Posted by: Kenn Hermann | August 26, 2006

The Pareto Principle of 80/20 and Online Learning

As I have been working through yet another version of webct, this one called ‘Vista,’ I have been thinking a great deal about how well the Pareto Principle applies to this area. (Actually, ‘Vista’ offers a very blinkered view of reality and learning.) At the beginning of the twentieth century, the famous Italian economist, Alfred Pareto, noticed that 80% of Italy’s wealth was controlled by 20% of the population. Subsequently, people in various disciplines and professions noticed that this same 80/20 applied, in a broad way, to a wide range of phenomena. Who is most responsible for complaints, productivity, sales, revenue, crimes? The 80/20 rule gave the answer. Through a series of historical permutations and the unacknowledged work of others it became known as the Pareto Principle.

Though purist economists and management consultants will point out that I have misapplied this principle to online learning, I, nevertheless believe that it is a helpful heuristic for identifying some troubling trends in online learning overall. Toward that end I will do a riff on the 80/20 rule as it applies to online learning in my experience. I am not offering these as confirmed research results. They are purely heuristic — at this pont. Though the numbers might be off just a bit — more 90/10 in some cases or 70/30 in others, the point is that this exercise does reveal some serious deficiences in the way we tend to think about the efficiencies of online learning — and technology itself. Here’s my list:

  • 80% of the time spent on teaching online is spent on 20% of that which has the most pedagogical impact. In the old days, taking care of the mechanical and technical aspects of teaching, e.g. being sure there was chalk, an overhead projector, computing grades, etc. took 20% of my time. Now, I spend the vast majority of my time working on the mechanical and technical aspects of the course, and a far less percentage of my time on the actual course content.
  • 80% of the revenue generated by online teaching goes to support the technical infrastructure; 20% goes to instructors. That is a remarkable shift in priorities, if these numbers are anywhere close to accurate. There is clearly a cost savings in online learning since it uses the division of labor to automate much of which had traditionally been done by a skilled professional. However, the costs of instruction have shifted to the machnery that replaced the labor, no different than has happened in all other occupations that have confronted automation. The total costs have not changed; the proportion going to machinery and to humans has changed dramatically.
  • Only 20% of the capabilities of webct, Blackboard, etc. are necessary for running 80% of the courses very well. In my case, I could get along very well with only 15% of webct’s capabilities. This is very similar to your own computer: 80% of the work you regularly do on your computer uses only 20% of the computer’s capabilities — unless you are planning a moon-shot for NASA. Edward Tenner refers to this phenomena as the recomplication factor. We have all experienced the unnecessary upgrade phenomena in which software designers can only justify higher costs for upgrades by adding on more complicating bells and whistles. These add-ons, however, not only do not simplify the task, but actually create more difficulties and waste more time learning how to use or by-pass them. Learning new software is time-consuming and saps productivity.
  • I will spend 80% of my time this semester on managing the softward interface issues and 20% designing effective lessons. 80% of my time the past few weeks has been devoted to mechanical and technical issues; 20% to content.
  • 80% of my students’ time over the first few weeks will be devoted to solving mechanical and technical issues; 20% to content.
  • 80% of my time as a course designer in the past was spent on software design issues; 20% on content.
  • 80% of administrative time, resources, and salary is devoted to software, hardware, support, and IT issues; 20% to actual course content and substance.
  • if these numbers are anywhere close to being accurate, it means that we are heading for a time when 80% of the university’s budget will be devoted to what should be the auxillary services of support for the primary mission of the university. And we wonder why tuition is rising faster than the rate of inflation?

Okay, that’s my preliminary list. How close are these numbers to your experience or research you have done on these issues? Now let me see yours. And what other structural deformities come into view when seen through the lens of the 80/20 rule?



  1. I recently discovered your article whilst doing a search on ‘learning’ and ‘Pareto’. My interest was in trying to minimise the amount of waffle that backs up assertions in learning as regards online courses.

    This might sound like waffle in and of itself but I think that learning time could be cut down if we as course designers were to focus on the ‘vital few’. My idea was to present each concept expressed as succintly as possible and follow it with reasoning (also brief) and then back that up with one or two relevant facts. I know that that already sounds like the modus operandi that most sane people would follow anyway but I find that presenters too often go on tangents in an effort to try and justify their pedagogal claims. Anyway, I know that this comment isn’t totally relevant to the content of your article but it has helped me think out loud! Thanks.


    Steve Wells

  2. N

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