Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Skilfeed announces shutdown

Many of you know that there are (were) three subscription-based online learning platforms of note, Lynda, Skillshare, and Skillfeed (a subsidiary of Shutterstock). Several months ago something went seriously wrong at Skillfeed, at which point they said they would concentrate on web design and programming courses and would not take new courses of any other kind. Unfortunately this was poorly managed. Staff appeared to be severely cut.

Now they have decided to end the service altogether on 30 September.  https://www.skillfeed.com/shutdown

Perhaps competition from Lynda was too much? I think it was a lot more than that. Fortunately for instructors, Skillshare seems to have found a unique online market for arts-related as opposed to technically-related courses.  We can hope for the best.

Friday, May 1, 2015

How not to deal with a problem

I have been offering courses via Skillfeed (a subsidiary of Shutterstock) for nearly a year.  I have 23 courses there, most of them quite short (one video) as seems to be popular on that site.

When I submitted the latest, about freelance game design and writing, I was told

Your course does not quite fit in our catalog at this time.Please contact teach@skillfeed.com with any questions.
I first wondered how the people who rejected the course, could not tell me why.  Already there's a disconnect.  But I wrote to the address supplied.

In the meantime another instructor had received the identical message and posted about it on Skillfeed's Facebook group.  A discussion (marked by considerable instructor unhappiness) followed. After all, this came out of nowhere, and we have no guidelines as to what fits the mysterious catalog, and what doesn't.  As the original poster said:
I replied back that they could have flagged me early on (like when I put in the title) to let me know this before I wasted my time submitting it in the first place. And that's the thing -How am I supposed to know if they are going to reject a course based on their catalog? Why should I bother submitting courses if that I'm going to waste my time? They could put up front (before you START the process): Here is a list of topics that we are not accepting at this time. How hard would that be?
One instructor had revised an already-approved course, then got the same message - and he says his course is no longer online!

This kind of behavior not only discourages instructors from submitting courses, it discourages them from updating courses.

Today is the eighth day since I wrote to the specified address to address, without reply.  So I went on Facebook to check status.

Lo and behold, the original message and comments are no longer there.  And new posts are now subject to admin approval, which was not the case a week ago.

So Skillfeed, rather than address or explain, has chosen the "ostrich method."  They've tried to hide the problem.  This is a classic case of shooting yourself in the foot.

I posted the following, but whether it will be approved is open to doubt.
Interesting that Lisa Frase's post (with many comments) about courses not fitting the catalog has been removed from this group.  Isn't the idea to engage with critics rather than try to pretend they don't exist?
It has been 8 days since I wrote to teach@skillfeed to ask why my course was rejected, without reply.

Well done, Skillfeed.

Addenda:  My Facebook message was approved, surprisingly.

After writing a second time to teach... , I received what appears to be a stock reply:
Thank you for reaching out. We appreciate you taking the time to submit your course to Skillfeed. However, at this time we are not accepting courses with that particular subject matter. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience! If you have further questions, please do not hesitate to reach out again.
I say stock reply because there's no mention of the actual subject matter ("that particular subject matter"), nor were my comments actually addressed. Is it because "freelance" is in the title?  Or because it's about games (freelance game design and writing in games)?  How can an author use this to determine what he might or might not submit?   Without knowing what courses are not accepted, but knowing that many are being rejected, why would you risk wasting your time?

It's an utter disaster for Skillfeed.  If they simply don't want more courses, why not say so?

Second addenda:
Finally, from support I get an explanation: "We are attempting to focus our efforts on courses related to web development and graphic design, per customer demand."

Now why didn't they just announce that to begin with?  Why do we have to "pull teeth" to learn this?  

In the universe of online elearning, the topics specified above seem to be the most common.  Focusing on them does nothing to differentiate Skillfeed from anyone else.  Skillshare, in contrast, seems to focus on "artsy" topics, or at least on topics other than web development (many of the artsy classes are related to non-techical graphic design).  That orientation may come from their project-based method, where students are offered a project to complete as the goal of a course.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

They're everywhere . . .

A couple times a month I get invitations to join new online course providers.  The latest is eliademy.com in Finland, before that create-elearning.com in Scotland, before that EduPow (NY?).  None had any students at the point of asking, and that's a common thread with the new ones - big ideas, perhaps, and sometimes outrageous claims, but no students.  So I usually decline to participate.

I got a request of a different kind recently, actually from Udemy although I didn't notice the address, and thought it was from StackSocial.  The latter wanted to include my two largest courses in a "Name Your Own Price Game Designer Bundle."    "Your deal would run for 2 months, and it is expected to sell thousands of units during that period. Here is the link to StackSocial's current Name Your Own Price Bundle which has sold over 10K bundles to date. On average, instructors earn a minimum of $5K per course included in the bundle. The great thing is that we'll handle everything for you, so this is a great opportunity to reach a new audience with your course, and you can cross sell them into your other courses in the future."

I checked their current bundle.   There were seven courses IIRC, the highest at $499 list price.  The average price paid was $6.44.

My reply was No:
"As far as I know I am the *only* person on the Web offering audiovisual courses that are actually about game design, rather than about game development (programming, in most cases).  I do not participate in Udemy's kamikaze discounting, nor in affiliation, and have repeatedly told my students that I will not offer huge discounts."  So I couldn't participate in this bundle without making myself a liar.

"I assume you're planning a game development bundle while calling it 'game design' because that sounds much more sexy."   But I didn't want to dilute what I'm doing by associating it with game development courses mis-branded as game design.

A hidden assumption here was that it costs me no time to have people taking my classes for next-to-nothing.  My experience so far is that there's very little interaction between students and instructor (most often, when I write to each student as they register, sometimes they write back).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Writing a book derived from an online audiovisual course

The surprisingly large attendance at my talk about “How to Write Clear Rules” at GenCon made me focus on the fact that there is nothing in print about writing game rules, other than the occasional blog post, and a chapter in the “Kobold Guide to Boardgame Design” by Mike Selinker that is primarily an exhortation to use simple, clear language in your rules.  (Mike also recapitulated that chapter in a well-attended talk at GenCon.)

I have less than 20 participants so far in my online audiovisual class “How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents)” on Udemy.com and Courses.Pulsiphergames.com.  Like everything else in the digital age the course suffers from anonymity, more commonly called in games “discoverability” - if people don’t know it exists they can’t “consume” it.  Of course it also suffers from being very specific, appealing primarily to aspiring tabletop game designers.

I’ve heard of other instructors at Udemy turning their courses into short electronic books.  Because I’ve recorded more than 50 fairly short “lectures” for this class I actually have a large body of words that I could turn into a short book. I can run each screencast through CyberLink PowerDirector a second time and save it as a WAV file that can then be transcribed by the Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium software that I write with.

The voice recognition is definitely not perfect, a time-consuming obstacle to the project. Perhaps a greater one is that I speak my screencasts on-the-fly, that is I don’t work from a full script but only from notes that are the slides in the screen cast. Consequently I speak in a fairly casual rather than formal manner, the same manner I would use in my 17,000 hours of experience in the classroom where I tried to talk with the students rather than at them (small classes thank heaven).  That style, when transformed to the written word, is wordy and informal. Consequently a great deal of editing is required to turn a transcription into satisfactory writing, both because of Dragon’s errors and because of the difference in style and delivery.

Nonetheless I have begun to do this, and of course all writers and game designers know that it’s easy to start a project but difficult to finish it. At this point I don’t really know how long it’s going to be - it will include some long rulesets of published games as examples - but I estimate somewhere around 50,000 words. The typical novel is 100,000 words and 50,000 is generally regarded as the minimum size, so this will be shorter than a normal book. (My McFarland book “Game Design” is just over 100,000 words, intentionally - I didn’t want to write a massive book that might put people off.) So this will be a thin paper book if it’s ever available in paper. My primary goal is to sell it as an e-book whether through Amazon or through a place like RPG now I don’t yet know.

The course:
$4 off "How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents)" ($23)
You can see some sample screencasts without registering, and there's a 30 day money back guarantee.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Drastic Changes in Online not-for-credit Education and Training

Out of the blue, today Udemy drastically changed its compensation to instructors.  Formerly, if an instructor recruited a new-to-Udemy student who signed up within two hours of coming to Udemy, the instructor received 97% (3% was for tuition transaction fees (paypal)).  But this rarely happened.  And if the student had even visited Udemy before, without signing up, then he or she was counted as not new to Udemy.

Otherwise, an instructor received 50% of the tuition (or 25% if going through an affiliate - I don't use affiliates).  This had been changed from 70% in the middle of last year.  So many experienced, successful instructors turned to other vendors such as Fedora and LFE that offered 70% and a personalized website with unique domain URL (Courses.PulsipherGames.Com in my case).  I certainly stopped recruiting to Udemy.

Now, the same 97% is offered for *any* student who uses an instructor's coupon, whether previously a Udemy student or not.  This makes an immense difference.  But why would Udemy do this?

I hypothesized that Udemy found they were no longer gaining students.  So I went to siteanalytics.com, which gives number of unique visitors to any largish website.  Udemy personnel had previously disputed the size of such numbers (too small, they said), but as a ballpark figure they give us an idea of trends.

Udemy's April '14 figure is 372K+.  May is 155K+[sic], less than half, and less than they've had since August 13.  June is not yet available.

At the same time, Lynda.com went from 543K+ to 752K+, over 200K more!  Skillshare.com 69K+ and 98K+.  Skillfeed.com 24K+ and 28K+.  (All of these are subscription sites.)  Other, Udemy-like sites do not use a common URL so cannot be checked.

For comparison, boardgamegeek is at 246K+ and 260K+.  Gamasutra.com is at 65K+ and 124K+. 

All of these sites gained users while Udemy plummeted.  And my Udemy sales for May were certainly distinctly worse than I've seen in the less than a year I've been involved - except for June, which was the worst.

I checked Lynda for a change in their fees to explain the huge increase, but it's still $25 a month.  Other subscription sites are $20 and $10.  And there's a new host site (EduPOW) that says all classes will be $5 (or free).  (I suspect that subscription will prevail in the long run.)  In any case, Udemy had to do something to try to recruit more students/replace the apparent loss.

One consequence of Udemy's change is that many of those instructors who went to other sites will now recruit for Udemy because they can make even more through Udemy than from competitors.  I can't see Udemy continuing this new compensation for more than a few months, but I suppose it depends on their bottom line. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Education: Should school homework be abolished?

On quora, which is an interesting if not always satisfying site where people ask questions and others propose answers, someone asked is school homework should be abolished.  This is my (modified) answer

"Educational theorists" are infamous amongst actual teachers, for the bizarre courses of action they advocate - like this one.  It's often because they have not actually taught much, and have sailed through the educational system from K12 through college to graduate degree without experiencing much of the real world.

I recall particularly the "expert" who said that deadlines should be abolished in school, that it didn't matter *when* the students did the work as long as they did it.  Not only does this fly in the face of the real world, where you have to meet deadlines, it ignored the impossible situation this would put teachers in, of grading an enormous quantity of stuff at the end of the class (when there really was a deadline).  It also assumes that the teacher's grading can do nothing to help the student improve (there will be no time for the student to improve if everything is handed in very late in the class). Yet this idiot charged $8,000 a day as a consultant, according to the newspaper report.

Homework for homework's sake should not exist.  Homework to help a student learn about the topic, and to learn discipline, is vital.

In one sense, if you ask why students do homework, you may as well ask why students do any work at all?  What is the difference between doing something in class, and doing something at home?

The trend has been that students spend much less time on a class, outside of class.  A problem with homework is that you don't know who actually does the work; in K12 so many parents get involved now, and group activity is common (when it isn't supposed to be), so it becomes difficult to know whether the student is learning anything him or her self, and even more difficult to make a formal assessment.  Formal assessment is crowding out actual learning as it is, thanks in part to government regulation, in part to people who think teaching is only conveying information (which is a minor part of good teaching).

A major purpose of homework in the past was to have students read something that would convey information, so that the class could concentrate on other things requiring more thought during class time.  But many university  classes, with hundreds of students in the class, now amount to oral books where the instructor does not know the students and is very limited in interaction with them.  Further, the habit of reading to learn is going away ("tl;dr": "too long; didn't read"), people want to hear-see-etc.  So even if reading is assigned as homework, a great many students will not bother (some, in college, won't even obtain a copy of a class textbook, whether legally or not).  In this respect, homework may appear to be useless simply because so many students won't do it.

All disciplines require practice.  Virtually no one does something non-trivial once, and then does it well.  A reason for homework is to give students additional practice time.  Some subjects are not as amenable to practice as others; some require practice in groups; some can be practiced individually.

The question is, can the student learn whatever it is they're supposed to learn, using only class time?  This varies a great deal with expectations.  In the USA, expectations have been drastically reduced in K12, where students memorize answers and regurgitate them on a standardized test at the end of a class or year.  Where higher standards are maintained, where students are expected to understand, not merely to memorize, to be able to think, not merely to regurgitate, more time is needed.

So the amount of homework that is reasonable depends on expectations and on willingness and capability of students to learn - learning is not passive, and some students are going to learn quicker, some slower.  It is likely, given the recruiting process, that students at (say) Duke are going to put more effort into a class than students at a community college, not only because of their backgrounds but because of their financial and family situations. The ultimate question is, is there time to do all that needs to be done, during class time.  The answer, as with most things, is it depends.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Pricing Online Courses

We start with something related to, but not exactly, online classes.  

In a recent tweet I said “Why do people pay $4 for a  coffee, not for a mobile game? Maybe because no cost to making more of the game, there is to making more coffee.”   Some people have proposed that the “natural” cost of an item is equal to the cost of making a copy. I’m not sure I can separate this in my mind from other apparently ridiculous propositions such as Karl Marx’s notion that the value of something derived only from the labor put into it (the Labor Theory of Value, which I suspect I may not understand because it is so ridiculous on the face of it). Nonetheless, we have certainly seen the value of mobile video games, which can be copied for nothing, reduced to nearly nothing. Free to play games, which do cost nothing insofar as they are given away, are coming to dominate many sectors of the game market.

People rarely make comparisons between widely different things, but I’m occasionally struck by how people often don’t make comparisons even within a particular segment such as food. When measured by the pound certain foods cost a lot more than expensive cuts of steak, yet people who wouldn’t pay $11 a pound for steak will pay $11 a pound for other food items (that are not priced per pound, so the cost is an obvious).

Some people believe that the price of mobile games plummeted because too many companies were satisfied or desperate enough to price their games at a few dollars or even $.99. That is, prices would not inevitably plummet but they did because there were those willing to sell very cheaply. And of course that’s where the notion comes from that if the cost of making a copy is zero then ultimately the value will be zero, because someone, a lot of someones, will reduce their prices because they can make more copies of the game at no cost.

The question in my mind is, will the price of online classes “inevitably” go down to approaching zero because it costs nothing for another student to take the class, in effect a copy cost of zero?  Or will it go down to zero because some people are willing to offer classes for free?

The pressure comes from two directions. The commercial  online education industry has dabbled for years in MOOCs, free courses using video lectures originally recorded in seated university classes, though now many MOOCs are created from scratch.  No one is making money off this right now though there are visions of making big money in the future.

The second direction of pressure is the online course offerers themselves. Udemy.com, which I’m most familiar with, is in the long run shooting itself in the foot by offering huge discounts for their classes: 65% off, 75% off, $10 no matter how much it officially costs. As a result, those instructors who participate in Udemy’s “kamikaze marketing” as I call it have to price their classes at ridiculous values, often in the hundreds of dollars for an hour or four (or occasionally 12) of videos. And all the students are being conditioned not to sign up for a class unless it’s offered at an enormous discount.

Perhaps this works for classes with a more or less infinite supply of students, and often a short life-span. It must be said that a great many of the courses on platforms like Udemy are for hard skills, programming or learning how to use particular software. I also see a lot of classes on Udemy that I would call “touchy-feely,” how to feel good about yourself, how to be a positive person, things like that. But the online commercial business started with those hard skill classes, and the highest earners (over $100,000 a year) are still doing things like teaching how to use Microsoft Office. My classes, about game design, are soft skills, more about critical thinking than about how to use software (which, it must be said, is relatively easy to learn if you’re already good with software). There is much less demand for my classes, but they also won’t become obsolete when software is upgraded.

Before I opened any classes on Udemy I saw that this price pressure would happen, and opted out of the kamikaze marketing. I price my courses as roughly equivalent of books, so my 12-13 hour “Learning Game Design” course, which is over 100,000 words (about 140 words a minute by actual count with the help of Dragon NaturallySpeaking) is $39 (on my own site) or $49 on Udemy.  (In comparison my book “Game Design ” at 101,000 words is $38.50 .)

Udemy egregiously accidentally offered this course at $10 (I was later compensated for the difference).  I got about 30 people (out of a total of 105 in four months).  I haven’t tried to pin it down to individuals, but I suspect those people are much less active in the class than the average person.

Another way to look at it is, these classes are in competition with Continuing Ed classes that you might take at your local community college, which (in North Carolina at least) cost $65 or $130.  On the other hand those classes are longer, and have an always-available (during class time) instructor you can talk with.

Ultimately a lot of these classes exist and do well because people are unwilling to read long nonfiction tracts such as books, or they simply have difficulty learning from books. Many of those people are much happier learning from videos. A majority of the people in my big game design have never read a book about game design, though many have.

I confess that my videos are mostly me talking over slides so that students have the slides as notes for later (I provide them in downloadable form). There isn’t a lot to “show” in game design, at least not something to show that actually means anything as opposed to showing for the sake of showing. Contrast this with the hard skill classes where the instructor is showing on the screen exactly what to do with the software that the student is learning.


My initial strategy on Udemy.com was to offer a free course together a large group of students and then feed them into pay courses. About the time I had more than 3,000 people (which is pretty easy to do) Udemy unilaterally changed their terms so that people who had signed up for a free course were worth much less when they signed up for a pay course. The nominal notion was that with the new system instructors would get nearly all of the money paid by people who they recruited. It has turned out not to be true in practice, because even if someone comes via an instructor’s efforts - not only does Udemy track where people come from but you can use coupons to track where they come from - they have to sign up within two hours of first visiting Udemy, or they’re counted as a Udemy student. In practice virtually everyone counts as a Udemy student, 50%.

Meanwhile the people I had recruited into the free courses were credited to Udemy, not to me as the instructor.  An owner of Udemy figuratively thumbed his nose at those using the free-class strategy and said too bad for you.  At that point I started to look for alternative hosting.

I discovered that it was pretty easy to recruit students to free courses but hardly any of those students actually did any of a course. It’s as though the students were collecting courses rather than taking any.

Udemy made a huge error in the long run, I think, when they changed their instructor terms.  When I signed up, instructors received 70% of the price a person paid, or 85% if the student used an instructor-designed coupon.  That helped me decide to make my first class free, in order to recruit as many people as possible to feed into my pay classes.  When Udemy changed to their new system, experienced instructors saw a large reduction in revenue. 

Instructors asked themselves, why recruit people when they almost never get credit for it?  This encouraged instructors to branch out to other platforms; if they were going to recruit students, why not recruit to their own site rather than Udemy.  Combined with Udemy’s 50% take, this resulted in droves of instructors going to new start-ups who offered to support their classes while taking 15% (plus the 3% processing).  UseFedora.com and LFE.com are two of them.  I’m using UseFedora.  Yet other sites like Skilljar are popping up every week, all of them looking to take business away from Udemy and Udemy’s older competitors, some of them offering better terms (perhaps) than the two new competitors I mentioned.

Udemy realizes there’s a problem.  Udemy instructors are not permitted to put a URL in any promotional announcement to their Udemy students.  I was recently taken to task by Udemy for having my website’s URL in my profile, which had been the case since I joined Udemy because it was a URL.  Though it must be said that Udemy students aren’t very proactive about looking for less expensive sources.

I don’t know if pricing an audiovisual course like a book and offering no discounts is efficient or not.   My “Learning Game Design” course is getting longer as I find myself adding videos, and I may increase the price.  I have not been issuing coupons at all, and that goes counter to the conventional wisdom that people won’t buy online unless they get discounts.  I do know that in four months I’ve earned more from the course than I have from my book in 17 months.  That’s why I’m spending my time making online courses rather than writing books.  After I make the online course, I may find time to write a book or part of a book on the same topic.  Books certainly get more respect than online classes.
"Always do right--this will gratify some and astonish the rest."Mark Twain
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Albert Einstein

"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Albert Einstein

"The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal." -- Aristotle