Digital Higher Ed Content & The Long Tail

by Keith Hampson

Maybe my patience has finally been rewarded.

The focus of digital higher education during the previous decade was overwhelmingly on the technology itself – learning management systems, bandwidth, faculty literacy with technology, student technology support, and so forth. But I entered the world of higher education through an interest in interaction of culture and markets, and for me digital content (or media) is key. The rest? Mere plumbing. Okay, I admit that’s overstating it. But digital content is where people, culture, technology, organizations and markets meet. It’s messy, human and creative. And the potential of rich media, integrated with analytics and social platforms, to radically improve the quality and economics of higher education is extraordinary.

Now, in 2012, it appears that digital education content is finally getting some attention. 2012 is offering us OER (as well as OER with credentials), new authoring platforms, content-friendly devices (e.g. Tablets) and aggressive innovation in the textbook publishing industry.

In order to make sense of these developments, I recently reread Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” (2004). Anderson posited that the Internet has fundamentally changed the economics of producing and distributing digital products. “Shelf space” on the Internet is virtually infinite and increasingly inexpensive. It’s now financially feasible for vendors to sell a much wider variety of digital products, particularly books, films, and music and other media. Marketing strategy is shifting from a dependence on a relatively limited number of “hits” or “blockbusters”  (e.g. Top 40 radio; New York Times bestseller lists) to serving niches.

Interestingly, Anderson contends that consumers have tended to purchase “hits”, not because they are indifferent to less popular fare, but because of a lack of choice. But the Internet is now removing the bottleneck between suppliers and consumers. And as search and distribution technologies improve, and costs continue to decrease, Anderson forecasts that the top sellers in a variety of markets will constitute a smaller share of total sales, and the number of different products available will increase dramatically (i.e. further flattening and lengthening of the distribution of sales).

Of particular relevance to higher education, Anderson also predicts that more products will come to us by way of “amateurs”. These products created and sold by individuals (often on a part-time basis) are often presented alongside those from large commercial enterprises. Youtube is an example; blogs are another.

We are seeing a similar trend in higher education. Content development is being pushed down to the most local-level: the individual instructor. The role of the instructor is unusually well-suited to this trend because, firstly, academics are subject-matter experts, and are expected to be able to create their own instructional materials. They create course notes, slides (powerpoint), and research papers. The difference is that now they have the capacity to build this content on better platforms and distribute it widely.

Second, the idea that “everyone is an author now”, which is made possible by the changes Anderson identifies, fits perfectly with the pursuit of originality among academics. An academic’s value is largely based on their subject matter knowledge. And subject matter knowledge must be in some respect original if it is to be considered of value. Consequently, they have a vested interest in maintaining the notion that their work is original. And publishing is the means by which this originality is publicly demonstrated.

Third and finally, there is a cultural and political component to self-publishing. For many, to self-publish is to work outside of and beyond the control of larger organizations, typically commercial ones. This is a very appealing notion to many people in education. It’s consistent with the political leanings of many academics and commonly held attitudes with respect to the limited role of commerce in education.

Of course, in some respects, content has always been local in higher ed. But the interest of individuals in self-publishing is now matched by the emergence of a near-complete eco-system that enables them to create, manage and distribute educational content. Authoring can be done on ScholarPress; Creative Commons can serve as the legal framework for copyright and reuse; repositories such as Connexions and Merlot provide the technical infrastructure to house and distribute the content.

But while there is potential to produce an ever-increasing range of digital educational content in higher ed, this supply needs to be matched with demand. Is there, as Anderson argued with respect to other markets, demand for a far greater variety of content?

The Surprising Endurance of “Hits”

Before trying to answer this question, it may be useful to consider the work of Anita Elberse, a marketing professor. Elberse took a second look at The Long Tail’s argument. Her analysis, Should You Invest in the Long Tail?  (Harvard Business Review) suggests that the market for “blockbusters” remains largely safe from the onslaught of multiplying niche markets. Despite the changing economics of content authoring and distribution that Anderson describes, the bulk of sales are still found in the “head” and the “tail” is remarkably flat. For example,  24 percent of the nearly 4 million digital songs available for sale through stores like iTunes sold only one copy each in 2007. Apparently, we aren’t quite as adventuresome in our tastes as we’d like to believe. We are attracted to products and services that are validated by other consumers. We rely on each other as guides. So, it appears that there are limits to The Long Tail.Greater variety is not always matched by demand.

The degree to which Elberse’s argument invalidates the Long Tail theory is somewhat dependent on where we draw the line between the “head” and the “tail”; that is to say, what we think constitutes a “hit”. What’s most useful about her work for me is that it reminds us that there are important forces at play that give shape to the distribution of sales (head and tail). The increased variety of products sold is not merely the result of increased choice, as one might believe from reading Anderson’s work.

The insights from Anderson, and the questions posed about these insights by Elberse, can help us understand and anticipate the changes in the market for digital higher ed content. What, for example, is the necessary variety of digital educational content?  What are the factors that might the demand for a more diverse range of content in higher education? Do we have a preference for “hits” in higher education?

The implications are considerable. It will determine who produces the educational content, what gets produced, who pays for it, and what it ultimately costs.

As a starting point for addressing these questions, I offer three issues that may effect the length of the “tail” of content in digital higher ed:

Quality (Re)assurance. Do we need assurances from others in the field about the quality of content, and from whom, exactly? There are conventions in place: In traditional textbook publishing, it is conventional to employ currently employed academics from well-known (preferably) institutions of higher education as authors. In OER, we find the use of simple rating systems, such as stars (one-to-five), to crowd-source evaluations. To what degree will the need for assurance from others limit the expansion of the “tail”?

Consistent and Coherent Curriculum. To what extent must the content be consistent with the curriculum within the institution and other institutions? Although not to the same degree as K12, higher education is a “system” in which students progress, step-by-step. There are levels into which content must fit. When a student moves from first year to second year, or transfers from one school to another, there is an assumption (hope?) that the first year accounting course at University A is roughly equivalent to the same course at University B.  The Bologna Process is relevant here.

Production Quality. How important is it to educators and students that the content that they use meet a minimum standard of production quality? That is to say, at what point does “home-made” content become a liability because it is either difficult to integrate into an LMS, “buggy” (in the case of content embedded in applications), or simply difficult to use for students and instructors? How far along the “tail” will content of sufficient quality be found?

As the variety of content increases in the coming years, educators, institutions and publishers may want to pay attention to these and other issues to determine how they go about creating, acquiring and distributing content. Although it’s too early to be certain, my suspicion is that like the markets of music, film, and books, the demand for “hits” in digital edu content will remain surprisingly strong.

Related Articles

Note: A number of people have written about the relationship between The Long Tail and education – I’ve included a list below. You’ll recognize, though, that some of them use the concept of the Long Tail to analyze the diversification of students. That is, the tail gets longer as more people participate in higher education.  Instead, I use the concept to analyze the diversity of educational content. Although the former approach may be of great value, my focus on educational content is more in line with Anderson’s original use of the concept.  

http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume43/MindsonFireOpenEducationtheLon/162420

http://www.johnconnell.co.uk/blog/?p=257

http://www.slideshare.net/hnzz/the-long-tail-in-education

http://blog.gatlininternational.co.uk/2010/02/15/the-long-tail-model-of-higher-education/#.TzyCw3JSQkY

http://www.elearningeuropa.info/en/article/Long-Tail-Learning-and-Curriculum

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2008/07/long_tails_and_big_heads.html

http://hbr.org/2008/07/should-you-invest-in-the-long-tail/ar/1

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