The iTunes U agenda

I've had mixed feelings about from the moment I first saw it. When I raised concerns about Apple's approach -- which makes freely-available podcasts and their associated RSS feeds less accessible than they ought to be -- I took a lot of flak for saying so. A number of folks pointed out that Stanford is free to publish its own podcasts, and of course that's true. Just yesterday Dave Winer pointed out that Berkeley is offering a gaggle of them. It's not rocket science, after all. Just about anybody can figure out how to record an MP3 file, upload it somewhere, and maybe even provide an RSS feed with enclosure tags.

The issue here is not whether all university courses should be free. But when universities do choose to publish selected faculty lectures, talks by visiting speakers, or concerts, there are important reasons to make this material as accessible as it can be. Apple's iTunes U has a contrary agenda, and I'm not the only one who's noticed. I've been in touch with a university instructor -- a Linux user, as it happens -- who'll be teaching a podcasting class next month. He recently attended one of the seminars on iTunes-U-style podcasting that Apple's been giving, and here's his report:

Just got back from Apple's dog and pony show about iTunes U. As you might expect, it's pretty much all bad news. First a bunch of song and dance about RSS, about how Apple loves standards, about how they made it easy to subscribe to RSS feeds in iTunes for random podcasts, etc. etc. etc. When the iTunes U section came along, it was made explicitly clear (in that I asked about it and he told me point blank) that iTunes U is seen specifically as a driver to iTunes adoption. That's their bottom line on the issue -- iTunes U is designed explicitly as a vehicle for promoting the iTunes app. This means no RSS, everything must be done through iTunes. Needless to say I was pretty upset. However, one (very) faint ray of light is that while all the content rests on Apple's servers, they (or at least the Apple guy at the presentation) encourage people to keep backups; Apple doesn't own the content, so there's nothing stopping an institution from keeping standard podcasts around.

Of course, who's going to bother, really?

Berkeley, at least. Their stuff is easily accessible not only to the iPod/iTunes majority, but also to the rest of the podosphere. We'll see which path other schools choose to take.

In related news, I reported that my beef with the inaccessibility of podcast feed URLs in iTunes was partly mitigated by the ability to export the feed to OPML. That worked on my Mac but, when I later tried on Windows -- an experiment that cost me $30, by the way, because upgrading to iTunes 6.0.2 required me to also upgrade QuickTime and ditch the Pro features I'd paid for -- iTunes crashed as soon as I touched the Export Song List menu item.

Apparently it wasn't just me, iTunes 6.0.2 does this reliably. However I can confirm that not crashing when you touch the Export Song List menu item is one of the "stability improvements" in iTunes 6.0.3. Now, if you want to capture the URL of a Stanford feed, you still can't copy and paste what's partly displayed by Right Click -> Show Description. But happily there's no need to break out your network sniffer. Here's all you have to do:

1. Select Podcasts.

2. File -> Export Song List -> OPML.

3. Open your OPML file in a text editor.

4. Locate this section:

<outline text="Stanford" type="rss" xmlUrl="https:\// wa/Subscribe/Feed_StanfordPublic-1770144-1770152-- 1770196_visitor$ 1139406381-5b4b33c78a42619915290a56d04cb56466e851b9" htmlUrl="https:\//\ StanfordPublic-1770144-1770152--1770196_46039452" />

5. Select the value of the xmlUrl attribute (shown here in green).

6. Copy and paste.

What could be easier?

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