My favorite podcast right now is UC Berkeley prof Jennifer Burns' series of lectures for her undergrad survey of U.S. history class. It's been a solid decade since I took a similar course at the U of I, where I unofficially minored in history. Burns is intelligent, insightful and articulate, and the recordings are excellent quality. (Not to mention free…)
Burns' course is part of the larger iTunes U program, whereby Apple teams up with some of the larger and more prestigious research universities (Duke, Stanford, and Michigan, just for starters…) to deliver course content through video and audio podcasts. Berkeley's portal is damn impressive, but it is definitely shadowed by the amount of material Stanford has made available. Where Berkeley's efforts are clearly focused on delivering course lectures to its students, Stanford is making a swift play for a larger audience it undoubtedly knows will be listening and watching. In addition to the substantial archive of course lectures they've made available, Stanford is also offering up special events with visiting artists and guest lecturers; arguably, the best of these can be found in the much-lauded "Lunch Poems" series, which until now required a trip to Palo Alto.
The emergence of podcasting as a legitimate and exciting form of communication can only be hastened by something like iTunes U. It's undoubtedly a powerful tool for distance learning, and is doing much to assist students with disabilities. And the fact that all of this is relatively easy to use and largely free of cost to the end user is probably the most exciting thing of all.
But considering the inevitable corporate turn the internet went through in the early 1990s, and the ever-increasing commodification of higher education, we have to ask a much more basic and obvious question than "is this beneficial?" More to the point: we have to ask how long it will take to see class lectures sold for 99 cents a pop, and how such gatekeeping ultimately impacts the learning process. When class syllabi, reading lists and course lectures are all available for public download, what–exactly–is a student's tuition paying for? And what ill effects might this have on academic freedom? Once a history lecture leaves the instructor's lips, is transcoded into MP3, and then rebroadcast via Apple's iTunes Music Store, who is ultimately responsible? Just imagine for a second that the University of Colorado at Boulder had set something like this up with Ward Churchill prior to the "little Eichmanns" hullabaloo. Would the governor have been as quick to get involved if Churchill's rants had been brought to us by the good people of a Fortune 500 company, rather than having been published by indie presses and websites?