My favorite educationally relevant and intellectual article of this calendar year (and arguably for the past 12 months or more) is one that appeared in Educause Magazine in their Jan/Feb 2008 issue entitled Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0: access it directly here.

I recently presented to a customer audience during which I expanded on the many facets of the general concepts there-in and how I think the web and its myriad offerings as a search engine, platform and learning community tool are very relevant to where we (as educators and IT vendors) need to take next generation learning.  In this post, I'll touch on a couple key facets of that talk.

The Long Tail

Chris Anderson, the editor in chief for WIRED Magazine, gained notoriety in Oct 2004 for his article, The Long Tail, which eventually became a published and well-respected Web 2.0 business book.  The original research and article was designed to address the phenomenon of niche product sales and positioning on the web as compared with Brick & Mortar, but it has been extrapolated and studied extensively since then as a generally sound theory for explaining the rapidly expanding and successful niches - both commerce and social - that are abundant on the web.

This concept applies equally as well to both of the concepts of traditional teacher and traditional school as being limited in being able to address the rapidly growing interest in niche topics or communities that students may be interested in, or, more importantly, unique learning needs (read "individualized learning") that is required as classrooms grow larger and more diverse.  "Long Tail" learning implies that students can utilize the power, breadth and depth of the Internet to supplement traditional learning, even discover highly specialized topics and communities that would otherwise not be available at all.

Dissecting Web 2.0 Components

After reading or skimming the EDUCAUSE article, you'll get a sense of the three areas of influence that the Internet has on learning.  I attempt to break those areas down graphically below, such that we can start assigning web 2.0-type experiences somewhere in the continuum of interaction.  While not exhaustive, this graphic and experiences helps provide educators and IT personnel a framework for what tools might impact specific needs for learning or web interaction.

For example, I place Search square in the center of the Venn, recognizing that traditional and new search (images, people, blogs, etc) provide a basis for any of the functions for which you may be attempting to utilize the Internet.  Wikis, blogs and podcasts can be used equally as well for acquiring knowledge as a consumer, posting knowledge as an expert or aspiring learner, or socializing concepts and hypotheses as a virtual learner in a community.

Although not as categorically well-defined as some better-established Web 2.0 functions, the Internet as a Platform concept, in my mind, is one of the most exciting areas for broadening the scope of learning experiences.  From terrestrial mapping and visualization experiences, to the exploration of molecules via scanning electron microscopes, to the exploration of the far reaches of space - the Internet is providing experiences once available only through field trips, movies or experts, but now well within reach of anyone with browser navigation skills.  Expand this further to the growing popularity of virtual worlds, and you start to collide all three areas of function.

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Microsoft Relevance?

But of course!  Some of the most innovative experiences and tools available today are from the bitstreams of Microsoft coders - hard at work in Microsoft Research, or in our Office or Live Labs bunkers.  If you have an afternoon to kill and want to explore some highly relevant tools that are just downright cool, try exploring the following:

Photosynth: http://labs.live.com/photosynth/
WorldWide Telescope: http://www.worldwidetelescope.org/
Tafiti: http://tafiti.mslivelabs.com/
PopFly: http://www.popfly.com

Not only does each tool have education relevance, but more importantly, they're FREE.  And when you look further across the spectrum of products - both cloud based and on premise - Microsoft actually does a pretty good job of connecting local software to Internet Service for a cohesive collaboration and learning solution.  While I can't say it will be entirely evident to you just by reading this post, I can say that you should challenge your Microsoft sales representative to explain it to you - or just ping me directly...  Inevitably I'll be recording the full presentation for broader consumption.  Either way, I look forward to your feedback.

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