Sunday, February 03, 2008

Minnesota Online - No Long Tail

I've been critical of some of the shortcomings of Minnesota Online, and occasionally I have offered praise about some things that they have gotten right. Today's edition deals with a serious shortcoming.

About a year ago I read The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, which is an excellent book that I highly recommend. I also subscribe to the Long Tail Blog which is a bit different than most of the feeds to which I subscribe.

While reading the book I continually pondered how the concepts of the long tail could and should apply to e-learning. I was also continually struck by how little it applies to the reality that is Minnesota Online.

For those readers who may be unfamiliar with the concept of the long tail, here's a very brief primer. "The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare." Yep, I was going to write something myself, but it was much easier to copy and paste from here.

So basically, if MnOnline was an efficient distribution system for online courses, the niche courses would have a shot at gaining decent enrollment levels. If the long tail applied, students would have many more choices in the variety of online courses being offered by the 32 schools that make up MnOnline. However, that is just absolutely not the case.

One of the better examples of the ineptitude of course distribution is with undergraduate online anthropology courses. If you want to take Cultural Anthropology, you can choose from at least a dozen offerings from different schools. About half the schools appear to have developed their own version of Cultural Anth, which would pretty much be akin to being able to find the latest DVD movie release at stores all over town. However, if you want something other than Cultural Anth, then you'll find only a few offerings. In other words, MnOnline should be the Netflix/Amazon of online learning that allows you to find just about anything you want (those niche offerings in the long tail), but it fails miserably in this regard.

Even though MnOnline has a website where a student could search for a course from any school, it is not a first stop for most students and even if they do get there, the search tool doesn't allow them to easily find courses that fill certain niches across the system. Case in point, LSC offers an online World Ethnography course that appears to be the only one in the state. Having canceled it at least two previous times due to low enrollment, we were lucky enough to get 15 students to enroll this time which allowed us to not give it the ax. However, there were still 30 unfilled seats in this course. Students at the other 31 schools would never find that course unless they specifically searched the list of courses at LSC (not the so-called "systemwide list") or unless they magically entered the term "World Ethnography" into the search engine. Neither of those is very likely, so courses like this are pretty much doomed to low enrollment.

Due to the lack of collaboration among schools, due to the high amount of duplication throughout the system, and due to the lack of a good information dissemination system, the promise of the long tail of e-learning is simply not being realized. Students can get all the Cultural Anth that they can eat. And that's about it

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