Harvard Now on iTunes: A New Model for University Podcasts?

HarvIt was only a question of when, not if. Harvard has finally carved out a space, albeit a rather small one,
on iTunes. Established by the Harvard Extension School, the iTunes site currently features one free, full-fledged course called Understanding Computers and the Internet, which had previously been issued in other digital formats. (See our previous article.) In addition, you can notably access outtakes from 30 complete courses that the school will offer online for a fee during the spring academic term. (See press release.) These courses fall into three neat categories: liberal arts, management and computer science.

Harvard’s iTunes strategy is rather unique. While most major universities are simply giving away podcasts/information, Harvard Extension is evidently using the Apple platform more for business purposes than for public service. In a vacuum, it’s not a bad idea. In fact, seen in a certain light, it’s innocuous, even savvy. Why not offer teasers to generate more sales for sophisticated online courses? Why not give customers a real sense of what they’re getting into? If there’s a problem with these ideas, it’s simply that they risk clashing with existing expectations — expectations that universities offer podcasts for free and for the public good. And there’s the risk that iTunes users will fail to make a critical distinction between your average free podcast, and a podcast that’s really meant to be part of a very well rounded, fee-based online course. One way or another, the business motive will likely raise some eyebrows. But, our guess is that Harvard will be able to clarify the reason for the new model, and they’ll find in iTunes, as others will too, a new and potentially powerful way of giving visibility to certain forms of online educational content.

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