Learning can be fun

I just read this excellent article Pragmatic Learning: It’s not “fun” on Roger Schank’s blog. It’s a very good post that calls bullshit on the “gamification” cargo cult which is widespread in the edtech and corporate training world. Just adding points, badges, and levels to a corporate training program that teaches you something boring is not going to suddenly make it fun. The author’s main observation is that forced learning is not fun and we need not pretend it is. Consider an employer who wants their employees to know X because it is required by law, or a bunch of students forced to learn Y or else they’ll fail. These “forced” trainings are not fun, and gamifying them is akin to putting lipstick on a pig.

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No bullshit guide to programming

How does one learn to code? Students in computer science and software engineering will have a few first-year programming courses, with the first one introducing basics like variables, control flow, and loops. Autodidact programmers probably started with a tutorial somewhere, but eventually got a book on the subject. Regardless of the learner’s path, we’re talking about a book that teaches “the basics.”

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Annual general update

It’s May. Winter is done now, so it’s time for spring cleaning! In addition to cleaning your living space, Spring is also a good time to clean out the “project plans” and focus on one or two key goals for the summer. This is what I intend to do in this post. Read on to learn about the recent developments, and the strategic plan for Minireference Co. for the coming year.

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Git for authors

Using version control is very useful for storing text documents like papers and books. It’s amazing how easy it is to track changes to documents, and communicate these changes with other authors. In my career as a researcher, I’ve had the chance to initiate many colleagues to the use of mercurial and git for storing paper manuscripts. Also, when working on my math books, I’ve had the fortune to work with an editor who understands version control and performed her edits directly to the books’ source repo. This blog post is a brainstorming session on the what a git user interface specific to author’s needs could look like.

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Marketing problem

I have a marketing problem. My company’s product is perfect for an audience of university students (a math textbook that explains concepts clearly, concisely, and affordably), but students can’t recognize the value of the product.

My current readers are of a different audience: the adult technical crowd. These readers have often already taken calculus and mechanics courses in their university days, and can instantly recognize that all the material they learned in class is covered in the book. They’re not alarmed by the short format—in fact they like it because they wouldn’t have the time to go through a mainstream textbook.

The problem

How can we convince first-year university students to buy the book instead of the calculus and mechanics textbooks chosen by their professors?

The trust problem. Who the hell am-I to be teaching these advanced subjects? Isn’t the mainstream textbook written by a professor guaranteed to be better. Professors often have full-hair loss and I have only partial hair-loss so surely professors are much smarter than me?

In all humbleness, I can say that most of my explanations are better than the ones in mainstream textbooks because (1) I’ve experimentally tested each of them with students during 13+ years of private tutoring, (2) the fact that I’m not old is actually a feature—the conversational coverage of the material leads to better engagement.

While good, these points are difficult to get across in marketing copy. Too much explanation is required, tutoring experience, alternate explanations, trial-and-error, explaining of connections between topics, etc. Also I can’t tell you the tone of the writing is different (less formal, more chill), you must see it for yourself.


Already bought the book aspect. Placing myself in the student’s shoes, I will feel like an idiot if I accept that a \$30 book can teach me everything I need to know about mechanics and calculus, but I already bought \$300-worth of textbooks. Since I don’t like to think I’m an idiot, I prefer not to believe the short book is of sufficient quality.


The study guide image problem. By its small size (5.5″x8.5″x400pp) the book resembles study guides like Shaum’s outlines and Cliff’s notes. These are not complete books, but short guides with summaries that complement a regular textbook.


Exam prep book image problem. The “learn quickly, pass the exam” rhetoric in my marketing message is usually associated with exam-prep books, like those for the SAT and GMAT. Instead of complete books focussed on understanding, these books focus on practice problems and rote learning for speed. They are the anti-thesis of what I’m trying to do. How can I convey to my potential readers that I’m not out to exam-prep them, but to teach them to understand the concepts for real. The ability to pass exams with flying colours is just a useful side effect of understanding the material well.

I must find a solution by the end of this summer so I can make a killing when school starts in September. My runway is running out. Do or die—sell or perish, that’s Darwin’s law of natural selection for startups.

Call for proposals

If you can help me solve this problem this summer (2014), I’ll be very grateful, so grateful that I’d be willing to setup a profit-sharing scheme for the sales of Sept-Dec 2014. Get in touch if you think you can help me.

Dwarslezer

I’m visiting Amsterdam and I saw this young lady on the ferry who was reading a small book. The young lady was stunningly beautiful but ferries being public transport and all I wasn’t about to chat her up. The tiny book continued to intrigue me though, so I mustered the courage to go talk to her. “This is about the business after all—not a pick up line,” I said to myself.


She turned out to be the nicest girl ever and explained to me this book format is called DWARSLEZER, which roughly translates to cross-reader. She even wrote it down for me—because let’s face it, Dutch is a pretty incomprehensible language for anyone non-Dutch.

It seems the first publisher to use this format is Jongbloed who called it the “dwarsligger” meaning “cross-beam” or “cross-bar”. Other publishers (AW Bruna Uitgevers, Dutch Media en Nieuw Amsterdam) have released books in this format and there might  be some legal action going on.

This format is a great idea because it halves the overall size of “the object you carry” or equivalently we can say it doubles the size of the page you read. Also the book she was reading was 500pp-long but no thicker than 1.5cm, so the “bible paper” helps to make the format compact.

Watch out for a dwarslezer edition of the No bullshit guide to math and physics coming soon!

Pricing

I recently read an article about pricing which showed some interesting data from various gumroad products. The stats seemed to show that classical “trick prices” ending in 9, like 19, 29, or 39 have nearly double the conversion rates of the corresponding round prices like 20, 30, and 40. This got me thinking: maybe it would be a better idea to change back the price of the No bullshit guide to math and physics to \$29 as it was before.

But let’s not just guess. Let’s look at some data. I implemented the new price (\$33) on August 3rd. Let’s compare the sales/visits stats for the book between two-months-long periods before and after the price change.

At \$29     Jun 3rd — Aug 2nd

During this period there were 1402 visitors to the website, of which 45 clicked through to the gumroad page and 9 clicked through to the lulu store page.  Meanwhile,  gumroad reports 161 visits and 14 sales for that period. On lulu, there are only 2 sales.

At \$33     Aug 4th — Oct 4th

During 2 months period with the new price, there were 1734 visitors to the website, of whom 79 clicked through to gumroad, and 77 clicked through to lulu. Just looking at these numbers makes me think the comparison is not fair: after all this period includes September which is the peak demand time for calculus and mechanics. During this period, there were 208 views on gumroad and 12 sales.  On lulu, there were 13 sales.

Okay, what can we conclude from all of this? I’d say not much, given the small numbers. Still I find the conversion rate gumroad@29: 14/161=8.6%  and gumroad@33:  12/208=5.7% was affected. Indeed \$33 sounds like quite a bit for an eBook no? But \$29 sounds OK. Maybe I should make the eBook \$19?

Okay. So I think for the launch of 4.0, I will switch back to \$29. As for the eBook price, I will have to think about it some more.