Coding Together: Developing Apps for iPhone and iPad” and is brilliant. As the name suggests, it’s the actual course being taught now at Stanford and is posted with approximately 1 week delay from the actual course. It feels very much like being in the class. Actually even better because if I missed something I can rewind and listen to that part again. And if something really important pops up I can pause and restart when I can focus back on the course itself. Add to that a vibrant community of virtual students that exchange Q&A on the associated Piazza and you got all the ingredients of a very successful experience. All that for free…

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Doesn’t this sound too good to be true? How is that possible? Ultimately students pay tens of thousands of dollars per year to get a Stanford degree so could the same thing be available for free?

No, of course, but the answer is a little bit more than black and white. First, there is the obvious element of the certification. When you are enrolled in a formal course and graduate you also get a piece of paper. When you follow a course on iTunes U that piece of paper (for the time being) is not provided. But things are relative: a large company looking to hire an iOS developer will rate higher someone coming from Stanford than someone without university degree. That’s how the corporate machine runs. But a small entrepreneurial company will not pay any attention to the paper – or not that much; what they want is a good programmer and if you can do the work you are in business.

Secondly there is the curriculum. A proper university degree includes a certain number of courses that are expected to be taken in a given time and with a certain progression. That is not yet available on iTunes U. You only get the those courses that universities wanted to make public and it is up to you to choose the ones you want to follow and the order. Is that a bad thing? Well, it depends on your style. As Steve Jobs indicated in his biography he only started to learn in university when he dropped the courses he was enrolled in and started taking the ones that really interested him (like calligraphy).

I don’t think that iTunes U will replace the traditional university teaching anytime soon. But for those that cannot afford formal teaching or those that have graduated and want to satisfy an interest in an area – iTunes U is a formidable tool.

Guttenberg gave us the book and made access to knowledge cheaper and more reliable. Wikipedia gave us access to information in a convenient, expandable and open to opinion way. TED gave us access to people who otherwise we would never had been able to see or hear. iTunes U gives us access to the more formal teaching from leading universities. It will build up skills that were hard to reach before. And because of this it is revolutionary.