Friday, September 29, 2006

Does the Long Tail affect universities?

I gave a speech yesterday to a board of trustees in which I argued that the setting for higher education has changed in some fundamental ways. Three forces have caused that. They are:

JITI (Just in Time Information) - When I was a freshman, there was an obligatory orientation exercise to learn how to use the library. We also learned, with appropriate solemnity, that the New York Times was "the paper of record" for learned people. The skill I learned then about how to use the library is an interesting artifact and were the idea that there was one appropriate source of the day's events. It is true no longer. This generation of students, and actually as Chris Anderson points out in his book the Long Tail, beginning in 2001, have never not known a digital age. Now students understand Wickipedia, and Google and all sorts of other alternative sources of information. The breadth of information in much more infinite and yet the authority is not much less pronounced. Students have the ability to get their information the way manufacturers get their supply inputs when they need them.

The Long Tail - When I first read Chris Anderson's article on the Long Tail in Wired I was intrigued, but as I completed his book, I was amazed. Anderson explains that in a wide range of products, there is now the possibility that one can make wide ranges of consumer choices. The power of that effect is changing the way that we get digital content. Indeed, I would argue that the power also is changing the way we get other products. There are some who argue that the breadth of choice is scary (Anderson reviews the Paradox of Choice and also some consumer research on the awesome nature of choice - the so called jam experiments - where consumers seemed to reject more choices of kinds of jam) but as Anderson points out which the right guiding systems, choice becomes useful. Indeed, the ability to select from an almost unlimited set of choices in an area helps improve consumer satisfaction. There are also some who argue that the breadth somehow destroys community, but as Anderson points out, actually new communities are built. Virginia Postrel has written extensively about the benefits of consumer choice including a book praising the democratization of style.

The Wisdom of Crowds - James Suroweicki's book on how, under the right conditions, people make better choice than individuals do, suggests that a good deal of our important decisions and work will take place collaboratively rather than individuallly.

How do these three trends affect colleges and universities? This generation and future ones of students will recognize the power of JITI and wide choice. Colleges need to think about their educational programs in ways that will recognize that the new generation of students will not come to campus with a willingness to be confined to a library or a single set of facts. They need to improve skills in making the hunt for information but also in ways to separate the wheat from the chaff. At the same time, colleges that figure out the Long Tail will do better. Colleges need to define themselves in ways that will differentiate themselves from the 3599 other colleges in the American universe of colleges or even more approrpriately the thousands of universities around the world. Finally, they need to think about how to encourage the skills of collaborative decision making - because this generation and future ones will need to be able to work in groups.

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