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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