Apple 2.0

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Apple's iTunes U enrollment soars

August 24, 2010: 11:05 AM ET

After a relatively slow start, downloads have tripled since Dec. 2009 to hit 300 million

Click to enlarge. Source: Company reports

iTunes U, which began as a modest extension of Apple's (AAPL) iTunes Store in May 2007, has grown into one of the world's largest catalogs of educational course material  -- with most of that growth occurring in the past eight months.

On Tuesday Apple announced that iTunes U downloads have now topped 300 million. That's up from the 100 million it announced in Dec. 2009.

Apple didn't offer an explanation for why downloads have accelerated so rapidly. But in the press release issued Tuesday it noted that the site now offers more than 350,000 audio and video files from more than 800 educational institutions around the globe, including the recent addition of universities in China, Japan, Mexico and Singapore.

The service is free to participating institutions, which make use of the iTunes infrastructure but are given their own iTunes U sites. One advantage iTunes U has over traditional podcasting tools is that each institution can decide whether to make access to its course material open or closed. Most of iTunes U's content, however, appears to be free to anyone who cares to download it.

As a result, the service can be a great leveler. For example, nearly 1,000 tuition-paying Harvard students pack a lecture hall in Cambridge, Mass., each year to hear Professor Michael Sandel's popular lectures on justice ("The Moral Side of Murder," "The Case for Cannibalism," etc.). The entire series is free on iTunes U. You can watch the videos here.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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