03/13/2014 02:30 pm ET Updated May 11, 2014

Can iTunes U Unseat the MOOCs?

Given the roller coaster MOOCs been on over the last 18 months, it's probably time to stop thinking about them as some sort of gold standard for independent education, and rather think of MOOCs as an inspiration to explore a broader range of free-learning alternatives.

Given that it was inspired by a fascination with the new massive open courses, my Degree of Freedom project was understandably anchored in MOOC classes from organizations like edX, Coursera and Udacity (with contributions from other lesser-known massive course providers like Canvas, Novoed and Udemy). But, as I've already discussed, lecture-only content from places like iTunes U were also part of my program, either as standalone classes or as components of other projects (like some curated or self-curated courses I made part of my One Year B.A. curriculum).

With 30 plus classes come and gone, there is no question that MOOCs are preferable as a "package" that most closely approximates a college course experience with all the lectures, assignments and other materials wrapped into a single syllabus provided through a single point of contact.

But having said that, some of the non-MOOC classes I've taken (such as a "Life in the Universe" course from iTunes U) were far more substantial than MOOC offerings on the same subject. And while it's true that, had I taken the MOOC, I would have been asked to answer some test questions and could have obtained a certificate of completion, I suspect I learned more from that full-semester iTunes U course than I would have from a much shorter MOOC.

Now Life in the Universe is one of the courses where a web site for the live course included a syllabus and actual problem sets to work on (something you can't find for all -- or even many lecture-only classes). Even so, I strongly suspect that it would be easier for the folks running iTunes U to supplement their lecture courses with already existing syllabus material from existing classes than it would be for Coursera or edX to add another thousand MOOCs to their catalogs.

So free online higher education looms as just one more category Apple might be able to dominate if it decides to make it a priority. Just one more thing to keep the MOOC-makers up at night (hopefully calculating how they can keep innovating their way to continued market dominance).