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.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Online Degrees: a Disaster for Education

I’ve not posted in this blog for a long time, though I’ve had many interesting experiences in the past year.

I’ve always been opposed to online education for the purpose of awarding a degree, because quite apart from the serious limitations on interaction with students, you don’t know who’s doing the work.  I smile at the extraordinary naïveté of people who say that online students do better in comparable classes then seated students, so online classes must be successful. The reason they get better grades is that it’s much easier to cheat in online classes. Most online classes don’t even consider the possibility of cheating, they simply ignore it. Or at most the instructors say “they’re only cheating themselves,” which is also extraordinarily naïve. In fact there cheating all the other people trying to get degrees, because they’re getting a degree the easy way, and in our litigious society a piece of paper, a degree, has become very important in getting hired.

You pay for convenience, and correspondingly lose efficiency and quality.  Education should not focus on “convenient”, but that’s what we’ve done as it is treated more and more as a commodity.

In Continuing Ed classes, whether there is actual CE credit or not, it doesn’t matter who’s doing the work as long as someone is doing it and learning something. Nor is it necessary to grade people in continuing education, grades are an artifact of earning degrees.

This Dilbert strip amusingly summarizes the obvious problem with online degree classes:
As it is copyrighted I cannot show it on this blog.

But I bit the bullet and tried, after being recruited more or less by one of the big online degree providers, one whose advertisements you’ve probably seen multiple times. This is a normally accredited university in the northeast that likes to say that they’re not-for-profit, although in fact they make a huge profit on their online classes that they plow into their campus. I went through a four-week course for instructors and discovered that they did not want teachers, they wanted cheerleaders and robotic graders.

First, the instructors had no influence over the form or content of the class.  This doesn’t work well for me as I’m accustomed to making up the entire contents of all the classes I teach, and I’ve taught dozens of different classes over the years. Also the likelihood that there are “instructional design specialists” who have a clue about game design is next to nil.

Second, I am really suspicious of situations where supposed “instructional design specialists” create classes instead of actual teachers. The specialists certainly don’t know the topics very well and I suspect often don’t know teaching very well.  They’ve learned techniques and research, but that doesn’t make them teachers.  This reminds me terribly of the big problem we have an education in general, that somebody comes down from a university to tell high school teachers how to teach, yet that person has never taught at that level and perhaps at any level, and spouts all kinds of ridiculous notions as though they were fact. I have yet to hear a good word from any experienced teacher who’s taken education classes at a typical college or university; the representative reaction is to stick a finger on their tongue and make a gagging motion.

Third, the university tried to apply general grading rubrics for all classes, yet even in the class I was taking they did not fit well and there were contradictions between assignments and rubrics.  The grading standards of the course contradicted the grading standards we were told everyone had to follow.  In general there rubrics amounted to requiring students to regurgitate what they had read.  They were not required to think or to do anything original. In other words we were back to memorization and training rather than understanding and education. The “teacher” was supposed to robotically apply the rubric in the name of uniformity with the result that the “teacher” could do nothing to ameliorate the bad effects of the generic rubric.

The cheerleader part came in the online discussions where a great deal of emphasis was on encouraging students so that they wouldn’t drop out of classes (and cost the university money, of course). I recognize that a certain amount of encouragement is necessary for the current generation, and perhaps even more online; on the other hand, college should be much like the real world, and in the real world you don’t get that kind of constant encouragement. Insofar as the rubrics meant that much of the discussion actually didn’t affect the grading - because students really were only required to regurgitate - there was actually no reason for the students to pay attention to the “teacher” beyond encouragement.

The generic rubric not only discouraged any kind of creativity or critical thinking, it left instructors in a situation where a very high proportion of grades could turn out to be A’s.  When the highest level of requirement is “do what you’re told and regurgitate it,” it’s pretty easy to get an A.

So what we had was generalized pablum even within the class I was taking, and I suspect the same thing happens in the actual degree classes. People pay their money, they do exactly what they’re told, as a result they get good grades and they get a degree: but what they learn is limited and they don’t learn much of anything about thinking.

(I suppose I should interject: to me, education is about learning to think and to cope with and function in the real world, where you won’t have anyone setting up your problems or holding your hand.  The common notion these days, however, is that education is about conveying “knowledge” or even “content”.  No.)

Just as K12 has become training rather than education - memorizing and regurgitating rather than understanding - this training orientation is coming into colleges and universities via online “education”, which is really online training. Training has its place in the world: for example soldiers only need to be trained to disassemble and assemble their weapons, they don’t need to understand the details in order to keep them clean. But soldiers are there to do what their superiors tell them to do (though it used to be, at least, that American soldiers were also supposed to think for themselves; I don’t know if that’s still true).  But I’ve always been a person who wants to understand and explain why things work as they do.  (Which is one reason why I’m not attracted to young children the way other people may be, because children at many points just need to be told what and not why, and I want to treat everyone like an adult and explain why.)

Online education reminds me of the typical big university lecture where hundreds of people listen to the lecturer, who never learns their names and possibly never even grades any of their work. That’s left to teaching assistants who may be graduate students or even undergraduates, who are working in a job and aren’t necessarily really interested in teaching. The lecturer provides a sort of oral book. (Someone once told me that she had a friend who “taught” game design to 500 people per class. No, that person didn’t really teach anyone, they provided an oral book.)

(I was fortunate: in my college and graduate education I was only once in the class of more than 25 or so people, an astronomy for non-majors class. But it was not so large that I couldn’t go and talk to the professor if I felt the need. And that was 40 years ago when college “education” was much less a commodity than it is now.)

So a big university class amounts in many ways to a very expensive oral book. What I’m providing in my new online classes is a sort of oral book, though with some exercises, where people can learn as much or as little as they are willing to. But it actually costs about the same as a commercial (non-textbook) book rather than a comparatively very expensive university class. I don’t provide the piece of paper, but I’ll bet I provide a much better actual education in game design topics than most of the university big lecture classes ever do.

Books can teach, people do learn from books, and nowadays it’s probably easier for people to learn from oral books than from written books. But neither is anywhere near as effective as having a good teacher in a small face-to-face class.  Moreover, I can teach game design from my book or online classes better than anyone can in a seated class if they don’t know game design; an awful lot of people teaching game design in colleges and universities don’t know it, for a variety of reasons.

The “flipped classroom” is a big point of emphasis in education today. The idea is that the lectures and readings are done outside class, and in class students actually DO things to learn. I always tried to do that is a teacher, so it’s nothing new to me; but it’s almost impossible to do online.

After the experience of that class for teachers for that online institution, a disaster from a school that is trying to do right rather than simply taking a profit (for example Phoenix University), I decided to pay attention to my reservations and abandon the idea of teaching for-degree online classes. But soon after on LinkedIn I saw a reference to a place called Udemy.com, checked it out, and started creating classes for it, which will be the topic of the next post.
"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