Monday, June 28, 2010

The Long Tail of Education

This spring I read The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. It's a very entertaining and insightful book on mass marketing and how the internet has made infinite choice possible.

The title of Anderson's book stems from the graphic below (click to enlarge) which shows that while a large portion of consumers are condensed at the front of the tail, an equal number of consumers are positioned within the infinitely long end of the tail. These customers are much more selective in their choices and more difficult to find, but together their purchase power equals that of the front end of the tail.

For decades, industries of all types have focused their time, energy, and ingenuity on creating "hits" which appealed to the largest possible segment of the population. While most of these endeavors fail, it only takes one "hit" to compensate for all of the failures.

The internet has made niche products economical by reducing marketing and distribution costs to zero (or very close to zero) making it possible to offer products that, while not hits, will still sell. Finding the customers who want an obscure, unique, or specific product is no longer cost prohibitive. 

One of the best examples of this is Netflix which offers its customers approximately 90,000 movie titles to choose from. Contrast this with the 3,000 or so found at your local Blockbuster movie store. The same is true for online music retailers. Rhapsody offers somewhere around 4.5 million unique song titles. This dwarfs the approximately 55,000 sounds found at the worlds largest retailer, WalMart. Finally, if you need a book, you can choose from the 5 million or so titles from Amazon or the paltry 100,000 or so from your local borders.

The Long Tale is listed as a business and marketing book, the principles contained in it can be applied to education.

Since the inception of public education, schools have been "hit" markets. Because of their mandate to educate all students, public education gets watered down to service the students that comprise the fat end of the tail. This isn't meant to be a knock against public education, it's simply the reality of the position into which they have been placed, a point recently discussed on a local school blog that I follow. The public has recognized the weakness of the public education model and niche schools (we call them private and charter schools)  have become increasingly popular.

Most private and charter schools have a limited and focused mission. Some have excellent sports programs, many offer religious instruction and training, some concentrate on math and science, some tailor their curriculum for gifted learners, others for struggling learners. These schools are after long-tail students

Up until recently, education was a product of atoms, meaning it required students to go to a physical place and learn in the presence of trained professionals. While private education served a niche market, it was a limited niche market because brick and mortar education is expensive and geographical. Only those families who could afford the cost of niche education could send their students to private schools and they could only choose from the schools in their immediate area.

The rise of virtual learning and online schools has blown open the possibilities for niche education. A small group of individuals can create a school with a very specific focus, hire minimal number of staff, and run a successful and economically viable learning institution with a relatively small number of students. Instead of a school specializing in math and science, it could specialize in engineering or computer science, or vocal arts, or basket weaving, integrating the essential skills for these vocations into every aspect of their core curriculum. 

Online education has great possibilities for struggling learners who can receive focused individual support. Online learning is highly flexible and modular which allows it to be hand tailored to the specific needs of the learner. It is also cost-effective, a critical detail for struggling school districts, both public and private. 

According to the Sloan Consortium the number of K-12 students engaged in online courses in 2007-2008 is estimated at 1,030,000. This represents a 47% increase since 2005-2006. This number will continue to grow. Clayton Christenson, author of Disrupting Class, argues that online learning will become the dominant form of education around the world within the next 20 years. 

Choice is good. As the number and variety of private, charter, and virtual schools increases families will be able select an educational product that meets the specific needs of their student, no matter how far "down the tail" they might be. 


  1. I can't understand it at all that what does it mean by Long tail education? Can some one here explain it to me that what does it mean by Long Tail Education in the simple words?

  2. The "long tail" idea is based on a normal distribution curve (see the graphic at the top of the post). The curve can be based on anything: height, favorite movie, or academic ability. There is always an "average" which encompasses a majority of the people. This is where most companies/school focus their attention. What we frequently fail to realize is that the people who fall outside of the "average" range (the "tail" of the curve) represent a very large population. These people have different needs, tastes, and desires. Satisfying them is more challenging because they all want something different, but doing so can lead to great gains.


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