By Dr. Frank Lowney

free textbooksThis past weekend, Dr. Frank Lowney, an occasional TeleRead contributor, brought to our attention an online archive of free, Creative Commons licensed university textbooks known as the Flatworld Knowledge Book Archive. We heard from Dr. Lowney again yesterday; he told us that “another, larger source of free e-textbooks can actually be found on iTunes U. But that story, he said, is a bit more complicated.” His explanation follows:

Educational providers, such as institutions of higher education, can get a public iTunes U site from Apple at zero cost. Those public sites contain both “collections” and “courses.” A collection can contain video, audio, PDF or EPUB files including lots of metadata, and they are organized along some topic or discipline. For an example, click here to access The Open University’s public iTunes U site.

iTunes USome of the EPUB e-books on the site as listed as being “for iBooks,” because they contain audio, video or embedded PDFs that most other e-readers can’t yet handle.  If you don’t see “for iBooks” in a book’s title, it can be read by any standard EPUB e-reader. All collections in all iTunes U sites are DRM-free, and free of cost.

An iTunes U course can be partially accessed via the iTunes app on a PC, but can only be fully accessed via the free iTunes U app on an iOS device. For an example, take a look at Introduction to Visual Studies, a free course offered by Penn State. Viewed in the free cross-platform iTunes app, you’ll see video, audio and PDF files. All of this stuff is freely downloadable on an à la carte basis; or you can subscribe to the course, download everything at once and get notification that new stuff has been added. So far, so good.

But when you look at this same course from the iTunes U app on an iPad, for example, you see much, much more. There are posts by the instructor; there are a variety of note taking functions, including notes taken while viewing video or listening to audio; and there is a materials section that includes audio, video, various document types, apps, Web links and e-books. In this example, most of the materials are free, although some apps and books, which can be purchased through Apple’s AppStore and iBookstore, are not. If you’re using an iPad, you also have access to any interactive e-book created with Apple’s iBooks Author. These, too, can be free or not.

One of the interesting things about iTunes U courses is that anyone can set one up for free. If you’re associated with an institution that has a public iTunes U site, you can offer courses with unlimited enrollment, and you get unlimited storage on Apple’s servers. But even if you aren’t so affiliated, you can offer up to 12 private courses, enrolling 50 students or fewer, and use up to 20 GB of Apple server storage. For private courses, there is a URL that the instructor can generate and send to students.

Although there is plenty of free stuff to be had here, it should be clear that Apple expects to sell more hardware—especially iPads—as well as more content, as a result of iTunes U being available.