The Long Tail of Education

The Long TailIn 2006, Chris Anderson wrote “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More“. In it, he detailed how the advent of new technologies were changing the way consumers were accessing products. He outlined 3 forces that were encouraging the emergence of long tails.

  1. Democratization of the means of production.
    • The tools that were limited to only professionals in the past are now more available, thus leading to increased amounts of production.
  2. Democratization of the means of distribution.
    • For certain fields, storage has stopped being a major issue, meaning that individuals do not need to invest so much in infrastructure costs to get their product out there.
  3. The connecting of supply and demand.
    • We are more connected in this day and age than at any other time in history. The opportunity to recommend products to friends, and to connect people to exactly what they are looking for, has expanded the amount of commercially viable products.

His book focuses on how industry and society are being changed by these forces. The technology behind these forces has also had an impact on the field of education, however, but it is not an area specifically addressed in his book.

Production

More people are producing educational materials than ever before. The means of producing these materials have become commonplace in almost every home in the industrialized world. The personal computer, which has led to so many changes in how business is being operated, has also become the gateway to a new form of education.

YouTube was originally created when a designer wanted to be able to find out how to tie a tie. Now anyone with a video camera and something to talk about can produce (albeit to different levels of quality) videos about subjects that interest them.

Content management software specifically designed for learning—Learning Management Systems—has also become more common, often-times being available for free. One example is Moodle, which allows the user to create fully integrated classrooms online, and manage the administration of tests, assignments, and project and group work.

These are just two of the many examples of the democratisation of the means of production impacting education.

Distribution

The second area is the means of distribution.

50 years ago, students needed to be physically in the classroom. Distance courses in education were limited in the amount of interaction they could provide and the materials that were available. The advent of digital technologies have overcome almost all of the limitations of distribution of educational materials.

Students can now interact with peers and teachers in real-time with video, chat, and even in virtual environments, such as Second Life. The cost of distributing books and other materials has been dramatically reduced through the use of digital copies sent via the Internet.

Connection

The area in which education is lagging behind other industries exploring the long tail is connecting supply with demand.

It is still rather difficult to find the specific courses or educational materials that you are looking for. MOOCs and other free online course materials, have sought to address this imbalance and make it easier for prospective students to find courses that interest them.

The use of social media is also helping people to connect with the educational options that appeal most to them.

As can clearly be seen, education is also experiencing the same forces that have created the long tails in other industries. It will be interesting to see how these forces interact in the future to impact on how people choose to educate themselves.

In future posts, I will be looking at different aspects of the long tail in education, and discussing in more details the tools available.

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