Some long tail in education thoughts

The Long Tail concept crops up in a few things I am working on, such as the broadcast strategy, and web 2.0 approaches to content, so here are some thoughts on what it means in education (primarily distance and e-learning).

  • New course economics. If the blockbuster is dead (or at least not as significant as it was), then the Fordist model of distance education course production needs revising. There has been talk of a post-Fordist model for a long time, but I think we haven’t really changed the model fundamentally. In a long tail world lots of small population courses might be the way to go, which means the economics of course production and presentation need to change, for example to a more flexible model built around aggregation.
  • Specific is better than popular. If you use a site built on recommendations, data mining and networking, for example LastFM or Amazon, then the less popular searches generate much more useful connections. Popular titles don’t generate hits that are relevant to you because the people who buy/rate them like a wide variety of stuff, and because the popular titles might not be that representative of your tastes. And so it would be in learning, for example ‘Evolution’ won’t get you far as a search term, but ‘language evolution’ will be better, and ‘language evolution in primates’ might be better still. In education terms then the question is how the learner is helped/scaffolded to get to the stage when they can start finding valuable resources, and then the framework within which those resources make sense.
  • It strengthens the case for personalisation. In a world where I have my own personal radio or TV station the expectation of having material that I select is raised. Being provided with one set of resources only which may not suit my needs or preferences will seem increasingly stifling. Although this will still need to address many of the issues around personalisation in education, such as what it does to the cohort and how do you assess it, but it’s another nail in the one-size-fits-all coffin.
  • Course design is about aggregation and activity. In a long tail world the educator can aggregate a wide variety of very specific content together easily enough. The content itself is only half the story though and what matters is the (dare I say it) learning design. Pre-long tail the content itself was more significant because it carried the information to everyone. So this is where the effort went, which meant that a lot of pedagogy didn’t go much beyond ‘read this – now discuss it.’ But if you are drawing on a wide range of content then the effort goes in to creating, and supporting, activities around that content.
  • Uniformity is not important, diversity is the norm. When creating courses there is often a temptation to write everything yourself, to provide a uniform voice. The idea is that it helps the student to have a consistent tone. But, building on the previous point, this consistency is provided by the support. In the long tail world the user is accustomed to a diversity of resources as they seek out ones that suit them rather than just accepting the popular choices.

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