iTunes U – A free academic resource for students and teachers

Michael Ernest, Nagoya Communication Arts Vocational College


iTunes U, part of the iTunes Store, distributes academic content from educational institutions to students and the wider community. For language instructors, it provides a free, easily accessible resource to real-world academic materials for classes with EAP or high-level students.  



iTunes U provides audio and visual content, on a wide variety of subject matters, developed mainly by higher education institutions from around the world. This content can be downloaded either as individual files from the iTunes Store to your computer or via the iTunes U app for iPhones and iPads. Complete courses consisting of academic lectures, panels, presentations, handouts, lecturers’ notes, textbooks, and tutorials across a wide variety of academic disciplines can be subscribed to, much like podcasts, whereby new content is automatically downloaded through the iTunes Store.

According to Apple, iTunes U contains more than 500,000 free media files, books, and other resources in the form of Mpeg-4 video files, audio files, PDFs, and iBooks. Providers of these learning materials include many prestigious academic institutions such as Oxford University, Yale University and the University of Tokyo, as well as non-academic institutions such as MOMA, the TED group and the Library of Congress. ESL/EFL material by institutions such as the British Council is also available. The content is searchable and can be downloaded absolutely free and requires only an iTunes Store account to download.



Audio and video have pedagogical uses with which teachers are no doubt already familiar. One resource for high-level classes worth pointing out is the availability of TED Talks through iTunes U. TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) Talks are a set of short presentations (usually around 15 minutes) given at TED conferences on a wide range of topics from the worlds of science and culture. The range of topics dealt with in the TED talks provides instructors with a range of potential classroom approaches. One approach would be to use the TED talks as a way of introducing discussion topics in conversation-focused classes. The Reworking the Western Diet talk, for example, could be used to orientate a class to the topic of changing diets and their impact on the environment and to introduce relevant vocabulary before discussing the issue as a class. (My own approach has been to scaffold the lesson by providing some of the key terminology first and then playing 5-minute excerpts of the video, asking students to summarize the main points, and then opening the class up to discussion.) I have found this approach to be highly effective as it prevents the students from feeling too overwhelmed by the sometimes complex vocabulary in the talk.

Another area where iTunes U provides a highly useful resource is in the realm of EAP instruction. Most EAP research stresses the need for exposure to the various genres of language, such as lectures, which students will be engaged with (Hyland & Hamp-Lyons, 2002). However, depending on the setting, it can be difficult to gain access to real-life lectures from native speakers of English. iTunes U provides videos and audio of real-world lectures, tutorials, and conferences for public use. It provides the instructor with the option of replicating real-world settings in the language classroom using the provided videos and associated notes. One of its main benefits is the wide variety of material available in both subject and style of discourse. Lectures, for example, vary in both content and style according to their disciplinary field, the teaching style of the lecturer (formal or informal), and the level of their engagement with the audience. It is also important to note that the less formal, conversational style of lecture, characterized by less reliance on reading from notes and more engagement with the audience, tends to be increasingly favoured over the traditional, formal reading style (Jordan 1997; De Carrico & Nattinger 1988). Importantly, these informal style lectures often contain questions and feedback from lecturers, often signalled by pauses, which constitute an added challenge for the non-native speaker. As many of the lectures contained in iTunes U have been produced in-class, instructors can use the videos to introduce students to the more informal styles and point out the stages of the lecture and how they are signalled. I have also used the videos to have students practice taking notes, which is a necessary skill for university students studying abroad. These resources are also useful when examining the visual aspects of lectures such as PowerPoint slides, graphs, which may highlight the main points of the lecture and allow students to follow its structure, and even the lecturer’s gestures and facial expressions.


Individualized professional development

Apart from the benefits to students, iTunes U also provides teachers and other language professionals with an easily accessible resource with which they can stay abreast of trends in the TESOL and education fields. Personal favourites include the Liberty University course English as a World Language and Global English: a language of controversy? from The Open University. However, the diversity on offer is continually growing, and teachers are best served by browsing areas within their own interest.



iTunes U provides a fantastic and diverse resource for EAP instructors and learners by allowing them easy access to real-world academic discourse that their students will be exposed to during their studies overseas. It also provides great material for higher level classes through material from non-academic institutions such as TED.



De Carrico, J. & Nattinger, J. R. (1988). Lexical phrases for the comprehension of academic listening. Journal of English for Specific Purposes 7, 91-102.

Hyland, K. & Hamp-Lyons, L. (2002). EAP: Issues and directions, Journal of English for Academic Purposes, Vol. 1, 1-12.

Jordan, R. R. (1997). English for academic purposes: A guide and resource book for teachers. University Press: Cambridge.