Digital Higher Ed Content & The Long Tail (2012)

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.

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Digital content is where people, culture, technology, organizations and markets meet. It’s messy, human and creative. And when you include analytics and social platforms, the potential of rich media to radically improve the quality and economics of higher education is extraordinary.

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 help make sense of these developments, I recently reread Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” (2004).  Anderson's theory, if you're not familiar with it, argued 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. Consequently, 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.

Higher Ed and Content Variety

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 now the Internet is 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). This is the "long tail".

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 of this, blogs are another.

We are seeing a similar trend in higher education. Content development and distribution 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.

The idea that "everyone is an author now", which is made possible by the changes Anderson identifies, fits perfectly with the pursuit of originality that is fundamental to the social and labour market value of academics.  An academic's value is largely based on their knowledge of subject matter. And in order for the academic to be valuable, their contribution to the subject must be in some respect original. Consequently, academics have a vested interest in maintaining the notion that their work is original; 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, the act of self-publishing is a means of working outside and beyond the control of larger organizations, typically commercial ones. This is a very appealing notion to many people in the field of education, in so far that it is consistent with the political leanings of many academics and their attitudes with respect to the limited role that commerce should play in education.

In one respect, content has always been local in higher ed. Higher education is one of the most decentralized enterprises in the 21st century. 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 ScholarPressCreative 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. Elberse took a second look at the Long Tail 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. The great growth in product variety may not be matched by an equally great growth in choices made by consumers. ,

The degree to which Elberse’s argument invalidates the Long Tail theory is somewhat dependent on where we choose draw the line between the “head” and the “tail”; that is to say, what level of consumption/sales we think constitutes a “hit”. For me, though, the most useful aspect of her work 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 Limits of the Long Tail in Higher Education

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 influence 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. Answers to these questions 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 common 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"? What will new systems for validations look like?

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 through curriculum in a step-by-step fashion. Consequently, there are levels into which digital 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.) How will the proliferation of content sources fit into the need for common, coordinated curriculum?

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 ever-extending "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.

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 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.

Digital content is where people, culture, technology, organizations and markets meet. It’s messy, human and creative. And when you include analytics and social platforms, the potential of rich media to radically improve the quality and economics of higher education is extraordinary.

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 help make sense of these developments, I recently reread Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” (2004).  Anderson's theory, if you're not familiar with it, argued 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. Consequently, 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.

Higher Ed and Content Variety

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 now the Internet is 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). This is the "long tail".

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 of this, blogs are another.

We are seeing a similar trend in higher education. Content development and distribution 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.

The idea that "everyone is an author now", which is made possible by the changes Anderson identifies, fits perfectly with the pursuit of originality that is fundamental to the social and labour market value of academics.  An academic's value is largely based on their knowledge of subject matter. And in order for the academic to be valuable, their contribution to the subject must be in some respect original. Consequently, academics have a vested interest in maintaining the notion that their work is original; 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, the act of self-publishing is a means of working outside and beyond the control of larger organizations, typically commercial ones. This is a very appealing notion to many people in the field of education, in so far that it is consistent with the political leanings of many academics and their attitudes with respect to the limited role that commerce should play in education.

In one respect, content has always been local in higher ed. Higher education is one of the most decentralized enterprises in the 21st century. 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 ScholarPressCreative 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. Elberse took a second look at the Long Tail 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. The great growth in product variety may not be matched by an equally great growth in choices made by consumers. ,

The degree to which Elberse’s argument invalidates the Long Tail theory is somewhat dependent on where we choose draw the line between the “head” and the “tail”; that is to say, what level of consumption/sales we think constitutes a “hit”. For me, though, the most useful aspect of her work 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 Limits of the Long Tail in Higher Education

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 influence 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. Answers to these questions 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 common 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"? What will new systems for validations look like?

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 through curriculum in a step-by-step fashion. Consequently, there are levels into which digital 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.) How will the proliferation of content sources fit into the need for common, coordinated curriculum?

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 ever-extending "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.

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.  

Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0

The Long Tail Cometh in Education . . . But Slowly

The Long Tail in Education

The Long Tail Model of Higher Education

Long Tail Learning and Curriculum

Long Tails and Big Heads

Should You Invest in the Long Tail? (Anita Elberse)

BISG: Higher Ed Student Attitudes to Content Research Report

Disruptive Innovation, Online Education, and Autonomy

Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation includes as one of its tenets that it is rare for incumbents in an industry to maintain their dominant position once a disruptive innovation has run its course. In industries as different as software, steel manufacturing and online book retailing, incumbents have been pushed aside by new organizations that employ technologies in new ways. Although large, well-run organizations often have the resources to generate innovations, their commitment to existing customers, focusing on improving existing systems, and unwillingness to pursue niche markets, stops them from investing sufficiently in new products and new markets.

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According to Christensen, and others that have applied his theory to higher education, online learning is this sector’s potentially disruptive innovation. Like disruptive innovations in other sectors, online learning offers a more convenient, flexible solution to segments of the market that are currently being over or under-served by the traditional higher education model. If online learning adheres to the trajectory of disruptive innovations, in time it will improve in quality and become increasingly inexpensive; eventually capturing a significant portion of the total higher ed market.

Chistensen argues that the only way for incumbents to avoid being the victim of disruptive innovation is to create autonomous units within their organizations that have the freedom to create new products and pursue new markets - even if that means cannibalizing the market of the host institution.

Robert Birnbaum wrote: “The logical conclusion of applying the theses of The Innovator’s Dilemmaand The Innovator’s Solutionto higher education may be that virtual education can thrive in traditional colleges and universities only if it operates outside their normal management and value frameworks, with the consequent risk of losing institutional control.” Robert Birnbaum, Academe.

For most professionals leading online education within traditional colleges the issue of independence from central services and faculties is front-of-mind. The degree of autonomy of these units is a fundamental factor determining how they operate, their ability to scale-up operations, and the capacity to create services and course designs that match the unique needs of online learners. Generally, the greater the degree of autonomy, the better able the online unit is able to serve students. The tension that results from these competing interests makes driving an online unit in a traditional institution one of the more challenging and political positions in higher ed.

As of 2011, few online learning units in traditional institutions have the political clout to demand greater levels of autonomy. Despite the growing enrolment in online learning - five times that of overall enrolment - the majority of institutions still don’t treat online learning as a strategic issue. Indeed, many schools still don’t include it in their strategic plans (according to the most recent Sloan-C/Babson report, released last week).

Nevertheless, it is possible for leaders of online learning to adjust their relationship to the central university systems and power centres. But they need to be tactical; focusing their change management efforts on the most important parts of their operation to online learning success such as marketing, course scheduling, student support, integration of online courses with central services, including libraries, bookstores, and career services.

University Brand Games (2011)

Brand extension is a marketing strategy that involves drawing on the strength of your organization's brand in one market in order to gain a foothold in a second market. In consumer markets, companies like Virgin have made brand extension a core of their growth strategy; ideally, entry into each new market is made easier by the brand equity built in other markets.

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Colleges practice brand extension, too. (Unlike the Virgin Corp. President, university presidents don’t don costumes or jump from planes to promote their brand extension efforts. Not yet.) Some of the more common types of brand extension include offering training to corporations (b2b), online education by brick-and-mortar institutions, and the construction of satellite campuses. But colleges are typically cautious about leveraging their brands. Reputation is all-important.

There are, though, creative uses of brands in higher education. Consider the following examples:

Durham University (UK) partners with the consulting firm KPMG to design and deliver undergraduate business programs. Students receive funding from KPMG during their studies and can be confident that the curriculum is informed by the needs of a major employer in the space. Demand for the program is strong, and the model is expected to be deployed at other universities. The value of this partnership to the students - and indirectly to Durham -  is largely based on KPMG's brand. The value would be less substantial had Durham partnered with a collection of independent consultants, even if the curriculum was as good and financial assistance similar.

*The New York Times Knowledge Network takes a similar approach by partnering with traditional colleges and universities to offer workshops, courses and programs to the adult market.

In 2012, Vogue- a Conde Nast publication - will open a college in London focused on (no surprise) fashion and design. It’s hard to imagine prospective students interested in this line of work won’t be interested in getting as close to Vogue - and all that it represents - as they possibly can. Unlike KPMG, Vogue/Conde Nast is skipping the traditional partnership model and taking its brand directly to the market.

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The university systems of Texas, Washington, and Indiana have joined forces with WGU (Western Governors University) to extend each state’s capacity in online education (e.g. WGU-Indiana). These states have no shortage of colleges and universities, but have nevertheless taken the unusual step of acquiring the operations (and brand) of an existing university.  Although many institutions have partnerships with other institutions, the WGU partnership model is different: first, it’s a partnership between (multiple) state systems and a single institution from other states. Second, colleges typically choose partners that have enjoy similar levels of status and are not direct competitors (e.g. NYU’s Stern (a business school) has an alliance with the LSE, UK and HEC, France).

*

Pearson Education recently launched OpenClass, a new Learning Management System. The platform made headlines for two reasons: it’s free and tech giant Google is involved. I venture that the interest in this platform is greatly enhanced by Google’s involvement. Although few people at this time know what this platform can or can’t do, there is widespread appreciation of what the Google  brand “means” in this market place. Google, unlike Pearson, is considered an icon of technology innovation - a value of great relevance to the CIO’s and other decision-makers that Pearson is seeking to serve. Despite being the world’s largest education brand, Pearson is borrowing the credibility of the Google brand to advance its own. (It’s worth noting that Google’s role in the OpenClass product may be less than originally understood, as suggested by Jeff Young’s article in the Chronicle.)

*

Lasting only a couple of years before closing in 2010, Meritus University was the Apollo Group’s attempt to set up a fully online university in Canada. From the start, Meritus' initiative in Canada was working against the tide: tuition in Canada is relatively low (although average tuition discounting is lower than in the U.S.), the region in which Meritus set up - the Maritimes - has a declining student population, and Canadian students are less familiar and comfortable with proprietary colleges.

Apollo isn't the only U.S. publicly traded company to examine the Canadian market. Others have been attracted by the similarity of the Canadian and U.S. educational systems (which can make it easier for the U.S. institutions to leverage their existing curriculum investments), an accommodating student-loan system, U.S. marketing efforts reach into Canada easily, and most of the population is english-speaking. Meritus sought, then, to serve both the Canadian and overseas markets - particularly Asia.

The decision to not use the well-established University of Phoenix brand reflected, insiders told me, a desire to have the Meritus brand, in time, be understood as a “Canadian brand” - especially in the eyes of students outside of North America. "Canada", then, was part of the brand strategy at Apollo. Apollo was borrowing the equity of an education brand without that brand actively participating in the exchange.

Higher Education is Not a Newspaper, Except When It Is (2014)

It has often been suggested that higher education is undergoing the changes we've seen unfold in other sectors - notably music recording and journalism. The Internet will do to us what it did to them. Apparently, we won’t like it.

"Look at the music industry. It's been completely overturned by the Internet. My vision of the world is that everywhere will be like the music industry, but we've only seen it in a few places so far. Journalism is in the midst of the battle. And higher education is probably next." Tyler Cowen

The nature of these changes is described using one or both of these related concepts: disintermediation and unbundling.

 Photo by  Flipboard  on  Unsplash

Photo by Flipboard on Unsplash

Disintermediation: The Internet makes it easier for people to bypass certain types of gatekeepers and mediating organizations to get products and services directly from the source. (Investing directly in the securities market, rather than through a bank, is a well-known example.) What constitutes the “source” differs by sector, but in most cases disintermediation tends to increase the intensity of competition between providers, improve choice for consumers, and drive down prices. In higher education, the vision is that students will be able to find learning experiences beyond what's available from accredited institutions.

Unbundling: The concept of unbundling is applied in very different ways, depending on the industry. For education, I think the most relevant variety of unbundling is that which involves marketing goods and services separately, rather than as part of a package. A music album, for example, is a bundle of songs; iTunes makes it easy to unbundle albums. A university degree, similarly, can be understood as a bundle of courses. Making it possible for students to enrol in a single course is a form of unbundling. This is a long-standing practice of continuing / extension education units in North American colleges and universities.

The value of this sort of unbundling increases greatly when the education provider (or employer - but that’s a topic for another time) apply some sort of formal validation for the student’s successful completion of that one course (enter “digital badges”) or these discrete courses can be combined with credentials earned in other settings, such as through volunteer work or, of course, both.

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There's no question that higher education is subject to these forces: more learning will occur outside of accredited institutions (disintermediation) and more institutions will make it easier for learners to pick and choose courses from multiple colleges (unbundling). But in their zeal to shake us from our complacency, writers that use these comparisons to the music and newspaper industries often understate important differences between higher education and these other, information-intensive industries.

"Substitute goods are two goods that could be used for the same purpose"

The key difference that warrants more attention is in the degree to which "substitute goods" are available. Consumers of music and journalism are relatively free to select new providers and to use them in new ways without the value of the goods declining appreciably.

Music recording industry (global) has seen its revenue flatline from 38 billion in 1999 to 16.5 billion in 2013. Music fans are purchasing single songs, rather than albums, p2p remains a factor, new platforms allow people to listen songs without paying (e.g. 8track.com), and while revenue from streaming services (e.g. Spotify) is increasing quickly, its yet to make a sufficient dent in earnings.

Consumers of news have access to a wider range of sources, many of which are free - some of them by professionals, most new sources are simply other news consumers, passing on information via social media.

When consumers seek out and consume news or music from new types of providers or use them in new ways, there's no penalty or disadvantage. New distribution models for music offer far greater value.

Not so in higher education and the difference, of course, is accreditation - the ability of the provider to offer recognized credit courses and bestow degrees and diplomas. In higher education, accreditation remains a key source of value. A student needs assurance that the education in which they invest their time and money will be widely recognized by other institutions and, in particular, future employers. In an increasingly mobile and mass society, the universality of credits earned becomes only more important. Learning is important, but no more than the ability of the degree to function as a signalling device in a world where CVs are read by computers (seeking keywords), and we apply for work at organizations we'd not heard of until we read the "help-wanted" ad. The importance of formal, widely recognized credentials won't fade quickly, and as a result, disintermediation and unbundling will unfold far more slowly in higher education than elsewhere.