Downloadable lectures: making Beowulf bearable

Are they really the answer to every hungover student's prayers? Esther Walker reports

It didn't go that well for me at university. I chose my institute of higher education by closing my eyes and pointing at a map. My finger landed on Bristol and off I went. I didn't like it, and it didn't like me. They told me I had a bad attitude and gave me a 2.2. So I feel like I missed out a bit on the whole university experience. At least, I missed out the going-to-tutorials and going-to-the-library and doing-work thing.

So, thank god for the internet. Thanks to it, I can be a born-again swot. In May last year, iTunes collaborated with American universities to make their lectures and other learning material available to download through iTunes U. In June this year, a select number of British universities, including the Open University, also signed up. And now, both Oxford and Cambridge have produced downloads of lectures, and you can even eavesdrop on tutorials, such as one on Gender in Old English, at Mansfield College, Oxford.

Listening to them, I feel so much better, so much more enriched and fulfilled, enlightened and alive. Because I realise that I didn't miss anything. They are so boring! Geeks in polyester slacks (probably), banging on about irrelevant things.

During the Oxford tutorial on Gender in Old English, one of the two students says that Beowulf "can be perceived to be based on, like, warrior, masculine qualities". Good heavens, really? A stupider sentence I have rarely heard – and that's me, who thought for an entire term that Beowulf was a bar on Park Street. I can't believe that I didn't apply to Oxford because I thought it would be too hard to get in.

But maybe if I had been able to download lectures and seminars in my own time, for free, I would have listened to them and learnt something rather than staying in bed all day and getting drunk at 3pm because I didn't want to walk through the rain to the lecture hall. (I notice, by the way, that Bristol University has not bothered to sign up to iTunes U. Typical.)

The good thing about listening to lectures in your own time is that if you lose interest half-way through and want to go and get a cup of tea, you can. Or you can fast-forward through bits you know already, or listen to the one interesting bit again. You don't have to rely on your notes, which stop 10 minutes in because your hand is too tired to write anymore. And if you want to pull the trick that always gets you top marks in essays, where you repeat what the tutor said in the lecture, it's much easier if you've got a recording of the lecture to plagiarise.

The Open University has had huge success with its collaboration with iTunes: it's just celebrated its millionth download since it started the program, four months ago. And it's no wonder, given that the whole point of the Open University is that it offers correspondence courses.

One of the OU's most popular downloads is a video podcast about the Galapagos Islands, along with Beginner's Spanish and a series called Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire.

"Providing material online means that students are more in control of how, where, when and the pace of their learning," says Nicholas Watson, iTunes U project leader for the OU. "I think conventional universities are going to catch on to the fact that rigid lecture times and places are less effective than online learning. Students are starting to realise how expensive getting a degree from a face-to-face university is; I know of students who move to university towns to be among their peers, but get their actual degree through the Open University."

But Alex Blessley, a second-year student reading politics, philosophy and economics at Brasenose College, Oxford, can't see it catching on. "I might download a lecture – or rather, have my computer download it – but then I'd probably never listen to it until revision, at which point I'd be so bored that I'd be on Facebook and not take anything in. Personally, I reckon it's a pretty silly idea – but the way I learn best is by reading and chatting, so it might just be the wrong learning style for me."

The current top downloads from Oxford's iTunes U are the American economist Joseph Stiglitz's lecture on the credit crunch, and a jolly little three-minute propaganda video made for the university by alumnus Michael Palin – so it seems as though it's depressed bankers and prospective students doing most of the downloading, rather than actual students.

Although I wish it were otherwise, I would doubtless have been one of those students who downloaded all the lectures but never listened to them. Perhaps Oxford and Cambridge just need to think about smartening up their iTunes act. The Open University video podcasts are quite good: the Galapagos series is just like a nature programme on BBC2, only without David Attenborough, but my interest did wane during a 10-minute scene on the correct methodology for collecting tortoise turds.

In contrast, Oxford and Cambridge's podcasts are either embarrassingly amateurish (someone in the Mansfield Gender in Old English tutorial keeps knocking the microphone), or hilariously overpolished, such as The Naked Scientists download, from Cambridge, which sounds like a teatime show on a local radio station. "Boldly going where no science show has gone before!" it announces, with jazzy music in the background, before the two presenters, Chris and Helen, talk about new vaccines for cervical cancer and the origins of HIV. They link their subjects by saying things like, "...and that's all coming up later in the show", or, "Over to you, Helen", "Thanks, Chris".

And listening to a lecture on the Fall of the Roman Empire by Dr Bryan Ward-Perkins, no doubt recorded in some gloomy, fag-smelling little room in a far-flung corner of the history faculty, I can almost smell teak furniture and boredom. But, hey, no one ever said that learning was glamorous.

Go for the learn: Hi-tech study aids

Acecad DigiMemo A402 £90.46

These slabs of techno-wizardry, which convert handwriting into proper text, recognise the touch of the special stylo only so you won't confuse it when you rest your hand on the screen to write. Handy for people who can't read their own handwriting and who don't want to take a laptop into lectures.

DocuPen RC800 £189.99

First came pen scanners, which copied single lines of text at a time and then came the DocuPen, which scans entire pages at a time. All you have to do is run the 9in-long scanner over a page of text, from top to bottom. It takes between four and eight seconds to capture a page; ideal for use on short-loan books.

MicroMemo for iPod £29.99

By plugging a voice recorder into your iPod you can record lectures you are too lazy to take notes in. You can record up to 192 hours on to a 30GB iPod; you can also copy them on to your computer and listen to it later, or send to others.

My French Coach £19.99

The manufacturer's claim is rather bold: play My French Coach or My Spanish Coach on the DS for 15 to 20 minutes a day is all you need to become fluent in French (or Spanish). There are 1,000 interactive lessons, including pronunciation, thanks to DS' in-built microphone. No use for degree-level discussions of Voltaire but handy for chatting up French chicks.

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