Friday, July 3, 2009

The Long Long Tail of Education

I was lucky enough a couple of years ago to hear Chris Anderson (of WIRED fame) talk about "Long Tail economics" and its application to technology. It was at the Digital Summit 2.0 run by the NZ Government. I remember the talk quite clearly and wrote about the potential application of long tail economics to K-12 education when I returned to work a few days later. It's a thought that has stayed with me since. Just when will "education" become "commoditised"? And what will that mean for the independent school sector? [Note - you can hear Chris talk about the Long Tail and Technology on TED].

Now, in this talk Chris talks of "free" - particulary in reference to band width and fibre optic capacity. As you may know, the capacity of fibre is huge - currently capable of delivering 2500 CDs of data per second, and increasing at a rate of 3 fold every year or so. The FREE notion is the basis for Chris's new book -"Free : The Future of a radical Price". His promo for the book makes some interesting analogies (Gillette, coffee machines, cell phones, video game consoles) of products basically "given away for zero or very little cost, with the benefit to the company coming in downstream consumables. I thought that probably printers would have been a better example for many today - zero cost for the printer and exorbitant cost for the ink/toner. Malcolm Gladwell doesn't agree with all of Mr Anderson's assumptions - in his New York Times review he points to the inability of YouTube to make a profit as a key flaw in Anderson's position. As Gladwell points out, with a potential audience of 75 billion, even 75 billion x a few cents is still a lot of money.

Despite this, its hard to argue too much against Anderson in the educational sphere, and particularly the K-12 space - a space where education, at least in my country, is supposed to be free anyway. MIT have provided vast libraries of free content through their Open Courseware site. The Open Educational Resource movement (eg OER Commons, Wikieducator) are other examples where anyone can access learning material. Couple these types of resources with the myriad of other online sources and the ability to customise learning opportunities for people of any age is just sitting there waiting fore someone to challenge the embedded educational systems in many countries.

As Robinson points out, most societies have a similar system of education, so surely some clever group is going to challenge the status quo? As bandwidth continues to increase, the availability of courseware/content continues to increase and your ability to participate in communities anywhere continues to increase, then putting all of these together seems to make online learning for any age highly likely ...

... Or is the embeddedness of education, broader governmental involvement and the strange way we assess student learning at the senior end of schooling enough to suppress any revolution in this area? Perhaps the custodial reasons for existing school (aka baby sitting while parents work) is still way too strong for this change to happen?

We are awash in a sea of change, and that rate of change is increasing. With so much knowledge and information available on the network, it does seem rather quaint that we still have so many classrooms around the world that exist in a way where the teacher is still seen as the font of all knowledgea

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