If we consider the types of outputs generated in higher education, then it is possible to re-conceptualise universities as ‘long-tail content production environments’. In Table 1 the range of content that universities can produce is listed, matched with some of the examples of the open, digital network outlets that might be used to disseminate them.
Table 1 University content matched to open, distributed channels
|Output||Type of outlet||Example|
|Data||Data repositories||RealClimate, Gene Expression Omnibus|
|Research paper||Open access journals, repositories, individual websites||Mendeley, Google Scholar, Open Research Online (ORO)|
|Software code||Open source repositories||SourceForge|
|Lectures/teaching content||OER projects, learning repositories, commercial sites||iTunes U, YouTube edu, MIT OpenCourseWare, SlideShare|
|Ideas, proposals||Individual sites||Blogs, Twitter, YouTube|
|Conferences, seminars||Conference sites||TED talks, YouTube, Twitter hashtag, Cloudworks|
|Debate, discussion||Public engagement sites, subject community forums||Blogs, Twitter, discussion boards|
This table includes some examples which may not, at first glance, seem like outputs, such as ideas and discussion. However, when an individual shares, or conducts, these via digital networked means, they become a shareable artefact. In open source communities, the discussion forums are viewed as a valuable learning resource (Glott et al., 2008). Ideas and proposals, or suggestions, can be seen as a further example of the change in granularity in output. For example, my colleague Tony Hirst recounts how he suggested on Twitter that someone should take the Digital Britain report (a UK government proposal to develop the digital economy), break it into chunks and make it commentable. A response from Joss Winn led to them forming the company WriteToReply which does exactly this with consultation documents (Hirst 2009).
Potentially then higher education produces, as part of its everyday function, a large amount of long-tail content. All of the outputs listed above are unlikely to attract large audiences, but all of them are capable of gathering niche audiences, which collectively would fulfil a large element of a university's public engagement function.
This can be realised through specific projects, such as the OER projects many universities are initiating. However, long-tail models only work when there is sufficient content to occupy the tail. In order to achieve this scale of content in a sustainable manner, the outputs listed above need to become a frictionless by-product of the standard practice, rather than the outcomes of isolated projects.