I was recently made aware of the University of California at Berkeley iTunes site via Pete's November 9 2006 linklog. I must admit that my initial reaction was not exactly positive but then I didn't follow the link to explore more until now.
The various courses available are clearly aimed at the serious student so it can be asumed that the content is basically the same that an enrolled student would receive if attending classes on campus. Without the campus cameraderie, of course. (It does bother me to think that in future students will listen to coursework in isolation and perhaps fail to learn the skills of communication, discussion, point and counterpoint, etc.)
But just like a Google search, or Wikipedia, these free downloads form a formidable resource that is instantly available any time, any where. With the portability of an iPod, the classroom can indeed be a commuter train, a trans-Atlantic airplane cabin, a lonely spot on an unspoiled coastline. Wherever.
There is also a certain altruism in all this information sharing, whether it is Google or Apple that is providing the means of access for free information. Yes, it's true that both companies make a lot of money as a by product of this altruism, but no-one is actually forcing the consumer to spend any money (other than to buy the basic equipment, but in a few cases an iPod is now being made available as part of the course material anyway). In a sense, the very act of education should make such iPod users more discerning when it comes to the "pull" toward those commercial links!
I used to think that anyone wearing earbuds (white or not) was probably listening to popular music - i.e. being entertained. Many of my generation almost certainly would agree with that observation - the banning of personal listening devices in some quiet zones would certainly suggest that they are not very quiet and therefore must be turned up too loud. But free downloadable podcasts and course lectures are probably taking a larger and larger percentage of the playing time on many iPods and other players. Which can only be a good thing. So the next time you see an iPod user on a crowded train, he/she may be listening to a course on, say, food nutrition, courtesy of the UCAL system.