“Economies of scale are factors that cause the average cost of producing something to fall as the volume of its output increases.”

One of the common and more provocative scenarios for MOOCs involves using these courses at multiple institutions. In other words, build once (e.g. by Harvard), use often (multiple institutions). The benefit of this approach, at least potentially, is that by sharing content across multiple institutions we drive down the cost of offering online courses and, second, the relatively high volume of users makes it possible to increase the level of investment in each course. San Jose State University’s attempt to integrate the Udacity course serves as a high profile example.

This isn’t a new idea. People have been considering how scale might fit into higher education since the 1990s. It wasn’t until MOOCs that we had a concrete and well-known example to serve as focal point for this discussion.

Higher education has not put a great deal of effort into finding ways to reduce costs through scale. While other sectors seized the new economics of digital content storage and distribution, higher education has continued to produce and use digital instructional content locally; a digital cottage industry model, of sorts. For elite institutions or those aspiring to be elite, scale runs counter to one of the trappings of elite status: exclusivity. For others, the highly decentralized organization of the institutions makes institution-wide scale improbable. Another factor is concern amongst decision-makers about the impact of sharing courses on labour market value and autonomy.

“Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”

San Jose State University faculty responding to the call to use Michael Sandel’s MOOC as part of their program.

Just How Common Is It?

Scale is directly tied to the degree to which curriculum is common or shared across institutions.  This component of scale hasn’t, to my knowledge, been sufficiently addressed. If a course is to “scale” there must significant commonalities across institutions of higher education of what they teach and how. It is implied in the Coursera/Udacity/edX business model — but surely never stated outright — that undergraduate curriculum in the US (and beyond) is sufficiently common.

Commonality is the premise of the textbook industry, of course. Certain courses, particularly in the first and second year of programs,  can be satisfied by a single textbook across hundreds of institutions. US textbooks are used in other nations, in fact — only modified lightly to refer to local conditions. A highly provocative study by (what was then called) Coopers and Lybrand suggested that 25 individual courses constituted 80% of registrations.

The concept of The Long Tail might provide a structured approach to understanding the degree to which courses are common and how this might impact costs.

Anderson argues that consumers have historically purchased “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). While the top-rated television shows often captured more than 50% of the audience in the 1960s, today they represent  only10% to 15% and declining. New business models like Netflix have only amplified the shift.Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” (2004) contends 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.

The Endurance of “Hits” and Digital Content in Higher Education

Several studies have suggested that Anderson’s original work overstated the degree to which people migrated away from a select number of “hits”. Anita Elberse’s 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.  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 is that it reminds us that there are important forces at play in each sector that give shape to the distribution of sales (head and tail).

The insights from Anderson, and the questions posed about these insights by Elberse, can help us understand and anticipate the factors that might the demand for a more diverse range of content in higher education? Do we have a preference or need for “hits” in higher education?

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.


Note: A number of people have written about the relationship between The Long Tail and education. 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.  

Note 2: The concept of “mass customization” overlaps with The Long Tail in important ways. For more on more customization, see “How Technology Can Drive the Next Wave of Mass Customization” (McKinsey)


Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value.