No Longer a Fairy Tail: Education in the Digital Space

How can changes in the entertainment and media industries predict digital adaptations in education?

Chris Anderson’s 2004 work “The Long Tail” details how the digital marketplace has radically changed the economics and consumption of media. Anderson posits that the digital space has heralded a new age of media consumption. Gone are the days of big hits monopolizing media; digital downloads have opened an entirely new market to appeal to the niche interests everyone possesses.

Anderson juxtaposes the constraints of brick-and-mortar retail and entertainment establishments, such as movie theaters, with the limitless potential of online marketplaces. Retailers are restricted in the content that they carry and must ensure that it appeals to the largest customer base available locally by necessity. The merchandise, whether that is DVDs, CDs, videogames, or other items with digital potential, takes up physical space and requires employees to transport, handle, unbox, and maintain. This, coupled with the packaging necessary to contain the product and the hardware, such as a disc, increases costs. Retailers don’t have the luxury of filling their shelves with niche items that may or may not sell. Even if these items are popular to a large but widely spread and sparse audience, the retailer will not see the financial benefit to carrying these products (Anderson 2004).

Juxtapose brick-and-mortar retail with the limitless potential of digital marketplaces and their downloadable content. Niche songs, videogames, and movies are not taking up physical space, they don’t require packaging, they don’t need to earn their keep. They exist until called upon and are capable of reaching that large but sparse audience. There is no concern about what appeals to a locality; there is only the potential of accessing “the long tail” (Anderson 2004).

This has changed the entertainment space, allowing for individuals to explore niche interests and ensuring that a cornucopia of content is available alongside the megahits. This is an “example of an entirely new economic model for the media and entertainment industries” (Anderson 2004). “The Long Tail”, as Anderson states, represents the very large audience base with varying niche interests that the digital market taps into.

Anderson discussed these trend changes in media industries in 2004. Simultaneously, and with no less import, another trend was continuing its steady march into the digital space: online learning. There is a significant degree of parallel between the potential of online learning and the long tail as discussed by Anderson.

Digital media has the potential to reach a significantly greater audience based and is not constrained to localities. Anderson writes, “Retailers will carry only content that can generate sufficient demand to earn its keep…each can pull only from a limited local population” (2004). This is equally true for education. Prior to online education opportunities, individuals in rural areas may have had limited program options. There may not be a high demand for business management in a primarily agricultural community. However, with the introduction of online learning, individuals in all geographic locations have significantly greater access to various programs. Just as consumers of digital media can find content in their area of choice without relying on the brick-and-mortar supply, students can find programs in their area of choice without relying on local, traditional schools. This opens up an infinite source of opportunity for students and taps into the long tail of academia.

Online education also has the ability to significantly cut costs for students, further increasing accessibility. Just as the cost of digital media decreases due to, “no packaging, manufacturing, distributing, or shelf space overheads” (Anderson 2004), online education can provide similar financial benefits by not requiring the use of campus classrooms, not having to provide offices for remote teachers, and not having to adjust the overall campus space to accommodate the increase in students (via expanding parking, for example). The long tail prevails in its ability to increase accessibility for students in various geographic locations and decrease costs!

The digital media purchasing trends that Anderson notes in his 2004 article can provide a generalized commentary on how digital spaces are transforming society in multiple facets. Education has developed in a similar manner as digital marketplaces simultaneously. The digital space has allowed individuals to access the content of their choice, whether that be media or academic. The provides so many valuable opportunities to consumers and perspective students and has made society richer for its ability to engage varied content and promote the educational opportunities of more people. Costs have also been decreased through the use of digital spaces.

Traditional schooling certainly holds a valuable place in society. However, with the introduction of online learning and the accessibility of the digital space, educational opportunity is no longer a fairy tale to those challenged by geographic location, cost, or time constraint. The digital space is changing how society understands markets, media, and education. The long tail is representative of those who hope to access different media content, who desire variety, and who want to explore more of the art humanity has to offer. The long tail can be equally representative of those individuals for whom traditional education is an impossibility but who deeply desire academic opportunity.

Laptop Online Learning
“Laptop Online Learning” by bluefield_photos is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Anderson, C. (2004). The Long Tail. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License.

Posted on September 18, 2020, in Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Rebecca,

    Linking education with the Long Tail is very interesting! I can definitely see how digital means of education has opened up more possibilities in terms of what you can learn. This actually reminds me of my first few years at Stout as an undergrad. A lot of the skills that I needed to learn and understand to properly handle Adobe programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and Indesign was very limited in what I learned in my courses. I had only one course that taught the basics. Every other course that came after focused on design, but not the skills needed to produce the design. This is where online learning came for me. I had to spend an additional two to three hours outside of class learning from tutorials that I would find on Youtube on different techniques and tools that I can access and utilize within these programs. This also tends to be where I learn new things as well. I love watching documentaries and learning about science so finding small clips that can explain things to a person who loves science but doesn’t necessarily understand it is a lot of fun.

  2. Hi Rebecca,

    The economic aspects of online education are certainly ones to consider. I agree with you that it certainly would cut costs for students to pursue online education, with there not being a need for funding of physicals elements like classrooms and certain types of supplies. I’m sure there is especially a great deal of money saved with students using e-books. Anderson mentions people having access to almost every book of desirable with books available on kindle. It seemed like he was mostly talking about novels or books more for entertainment, however I can imagine this being true for textbooks. You also mention that, “This opens up an infinite source of opportunity for students and taps into the long tail of academia,” meaning that a person who dreams of getting a degree / schooling in a certain area is not limited to their proximity to a school, access to supplies, or to certain extent their financial situation. I think these are all good things, if people make good use of what they decide to pursue, and if educators plan out strong curriculum. I do tend to worry a little bit when looking at the educator side of things, when we take into consideration the ‘profit’ side of people facilitating online education. However, while the music industry is tough to make a living from, we still see a ton of new good music coming out regularly. I would think that education would be no different, and we would still see excellent online programs with passionate educators, who can still make a living from their teaching.

    Great post!

  3. Hi Rebecca,

    After reading your post, the two keywords that are highlighted to me are “monoplizing” and “brick-and-mortar.” Both of these aspects play into why the long tail of media consumption is increasing in this digital age. Instead of a DVD rental business having limited space to promote new content, the world of online media has overthrown the need for physical selling space. Our devices now have the capability to access endless amounts of released content. All of this content is easily stored as well, making it efficient for sellers and buyers to access their desired media. One type of niche does not need to monopolize the public space now. As this becomes apparent, users are realizing their ability to seek out specific media as well. A few decades ago, nobody would have thought there would be sections of the internet dedicated to their passions. This helped personalize media, which therfor gave advertisers a way to monetize the long curve of creators.

    Nice post!



  4. Hi Rebecca!

    Great post! I like your take on the evolution of education and benefits for students in rural areas. With increased access to online education and affordable programs, it will weigh the burden of location and cost. As I have mentioned in a previous post, it will be interesting to see how online learning evolves with Covid as more students seek online learning and remote work opportunities. With an uptick in online education, I also wonder how this will impact the traditional setting. Considering this sudden shift has been a surprise, it will be interesting to see different techniques used to keep students engaged as teachers have to adapt to new learning tools and platforms. In the past, online programs were limited, but now that it has become the primary platform over the past few months, students will have access to a wide variety of courses that were not offered prior.

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