Friday, May 6, 2016

Marketing, or Teaching?

Teaching on Udemy can be a trial for an actual professional teacher (or a retired one, in my case).

Fundamentally, Udemy is run by marketers and the marketing mentality, not by teachers. The people in charge see metrics, they see dollars, they see number of users per month, they don’t see education, or even just training.

Though recently there have been turns for the better, such as banning some of the most egregiously questionable classes such as “Get rich quick” and weapons training.


Another place where this marketing orientation is obvious is in how they treat courses.  Courses must be approved. They focus on appearances rather than on quality of information. For example, the standard advice is to write a script for each video, which I think is really bad advice.

Thanks to 17,000 classroom hours of experience, I do fairly well recording screencast and voice together.  If I screw up sufficiently I'll cut it out or do it over.

But usually I don't have to edit anything.  Of course, I do not want to be television-slick, because that's not how the messy process of education works and not how the real world works. I’m not competing with television presenters.

We need to stop pretending that learning is easy, that it's much like rote memorization; conveying that to students is a LIE, unless you are only training people to follow steps.  That works only in the simplest kinds of problems.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Traffic stats for online education and training platforms?

I'm currently being recruited by the Coursmos platform.  Unlike most recruiters, this one has a track record in the online "micro-learning" (max 3 minutes per segment) industry. I've decided to try to find some traffic figures (from http://www.trafficestimate.com/).  Note that these are visits, not unique users.

Coursmos.com has received an estimated 141,900 visits over the last 30 days.
Skillshare.com has received an estimated 1,781,500 visits over the last 30 days.
Udemy 20M monthly visits
Lynda 12M

[MOOCs]
Courses.com about 20K
Edx.org has received an estimated 8,144,800 visits over the last 30 days

Coursmos' traffic is the kind that Skillshare and Skillfeed *used to* get. Which is better than most, of course.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Udemy “rushes to the bottom” once again

Udemy has finally figured out that their kamikaze marketing, which is to say huge discounts and an affiliate program that leaves instructors with almost nothing at times, has only facilitated a “rush to the bottom” of prices in a manner typical of digital products (products that can be copied infinitely at practically no cost). They appear to blame this discounting on the instructors, but I think Udemy leads the way, and that can be seen in instructors like myself who do not participate in the crazy marketing or in huge discounting and manage to sell our courses for reasonable prices.

Unfortunately, Udemy’s new strategy is to squeeze the prices of all online classes into the range of $20-$50 in five dollar increments, with no discounting of more than 50% allowed.

The idea that a limited maximum list price is miraculously going to establish trust in a course selection rife with crap, with get-rich-quick schemes, with vague junk, is difficult to understand.  Hardly surprising that Udemy talks to instructors frequently about production quality, sometimes about "engagement", rarely about actual quality of course content.

This affects me because five of my courses were less than $20, and one was more than $50, and actually selling for nearly its price. If I lower the price of that course, I will lose money on each sale. What instructors are told is that they might sell enough at the new price to make up for the lower prices.

It's that whole "I'll make it up in volume" mentality that  led to the massive discounting in the first place!

Much of the discussion about this amongst instructors and with Udemy representatives is at cross-purposes, because there are two quite disparate groups: one group participates in Udemy's kamikaze marketing (huge discounts) and affiliate network (where the instructor gets a very small piece of the pie). Udemy has always encouraged instructors to be part of this first group, and you must opt out if you don’t want to be part of it.

The other is a much smaller group of people who opted out of these "deals" and stuck to a pricing model more akin to books or even to business-priced training. 

The first group sells classes at an average of less than $15, the latter sells at prices close to the actual list price. The first group often doesn't understand when the second says that the $50 price ceiling is going to take money out of their pockets, because the first group is rarely able to get so much for a class no matter what the list price - list prices run to several hundred dollars. 

The former simply don't understand that it isn't necessary or inevitable to sell courses at $10-15. The former group has been participating in the "race to the bottom" pricing we've also seen in video games (as an example - it’s something else, like online courses, that can be offered for nothing because it costs nothing to make another copy).

It’s the same “get rich quick” mentality that has stained Udemy for the two and a half years I’ve been associated with it.

Udemy doesn’t entertain the thought of allowing the classes that were selling for more than $50, to retain their higher prices.  As usual, everyone must conform, all-or-nothing, “devil take the hindmost.”

Unfortunately, the people who *avoided* the kamikaze marketing and the inflated  claims that Udemy and many instructors institutionalized, the people who are already doing things "the right way",  are the ones being punished by this arbitrary upper price limit. As my own example, the10 buys in January and February for my $59 course have been at $55. To reduce that LIST price to $50, and still be able to offer coupons, I'd be losing $9-10 per sale using the new price scheme. Given the niche nature of that class, I don't see how it can be likely to get significantly more student volume.

Matt Trigg put it this way: “You're just trying to drive instructors who don't use Udemy promotions off the site then. Have you been taking business advice from Donald Trump?”

Cynics (perhaps) would ask this: Is the goal to stop extreme discounting; or is it to make it hard for instructors to offer significant discounts so that a larger proportion of $$ sales will be organic (full price), which is to say, more sales will make Udemy $$$$ (instructor-discounted sales make nothing for Udemy)? When legitimately "expensive" courses are forcibly reduced in price, the instructor clearly has less coupon leverage. That's the elephant in this room.

I’ll give Udemy credit, they have people talking individually to instructors who are unhappy with the changes. I talked with one for over half an hour. But there’s no prospect of change.

How will this work out? The instructors who can sell at higher prices are going elsewhere, or dividing their courses (I’m doing the latter). Udemy will look better for avoiding the astronomical pricing that was attached to some courses (I recall seeing $399). 50% is still a very large discount. I have no idea whether overall sales will improve.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Yet another learning platform with no advantages to teachers

I got a message from ulearning.com urging me to become a founding instructor (with a deadline of March 15, arrived March 11).  I checked the website briefly, then wrote:

"Hello Jazmin,

First, I have received many offers like this in the past, and most such companies fall flat on their faces.  What makes you different?

Second: "In keeping ULearning’s principles, ULearning will beat the profit sharing amount of anycompetitive online education company.   The base profit sharing percentage equates to Teachers earning fifty percent (50%) of the amount received from a respective Teacher’s course."

I haven't checked lately, but Teachable used to be at 70%. Even Udemy is at 50%, or 97% when an instructor recruits with his own coupon.  So you are not only not beating Udemy, you're behind both Udemy and Teachable. Why would someone like me, on Udemy for years, and with Teachable accessible, bother with ULearning?  You've got to do something significantly better.

...

Awaiting your answers,

Lew Pulsipher"



No answer as yet.

After sending that I looked at the site a little more.  There’s no search in their class catalog that I can see, and a small number of courses (dozens, perhaps over a hundred).

There was a press release on the site that incorrectly stated that all courses on Udemy were being offered via Udemy discounts at $10 whether instructors agreed or not. Yes, deep discounting happens frequently for most instructors, but many chose to opt out of this kamikaze marketing and are not part of it - in other words, those who are part of this deep discounting have the choice to avoid it. My courses are not offered for $10, or at deep discounts, or through affiliates, because I saw that these constituted a “race to the bottom” of pricing and opted out before I ever published a course.

Unfortunately, then, this new site appears to be relying on untrue or inaccurate statements both about themselves and about competitors, to try to attract instructors. I don’t need that.

Update: 28 March, still no reply to my questions.  I don't know why these people bother when they have no answers to the obvious.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Contrasting Skillshare with Udemy

Skillshare's guide to teachers starts with this:

"1. Be a great teacher, not a filmmaker:
Many of our most successful teachers filmed themselves at home with screencasts and webcams in 2015, proving how it’s the quality of your content that makes you a great teacher on Skillshare, not your video skills."

In contrast, on Udemy it's SO much about the video and audio quality, very little about the teaching quality. Their attitude is, anyone can be a teacher, which of course is far from true.  In my experience, many teachers in high schools and colleges are weak teachers (often worse), despite experience. Someone who has no teaching experience, and is doing it online, is really creating an oral book, and that's hard to do.

Udemy's "kamikaze" marketing (enormous discounts), and all the trickery that goes on behind the scenes (instructors buying or trading 5-star reviews, for example - the numbered review system is worthless), combines with the the attitude of "get rich quick - nothing is as important as money". The result is to create an impression of "cheap and chintzy."

But Skillshare's user interface for teachers was "impossible" when I last used it many months ago, so much so that when (on top of all that) one of my courses was published in a half-finished state by Skillshare without my consent, and I couldn't add more to it, I just stopped having anything to do with making courses there.

In the past few days I've gone back and fixed that course, and several others.  The interface is still flakey, but no longer impossible. I'm adding another 20+ courses (they like them to be 20-60 minutes) that I'll publish in the next several months as I figure out projects for them

Game design doesn't lend itself to simple little projects, but Skillshare is project oriented (often, "artsy" projects). So I have to try to reconcile the two.

Skillshare is much more arts-based than Udemy, with student quality-of-life improvement more important than making money. There's no feel of "get rich quick" to it, though they certainly have financially-oriented courses.

Skillshare is subscription-based - though I cannot find, on their website, how much it is per month - as opposed to Udemy's pay-per-course approach. I suspect that in the very long run, the subscription model will prevail, but I don't pretend to be an expert forecaster. Lynda.com, the biggest proponent of the subscription model but without actual game design courses (as opposed to game development courses called game design)), was at one time larger than Udemy, but that may have changed. (LinkedIn recently bought Lynda.com.)

My wife is in the process of making birdwatching (and photographing) courses, and I've suggested she focus on Skillshare first.

Each person's perception is different: that's mine.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Hazards of Video Editing

Here’s a story about the hazards of video editing.

For about two years I’ve use the same combination of programs to produce the videos for my Udemy classes and for my Game Design channel. For screen tests I capture slides made using PowerPoint (2003 version!) with Cam Studio, a free screen capture program. Unfortunately, Cam Studio is poor on my system in capturing cursor (mouse) movements. Fortunately, I rarely use such in my screen asts. I use an Andrea headset, the same one I use with Dragon Naturally Speaking, to record the audio. I then edit using Cyberlink Powerdirector 11. I render at 720 P and also render as a WAV file so that I can use Dragon Naturally Speaking Premium to convert the audio into text.

On the rare occasions when I do a talking head video I record the video with a not very sophisticated WebCam. Its sound is not good, however, and recently I have used an enormous Blue Yeti microphone to record the sound in that situation.

As part of Black Friday Cyberlink was offering Powerdirector 14 for $50, and I decided to try it. But when I tried to retrieve the AVI files made by Cam Studio, it refused to recognize them as proper AVI files. If I went back far enough in my old AVIs then PD 14 worked. I quickly determined that this was about the time that I changed from the Microsoft codec in Cam Studio to the Cam Studio codec. I changed in order to avoid occasional glitches in the recordings made with the Microsoft codec. The very same morning I had used PD 11 to process 55 minutes of videos, but the same AVI is that PD 11 took in stride, PD 14 could not handle.

Unfortunately, installing PD 14 had rendered PD 11 unusable - not intentionally I think, more accidentally, because PD 11 would start but then at some point would fail, sometimes without me doing anything, sometimes when I tried to retrieve an AVI file.

About this time I got Cyberlink support involved.  They wanted me to go through the usual “make sure your computer is updated” things even though the very same computer had handled the files using PD 11 the same day that I had installed PD 14. Cyberlink’s style of support is to do everything through the web, where you don’t even have an email address for the person who is supporting you. Every transition takes a couple days. And when they finally asked me to send (FTP) some of the offending AVIs, they weren’t paying attention and did not see that I had FTPed them already (and had said so), so that caused a delay of a few days.

At some point I installed PD 11 on another system and it processed the files just fine. I changed to the Microsoft codec briefly, made a recording, and ascertained that PD 14 did handle that just fine.  But that the codec had produced a glitch. . .

But then something happened that never had before, a typical Cam Studio AVI choked when processed by PD 11. Another made at the same time was fine. So I decided it was probably just some random glitch, and after some experimentation found a satisfactory free program, Format Factory, that converted the AVI into an MP4. MP4 is an allowed format for Udemy while AVI is not. Also, the MP4s made by PD 11 are a lot smaller than the AVIs.

Format Factory does not convert to 720p but does convert to 1080p. I was astonished to find that the 1080 file was immensely smaller then the AVI, and much smaller than the ones Powerdirector produces. Of course, I’m not doing any editing in this case, but probably nine out of 10 of my videos do not involve any editing. The other potential problem is that I don’t have the WAV files. But as it happens, Powerdirector 11 was able to produce a WAV file for the offending AVI even though it could not render it as video.

Of course, I record my AVIs at 1080, so I wasn’t surprised to see that the MP4 produced by Format Factory look just as good as my AVI did.

I also found that the resulting MP4 could be processed by PD 14, though the MP4 it made at a smaller resolution (720p) was about seven times as large as the MP4 made by Format Factory.  I don’t know how much of this is PD and how much the reduction in resolution. However, I uploaded the MP4 to YouTube and saw that it worked fine, even on a Smartphone, so using the higher resolution is not a problem.

And the word I finally got from Cyberlink support was to download another free conversion program and use it to convert my AVIs to MP4s for processing because PD 14 did not support the codec. Even though PD 11 clearly does.

I suspect I’ll ask for a refund for PD 14, and uninstall PD 11 as well, and then reinstall it on my SSD where it runs much faster (as I’ve already ascertained from my other machine). There just isn’t enough improvement in PD 14 to be worth the extra steps I face. The only good feature I’ve found is a screen capture program that comes with PD14 that appears to capture mouse movements decently.

Update: I uninstalled PD14, then PD11.  I reinstalled PD11 on the SSD.  It crashed, but when I applied the patch, it has worked OK so far.  (Two ancillary PD programs did not uninstall successfully, but those have been reinstalled with PD11.)  So I'm asking Cyberlink for a refund, since their new program cannot do what their old program could.  And the odds against me ever purchasing a PD upgrade again are next to none.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Screencast (video): Are you Designing a Game, or Throwing one Together?

This is sufficiently important for those who are teaching game design that I'm posting it here.





Here is the text of the slides.  The entire presentation (over 15 minutes), obviously, contains more than this text.

Are you Designing a Game, or Throwing one Together?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

This is Really Important
Yes, there is creativity in game design, but it may amount to 10% of the whole
The rest is more or less engineering: identifying problems, proposing solutions, testing the results of those solutions, and so on
Scientific method is involved, more or less
It is not trial and error
(I use the meaning prevalent when I was young, that of guessing what might work, then checking to see if it does)
There seems to be a notion now that trial-and-error is more or less scientific method: NO!

It’s not a Guessing Game!
Let me use an example from programming to illustrate
While I was a college teacher, I substituted for a teacher who was ill in a beginning programming class
The students had a program to work on, so I walked around trying to help
In general, their program didn’t work
Programming is very logical.  The proper response is to figure out the program flow, identify where it went wrong, change the program, and test the solution

It works the same way in game design once you’re playing a prototype
That “identify” might include some intuition, and the solution might involve some creativity, but mostly it’s logic
But the students?
Rather than try to figure out why it wasn’t working, they just guessed, changed the program, and compiled it again to see what happened
If that didn’t work, they guessed something else
They were using trial and error (guess and check)
And they were frustrated, of course
So I tried to show them how to figure out the logic and flow of the program, rather than guess

Methods
Certainly, different people have different design methods
Some design more “from the gut” than via logic, hypothesis, and test
Nonetheless, if you are actually designing something, you are primarily using your brain, I think (I hope), not just inspiration
Inspiration is not very reliable!  It comes and goes
And the more you treat modification as an engineering problem, the more efficient you’ll be

Art versus Craft
The more you think of a game as art rather than craft, the more you may be inclined to rely on inspiration and intuition
Perhaps we should call that “game creation” or “game inspiration,” not “game design”
Practically speaking, though, it’s mostly craft once you have a playable prototype

NOT throwing things against the wall to see if they stick
Trial and error amounts to “throw things against the wall and see what sticks”
This is a terrible way to solve a problem, if you have any alternative
I’ve seen this dramatically illustrated

Egregious Example
A beginning designer had his simple (< 30 minutes, cards and scoring only) card game playtested by players new to the game
The game has already been successfully Kickstarted, but clearly was far from done – most of the cards were hand-written (not even computer generated), for example
As he started the game (he played – also an error in my view) – I saw that he had no rules with him
His response was, he played it 6 or 7 different ways, and was changing it to satisfy backers as well
My comment: already Kickstarted and the rules writing wasn’t being tested, since they weren’t even at hand

But then he said he was trying out a particular rule change
How can you try a change when the rest of the game isn’t stable?  You’re only trying with one of those half dozen ways to play!
When you playtest you playtest the whole game not just the part that you're experimenting with
The next question was, “how are you recording the results of the playtest”?
He usually had a notebook, he said, but not today

Though he did have a laptop on which he took notes after the game ended
By the way, this game involved player elimination – NOT desirable nowadays, even in a 30 minute game
And though it was a scoring game, the designer hadn’t bothered to bring the scoring devices, so everyone scored on their smartphones!
This is just sloppy. You’ve got to test the actual game, not substitutes!

Obvious Flaws
It was a card game of direct attack on other players (in a more than two-sided game)
There was no constraint on whom you could attack
So while I didn’t watch the game much, I asked afterward if there was a strong tendency to attack the leader
The answer from the players was “yes”

Leader-Bashing
The game suffered from leader-bashing, but I’m not sure the designer recognized that term when I used it, and only had glimmerings of why it was undesirable
Then people suggested solutions, but the first (only attack those adjacent) would have pretty drastically changed a game that’s already Kickstarted!

Why is leader-bashing undesirable?
It takes most decision-making out of the game
It makes people want to sandbag
It’s dull because it’s predictable

Part 2

What we have here is a case of somebody throwing things against the wall to see what will stick
He tries to playtest the game in various ways and see what seems to work better
That’s Trial and Error (in the older, undesirable, sense)
And it helps show that Kickstarter is often about ideas and intentions rather than about an actual game
The art (he had it for a small number of cards) looked good, and that probably helped the KS a lot

Here’s the proper way to go about this, not just trying this and that, with a fairly detailed borrowed diagram, and with a simpler version:
[diagrams]

Or more simply
Scientific Method
Wikipedia’s description of the scientific method (accessed 14 April 09) can be taken as a guide to what you’re doing as part of (but not all of) this design process:
“To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.  A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”
This is a large part of the replan and especially the monitoring tasks

But More Than That
Unlike scientists, in most cases you must rely on fewer testing iterations
These are more like usability tests than scientific experiments (Nielsen-Norman group: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/ or alertbox.com)
On the other hand, you’re making changes in a design, as well as experimenting to see what happens

An Analogy
This engineering versus trial and error is comparable to how people learn software or home appliances/electronics
I read the manual (shocking). It’s amazing how much you can learn that way.  And far more efficient
Most people just dive in and try things
Or simply remain ignorant
The engineering style of game design is like reading the manual.  The T&E method is like diving in and trying things – much less efficient
Yes, not reading the manual is easier
(And yes, I prefer to read the rules to a game in order to learn it, unlike most people)

Education
I’ve discussed this cycle at length in my “Learning Game Design” course on Udemy.com
The major point to make here is that you follow a process that relies on solving problems you’ve identified
But you also have to know what kinds of problems might occur
Such as leader-bashing in a card game
Or many others – which is why I make so many of my videos, to educate people about those possible problems

Method
Trial & Error (guess and check) is poison unless you have no choice but to use it
If you rely heavily on intuition, more power to you
But that’s not something we want to teach to aspiring designers
If you think it’s all about inspiration, I think you’re “dead wrong”, any more than getting ideas is all about inspiration
You have to work at something to do it well consistently, not hope to be bailed out by random flashes of brilliance

For me as a teacher, I want people to understand a good method, and “inspiration/intuition” or especially trial and error are not good methods.
"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