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.  


Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovations at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU’s long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. In addition to adaptive “intelligent” courseware and learning analytics, we offer a range of consulting and professional development services for colleges and universities that increase the quality of their digital programs.

 Related Articles

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


  1. Reblogged this on BEWARE > Attack Student.


  2. unfortunately, while professors may be content experts, they are seldom pedagogy experts. Studies show that learning is related to pedagogy, not the platform used to present the material. The new technologies do provide enormous possibilities to reach groups both large and small – but they will be educationally valuable only if the pedagogy moves beyond that found in the typical classroom.


  3. Thanks very much.
    I couldn’t agree more. In fact, the issue I was beginning to unpack with this post was that the proliferation of “authors” will add little value unless the content is of higher quality. The fact that it is possible to push more and more content out into the public does not necessarily result in this content being used because – as Elberse suggests in her study of the Long Tail – people are still gravitating to the “hits” (although the reasons for this tendency will differ in education and entertainment.)


  4. Reblogged this on Things I grab, motley collection .


  5. Thanks Keith. I was unaware of Elberse’s counter argument but will read up now :-)

    I think we may want to consider a fourth factor that will influence the head/tail: ease of access. When the content is locked inside LMSs and institutional digital repositories, it can be high quality but will still not spread as potential consumers (learners, other academics, other institutions) cannot find or access it.


  6. Thanks, Joyce.
    I agree with your fourth point, wholeheartedly. The way in which the content is managed, and the effect that this has on distribution, is entirely relevant.
    A year after writing the post, I think my broader point (which can get lost in a blog post of this length) is that too often we assume that the Internet will impact all industries in the same way. We’ve all heard the argument that universities will be “disrupted” in the same way as journalism and the music industry, for example. I think we need to look at the specific circumstances and conditions of each industry (including, as you point out, the fact that content is often locked-up in an LMS) in order to understand where we are headed.


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