Alston Road


Tag: Chris Anderson

Digital Higher Ed Content & The Long Tail

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.

The Freemium Model and Digital Higher Education

Free and Higher Ed?

Offering customers something for free in order to generate sales may be as old as commerce itself. However, in his 2010 book, Free : The Future of a Radical Price (as well as in an earlier set of articles), Chris Anderson argued that the Internet and the rise of digitally dependent businesses was remaking the possibilities for and scope of “free”.

The change he observed is the result of the rapidly declining costs of bandwidth, storage, and processing power – core elements of the digital industries. The markets most influenced by the changes are those in which the products and services are primarily in the digital format: web services and software, and certain kinds of content.

I’m interested in better understanding how the changes highlighted in Anderson’s work relate to digital higher education. As more of what constitutes higher education moves into the realm of digital networks, the theory may help us identify new ways of improving the quality and cost structures of higher education. The notes that follow are my first attempt to begin unpacking the theory in the context of digital higher ed.


Anderson distinguished between three common uses of “free” in industry.

Type 1: The customer is offered something free of cost if they purchase a second, related product. If you use a coffee service at your office, for example, the vendor likely lets the office use the coffee machine free-of-charge, but charges for each coffee sachet.

Type 2: Here, the core product or service is offered free of charge. Revenue is generated by selling access to the customers of the core product to other companies. This is the basis of advertising-sponsored mass media such as radio and television.

Type 3: The third variety, the “freemium” model”, is the focus of Anderson’s work, and is a by-product of the Internet and digitally dependent industries.

The “freemium” model . . .

“. . . enabled by digital markets where the marginal cost of production and distribution is close to zero. This is the one that allows the “freemium” business model, where 90% of the users get the basic product for free and 10% chose to pay for a premium version. In economics this is called “versioning” and is a form of using price discrimination (where the main price is zero) to maximize both the consumer utility and the profit in a market. In this model, charging a small percentage of a large user base beats charging a large percentage of a small user base. Obviously best for consumer products with potentially large appeal, it’s the main Web 2.0 business model and can be found everywhere from Flickr and Flickr Pro to open source’s “support included” commercial versions of Linux.”

Possibly the best examples of the freemium model are the web-based file storage services like DropBox and Box.Net. Each allow customers to store and share files free of charge up to a certain volume (e.g. 2GB). Revenue is generated from sales to high need or “premium” customers that require more storage space and other special features. Evernote, a note-management application, has a similar business model. The goal of the company, of course, is to convert as many non-paying customers to premium, paying customers as possible. But the majority of their customers will never pay for the service.

Price in Higher Education

Many higher ed institutions use differential pricing. Tuition levels are manipulated, and scholarships allocated, in order to attract a desirable mix of students (e.g. student-athletes, promising scholars, race/ethnicity). As with the freemium model, some customers are absorbing a greater share of costs.

Secondly, tuition levels in higher education have a somewhat unique relationship to value. In most industries, lower prices increases value (value: balance of cost and quality). However, because it is difficult to measure value in education (and the sector has been reluctant to get serious about outcome measurement), stakeholders have had to rely on surrogates of quality to measure value. Surrogates include the institution’s research success, “name” academics on the faculty, exclusivity (admissions), and notably, tuition levels. Here, higher tuition levels are often used as a symptom of quality; the assumption being that the higher the tuition, the greater the quality. And, of course, as the tuition increases, so too does the degree of exclusivity, which in turn, increases the ability of the institution to charge higher tuition levels.

In higher education, digital and otherwise, the most frequent reference to “free” is with respect to OER – open educational resources. On the surface, OER doesn’t appear related to Anderson’s concept of freemium; certainly advocates of OER don’t think of it in these terms. Nevertheless, like “freemium”, OER content is paid for by premium customers – albeit indirectly. The institutions and their individual faculty produce OER materials are supported by “premium” customers – those that pay tuition. This may not always the case. There may come a time when academics and their institutions see the broader, global public as their audience and/or the funding for this content comes from some sort of supra-national body.

As noted above, the freemium model assumes that some of the users of the free products or services can be converted to premium, paying customers. While individual academics that support OER do not routinely consider the promotion of their institution as their motivation for distributing free instructional materials, this is not the case at the institutional level. For senior academic and IT leaders in universities, OER seems like an opportunity to both “do good” and generate positive public relations. Taylor Walsh touched on this function for OER in her recent book Unlocking the Gates, (see, also my interview with the author) and I’ve been in meetings where university management have imagined that by putting their school’s best lectures on iTunesU, Merlot or Connexions that they may be able to build the institution’s brand. I suspect there’s little promotional impact from such efforts – but that university management would see OER as a means of “converting leads”, however indirectly, puts it in alignment with the freemium model.

Examples of Freemium in Higher Education

A great example of the freemium model in higher education is Flat World Knowledge (FWK). In fact, Flat World was highlighted in Chris Anderson’s book. FWK emerged out of a recognition of the limits of the traditional textbook industry that has resulted in rapidly climbing book prices, awkward customization options, and virtually no opportunity for students to define their own needs. FWK produces high quality digital textbooks across a range of disciplines. The basics of the business model are:

  • FWK content is licensed under creative commons.
  • Students have full access to a free web-based version of the book.
  • Instructors that adopt the titles for their courses, can modify the book as they wish; changing text, adding components, reordering the content, adding third-party content (e.g. Youtube videos).
  • If they choose, students can order additional versions of the textbook including black & white or colour print versions, audio versions, study aids, tablet version, and so on. All of these are sold at prices well below industry standards.

This particular use of “free” ensures that all students have access to their course textbook – which is an increasingly important issue as higher education serves an ever-broadening range of socio-economic groups, increases the learner’s control over how they learn, places more control in the hands of the academic running the course, and, of course, it addresses the issue of price.

It seems to be working. After only two years in operation, there are now more than 1600 academics using textbooks by Flat World Knowledge.

Another instance of the freemium model in higher education is the recently launched Test Drive College. As the percentage of the population that wishes to attend higher education climbs, so does the number of prospective students that are unsure of their true interests, and whether they are adequately prepared for college. TDC offers students free online college courses. If successful, students can apply the credits earned through TDC to college programs that are affiliated with TDC.

In this business model, then, the colleges that form affiliations with TDC are the premium customers that generate the revenue. The benefit to the college is the stream of students that begin their college careers better prepared, having already demonstrated their capacity to learn and commitment to complete college courses. TDC is compensated by the admitting college.

We are at the very earliest stage of testing new business models in higher education. The above models – FWK and TDC – have found ways to leverage the changing economics of digital learning. It will interesting to see how other companies employ new variations of the freemium model in higher education.

Note: I am on the Advisory Team at Flat World Knowledge.