The Long Tail and Instructional Media

The Lucy Show captured as much as 72% of the total viewing audience on a given night during its time atop television in the first of the 1950s. Since then, television audiences have fragmented; in 2015, top television programs are lucky to draw 10-15%.

Chris Anderson's The Long Tail (2005) argued that this fragmentation would accelerate as more content and more activity moved to the Net. No longer will sales of music, film, television, books and other popular media be dominated by a limited number of "hits" or "blockbusters". The cost of developing, marketing and distributing a wider variety of digital content has declined rapidly. Options for consumers are growing; they're no longer forced by limited shelf space to buy the most popular fare. And on the "supply side", small-time content providers will find it increasingly feasible to capture a sizeable audience for its offerings among customers seeking alternatives to the most popular films, books and the like.


While higher education doesn't see itself as having much in common with popular media. But as a producer and user of digital media for learning, higher education is inevitably subject to the same forces to some extent. This doesn't mean that the effects of these forces will be the same, though. Higher education operates in a unique context.

The Long Tail suggests that the variety of digital media will grow and with it, choice. But it has implications for cost and quality, too. For teaching and learning, the questions stimulated by the changes Anderson describes include:

  • To what extent is access to greater choices in instructional materials for students and faculty important to improving learning?
  • How will the quality of instructional materials be altered as a result of the long tail?
  • How might the increase in choices and fragmentation of providers act to change the cost of online instructional materials as a result of higher or lower volume of development?
  • Do economies of scale matter more or less than they do in other sectors that deal with digital media?

Common and Coordinated

Choice of popular media is influenced by social and cultural factors. Consumers will often select the same cultural products as people in their social groups, either because they learnt about it through the group (i.e. word of mouth - which, yes, still matters) or because sharing cultural experiences has social value for them (e.g. a sense of belonging, a chance to demonstrate conformity).

Higher education places its own constraints on the diversity of instructional media - most notably the need for institutions to be sufficiently coordinated. Students move from one institution to another; from high school to college, from one university to another, from university to the labour market and so on. Mobility requires, in turn, that each of the participating institutions - in order to be of value to the student and other stakeholders - not deviate sharply from the practices at other institutions. While higher education in North America is not strictly a "system" - indeed in many jurisdictions considerable effort is put into maintaining institutional autonomy - it's widely recognized that there must be some agreement as to what constitutes, for example, a Bachelor of Science degree. This, in turn, encourages commonality in instructional content used across different institutions and keeps the "tail" relatively short.

Instructional materials are most common in lower-level, "survey" courses, such as intro to psychology, intro to business, and the like. The education publishing industry relies on this commonality. Publishers have long offered remarkably similar texts for these courses - similar not only in topics to their competitors, but in the sequence of topics, too. Similarly, Kidwell argued that 25 to 30 unique courses constituted 80% of enrolment. Put another way, approximately 1% of courses offered constitute almost half of enrolment (See Jan Nespor's excellent notes on common courses here).

While rarely discussed in these terms, the commonality of curriculum in higher education is at the root of interest in MOOCs as a cost-saving tactic, as well as system-wide sharing models, such as California community colleges, and the much heralded, but cancelled 500 million fund set aside by the Obama administration early in his presidency to fund the development of common online courses. If we can find commonality we can slowdown escalating costs in higher education and, more importantly, invest more time, talent and resources into the development of the instructional materials offered students.

Uncommon and Self-Sufficient

But there are also significant obstacles in place that limit the ability and willingness of higher education to take full advantage of common instructional materials. Higher education is a highly decentralized institution. To a much greater extent than other types of organizations, each institution "rolls its' own", rather than seeking out the best available resources  - regardless of its origins. This sensibility has at least three, overlapping origins:

  • Academics are hired and rewarded on the basis of subject matter expertise. Despite great efforts to elevate the status of teaching, research productivity is firmly embedded as the fuel behind the ascent of faculty and their institutions. In this context, asking faculty to use instructional materials produced by and affiliated with other faculty is counter to self-interests. It challenges established notions of what faculty bring to the table.
  • The model for online course development has its roots in the classroom. In most instances of classroom education, educators work more or less independently to create, deliver and manage the student's entire learning experience. Despite the presence of service departments that offer technical support and professional development, instructors are still expected to assume full and ultimate responsibility for creating online instructional materials. (LMS systems were created to fit this model and serve ultimately, to reinforce it.)
  • Maintaining difference from other institutions is considered part and parcel of establishing a strong institutional difference in higher education. Overt use of materials from other institutions, for example, puts this difference into question.

Online Higher Education: The Long(est) Tail

Together, these factors (and others, I suspect) determine the degree to which digital instructional materials are shared across higher education; how "common" they can be. This in turn influences quality, costs and access to the very best materials. As a result of higher ed's unique practices and logic, there is a rather extraordinary diversity of content being produced across thousands of institutions. This is not a system that emphasizes "hits" or "blockbusters". But unlike other sectors, the diversity of content does not necessarily lead to greater choice for either educators or students in that most of this in-house content being developed remains in-house. Moreover, because these materials are often produced in-house the resources brought to bear on each effort is limited. While this likely appeals to the desire for diversity and, of course, institutional difference and faculty autonomy, it may also be increase the total cost of supporting courses and and lower the quality of higher education by starving the system as a whole of high-end instructional materials and the benefits of economies of scale.

Keith Hampson, PhD

Keith HampsonComment