Education and the Long Tail
What does the rise of the Long Tail mean for education providers?
That’s the question I asked when I finally got around to reading Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, six years late the party. The gist of the book is that commerce and culture are increasingly shaped by niche interests, with significant implications for anyone producing content or selling products. Because the costs of developing and distributing something new have fallen to nearly zero, and because technology enables content/ product “discovery” at scale, consumers can now indulge the niche interests long held hostage by economic constraints. As Anderson puts it, “A Long Tail is just culture unfiltered by economic scarcity.”
For an education provider, and in particular an education provider producing its own curricula, the Long Tail phenomenon poses a real challenge. Scaling requires somehow resolving the tension between students’ diverse interests and the team’s capacity to develop and manage classes. Students might be interested in learning every programming language from A++ to Zeno, but trying to serve that full spectrum or “tail” would drain any team’s resources, with very little return on investment.
The solution, as far as I can tell, involves developing high-quality foundational content and as a follow-on serving niche interests through project-based, student-directed learning. Invest in the introductory material, plus a curated set of “blockbuster” topics, and then invest in building learning platforms that support and guide students as they work individually or in teams on advanced (or call it “niche”) topics of their choosing. I like this solution for a number of reasons:
- It enables education providers to differentiate themselves according to their editorial perspective on what should be “foundational”;
- It keeps costs low for education providers and students; and
- It aligns with a pedagogical approach that favors hands-on, experiential learning.
For education providers like Khan Academy operating in the K12 space, that “editorial perspective” is complicated by standards (e.g., the Common Core) and related regulations and requirements. But I think it would be a mistake to operate under the assumption that those kinds of constraints absolve companies of the need to have a perspective.
I’m curious to see whether this theory holds up in the year ahead. With online learning still so inchoate, it’s going to be quite the ride either way.