The second disruptive trend in education is something that has been coined “The Long Tail.” The statistical term was re-crafted and popularized in a 2004 Wired article by Chris Anderson in reference to Internet commerce – specifically as a business strategy of selling a few popular items in large quantities as well as a large number of niche items to a smaller customer base.

The Internet allows these strategies to flourish because it allows a company like Amazon to reach a global audience of consumers for their niche products (like the book “Fibromyalgia and Chronic Myofascial Pain: A Survival Manual, 2nd Edition”) as well as a few blockbuster items (like the Kindle).

Individuals can also take advantage of The Long Tail. The YouTube sensation “Charlie Bit My Finger” took a simple home movie and allowed it to reach nearly 500,000,000 viewers. Estimates now indicate that Charlie’s family has earned $500,000 from the ads that surround the video.

In education, The Long Tail is manifesting itself in two ways:

Providing a large number products to fewer people
Schools can leverage online partnerships to expand their catalogs and provide unique learning opportunities to just a few students. At Marshall, our partnership with the Virtual High School allows us to offer high quality course offerings to our students that are not feasible in another model. One of our teachers offers a course in VHS (in our case, German Language and Culture) and our students have access to 140 courses taught by other teachers in the collaborative. All courses are taught by real teachers, in an interactive online class that is limited to 25 students. This means that if only one of our students wants to take “Folklore and Literature of Myth, Magic and Ritual” they can — and they’ll have class with students from around the US and the world.

Scaling a few products to a huge audience
The Long Tail also allows individual teachers to reach a mass market of students in ways never possible before – even in the biggest universities. Last year Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun impulsively decided that he’d open up his Artificial Intelligence class to the whole world. In the end, his course enrollment topped 160,000 from more than 190 countries, with more students enrolled in Lithuania than all the students enrolled at Stanford.

 

The success of this experiment led Thrun and some colleagues to start a new school, called Udacity, where he expects a single course enrollment could top 500,000.

Another experiment hatched in Stanford’s computer science department has been called Coursera, and it will offer courses taught by professors at Princeton, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan – all for free.

The business models of these new professor-driven schools is still evolving … but we’ve seen how scalability and eyeballs can transform free products into huge moneymakers (see, Google).