Students at the University of Michigan’s School of Dentistry use their iPods and MP3 players for more than just listening to music–they also listen to class lectures and review notes through a student-run project that uses iTunes technology for academic purposes. UM-Dentistry uses iTunes U, a content-management system from Apple Computer, to post audio recordings of class lectures online. Students can preview a lecture recording, download an individual lecture, or subscribe to have downloads delivered to their computers or MP3 players automatically.

The program is yet another example of how schools are tapping into the digital music and media phenomenon created by the exploding popularity of Apple’s iPod and other portable MP3 players. And now, Apple says it is making its iTunes U available free of charge to any other school or university that wants to use it.

“We’re excited, as iTunes U allows learning to happen truly anywhere, any time, and in an environment that students are already comfortable with: iTunes and iPod,” said Apple spokesman Todd Wilder.

Through iTunes U, users can download content to their Macs or PCs regardless of their location. They can listen to or view content on their computer or transfer that content to an iPod for listening or viewing on the go.

UM-Dentistry students can access iTunes U through any computer, using their UM identification and password. Under UM’s system, a designated student begins recording a lecture at the beginning of class and stops the recording when the lecture is over. That student then posts the lecture audio online as soon as possible.

“I’ve had zero complaints,” Lynn Johnson, associate professor of dentistry, said of the school’s collaboration with Apple. “The students have it organized, and they’re doing it, and at the end of last semester there were more than 300 lectures on the web site.”

The project began in 2004 when first-year dental student Jared Van Ittersum wondered why electronic versions of class lectures were not available.

“He asked to have all the lectures taped, and at first all I could see were dollar signs,” Johnson said. Johnson and Van Ittersum discussed his idea with other dental school staff and decided to run a pilot to see how the program would work.

The students tried three different approaches. Lectures were posted online in video with audio format, PowerPoint with audio format, and as straight audio files. They then consulted download traffic on the school’s server logs to see which format students downloaded the most.

“We looked at the logs to see what the students actually used, and they wanted audio,” Johnson said. “It makes sense–they wanted the mobility.”

Students have little free time, and this approach lets them review a class while they’re working out or doing other activities, Johnson said: “It’s really a time-management tool for them, very much so.”

With that in mind, Johnson and her staff developed an audio-recording system using Apple’s eMac computer. Students then record each lecture via the computer using the classroom’s public address system.

“Whatever goes out over the speakers is … recorded,” Johnson said. The audio file then is posted online, along with the class title, lecture title, and professor’s name.

Students must get an instructor’s permission before recording the lecture, but Johnson said she has never heard of a faculty member saying no. She also emphasized that listening to a lecture on an MP3 player does not replace going to class–rather, she explained, listening to a past lecture builds on what the student initially learned during the lecture.

There is no cost for students or schools to use iTunes U, but there is a small cost associated with creating and uploading the podcasts. This year, Johnson said, school staff spend 15 to 30 minutes a week troubleshooting, down from several hours a week during the pilot program.

“It’s really low-cost, and the return on the investment is extremely high,” she said.