I recently came across Chris Anderson’s economic theory of the long tail on an IT Conversations podcast. It is a fascinating and believeable hypothesis. The idea, like many good theories, is straightforward. Think of a market as distributed like a power function where the highest revenue customers are at the high end of the curve, while the rest tail off to the right. Think of a convex demand curve. In the old days, the high costs of marketing and distribution limited sales to the highest revenue customers. For example, only the most well-known, mainstream movies made it to theaters. Technological improvements, however, primarily in the form of the internet, have dramatically lowered the cost of marketing and distribution of products. As a consequence, venders can now afford to sell profitably to the rest of the customers, those on the long tail of the distribution. This is the story of Amazon.com or Netflix, for example. Ironically, Anderson argues, for many markets the cumulative revenues of the tail dwarf those of the traditional, high revenue customers.
Note that this is not a traditional economies of scale argument. That would argue for the commodification of products. While that story may also be happening, it’s not the story of the long tail. Rather, the long tail is about the exploitation of niche markets, few of which were profitable to sell to in the old days. Economists would call this an improvement in efficiency as more demands are satisfied and more profits earned by the sellers.
What, if anything, does this have to do with higher education? Maybe nothing, but maybe a great deal.
For the last decade, IT has been marketed as a way of lowering the costs of higher education, something like an economies of scale argument. Most practitioners, though, have not found it to work out that way. Rather, they’ve found that IT can make higher education better, though not cheaper. What I’m suggesting is that perhaps the ‘Long Tail’ argument can be interpreted as a better model for education than the traditional economies of scale one. For example, perhaps IT allows us to better meet the learning styles of different students. Perhaps the long tail in education involves students who are not like most of us were in college. Either they are older, or geographically distant, or less text oriented, or any of the other demographic groups in higher education today. In other words, niche markets.