The Long Tail and Global Higher Education

Our Morning Reading Group is reading a Stephen Downes’ piece eLearning 2.0 on Wednesday (7/18/07). It got me thinking about our ePortfolio work and the discussions about our upcoming ePortfolio contest.

As usual, I landed in Theron’s office and we got to talking about the long tail and Amazon.com and drawing an analogy to education. The analogy went like this. Barnes & Noble sells only the current big sellers and clears lower volume titles out of its inventory. Amazon makes many of its sales from the “long tail” of books that are small volume sellers. The classic university offers high volumes of instruction across a small inventory of topics. The Web 2.0 university is a long tail organization, it exploits global resources (each of whom contribute a small amount) to provide a very wide inventory of topics. The classic university uses BlackBoard as its LMS, the long tail university uses “worldware,” and in particular, Web 2.0 tools and techniques.

This point in the conversation jogged my memory about exploring TouchGraph (which makes cool web diagrams of what sites like to other sites, using Google data). The graph I tried was using the term “Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.”TouchGraph for term Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

What struck me is the lack of connection between the clusters, there are several isolated islands among what should be (seems to me) a small linked community of practice. Based on the TouchGraph, the SoTL folks are not practicing long tail education and this is a lot of what the current university and the university alumni look like — little islands not webs.

Recently I commented on the goal of the new president of Washington State University to be a “global” campus. This long tail analysis helps me further understand what it would mean to be “global.”

First, it would involve using global tools, and not Blackboard. Global tools would be both Worldware and Web 2.0 Global tools would also be tools that students would use again in the workplace in ways that are similar to the ways they were used in the university. For collaboration, global tools would look like MediaWiki, SharePoint, Drupal, etc.

Second, it would use global assessment — things like portfolios, Downes’ “Open Source Assessment” and my response.

Third, it would use global resources, both to contextualize the learning in authentic problems and as informational resources. The Web 2.0 university would understand and cultivate networks among its alumni and would be active in managing its links to make networks of expertise that its students and the world could exploit.

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