I've just finished listening to a talk by Robert Sapolsky on "Why zebras don't get ulcers".
While I was jogging.
I know, normal people listen to music while running; me too, usually (and before measuring my degree of freakiness, consider that the Stanford professor is intense but also funny).
The fact is that I've just discovered, two months after it launched (thanks to Jamais Cascio at Worldchanging), the new Stanford on iTunes service, where I downloaded Sapolsky's talk (together with others from cyberlawyer Larry Lessig, historian David Kennedy, the Dalai Lama on nonviolence). Yes, Stanford University is offering, free for anyone to download from a special section of Apple's iTunes Music Store and put on your iPod, talks, lectures, readings - and students-produced music, and podcasts of the Stanford football games! There are some 350 files already available, including two videos: Steve Job's 2005 full commencement address (of "stay hungry, stay foolish" fame), and Guy Kawasaki's advice to entrepreneurs (you have to go to the Stanford on iTunes website and have iTunes installed to get to these files).
Those who know me know that I have a soft spot for Stanford: I've spent an amazing year there as a 2004 Knight Journalism Fellow and I'm still affiliated with the Institute for International Studies and I don't miss any opportunity to go through campus and catch up with friends and colleagues and attend lectures and go for a run on the "Dish" and more generally get my fix of Stanford spirit.
Maybe one day I will even find a way to go back there for real. For now, I will certainly make an intense use of Stanford on iTunes, catch up with some familiar voices and get to learn some new ones. There is a restricted-access section that provides course material to students, and that's something that other universities are doing, too (in the fall of 2004 Duke even gave preloaded iPods to freshmen). But to my knowledge, Stanford is the first university to use iTunes to give access to (selected, for now) lectures and courses, for free, to all (Stanford already has a history of webcasting certain seminars such as Terry Winograd's Human-Computer Interaction).
The service was launched a couple of months ago, and it was principally aimed at providing Stanford's content in an easy format to its 180'000 alumni, which are dispersed in 171 countries - but as a consequence it is available to anyone.
I wanted to know more about this, so I e-mailed Cindy Pearson at Stanford's Alumni Center:
How did it start?
The initiative had a very grass-roots/organic start. Stanford is one of 6 schools that Apple is working with to incorporate the use of iPods/iTunes into the academic setting. (The other schools are Duke, Brown, the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Missouri.) A pilot project at Stanford was launched last spring with a handful of IHUM classes (Introduction to the Humanities). One of the people initially involved with this project was Scott Stocker, the university webmaster. He had the idea that this application might be great for a more public facing site, and he approached both the Alumni Association and Apple with the idea. We both felt it was worth pursuing. From our perspective, we had for a long time been looking for ways to economically provide intellectual audio content to our alumni. This seemed like a great solution.
Why the cooperation with iTunes rather than other, more "open" formats?
As said above, the arrangement with iTunes literally fell into our laps, and we jumped at the opportunity without giving a lot of consideration to other, more open format options. Apple is putting a lot of staff time and resources into the project (including hosting all the content one their servers), which was an important factor as well. We didn't have another logical group to partner with, and Apple was as anxious as we were to explore this opportunity. We are currently working on making all the content available in RSS (it will still be AAC format, which is compatible with any mp4 player). As soon as it's ready, you will be able to link to the RSS feed via itunes.stanford.edu, so our format options will be expanded.
How many audio and video programs are currently available?
There are currently over 350 programs available. Only 2 are videos, though we will be expanding that area in the coming months.
Is any figure available on how many people have already downloaded files from Stanford on iTunes?
Our data on this is a bit sketchy, and we are not quite sure how to interpret it. (We are working with Apple to improve the data collection aspect of the current system.) What we can tell you is this: over the first 3 weeks, traffic on the Stanford site was similar to that of the top 5 podcasts on iTunes. And a recent report showed over 60,000 downloads for the 4 weeks from Nov. 16-Dec. 13.
When universities open up their courses online in a way or another, critics generally say that they're giving away their assets for free. What does Stanford say in response to that?
I think that the faculty who give us permission to use their content feel that it is part of the role of a university to disseminate knowledge and encourage the sharing of ideas. I think they view Stanford on iTunes as an innovative and easy way to further this endeavor.