Dan's Blog

April 26, 2016

A Few eBook Covers

Filed under: uncategorized — ddswanson01 @ 10:52 am

Heroes of an Other Earth is my own. A very good friend wrote Becoming One. Bestiary was designed in the capstone course in the Publishing and Digital Media certification program at Boston University. All covers are copyright of their respective owners.

Heroes and Becoming One are available for purchase at Amazon. Bestiary cannot be purchased or downloaded but you can read the online version at Freado.com


November 14, 2015

Long time, no see me…

Filed under: uncategorized — ddswanson01 @ 8:46 am

A friend of mine just started a blog and that reminded me that I have one too, even though I haven’t posted for a long time. Last time I posted, I was unemployed, and upon rereading my posts, it was pretty clear that I was selling myself. Even so, thought I wrote some very good stuff, regarding Tech Support and Product Management. I guess I had time for a lot of deep thought.

Regardless of how good it was, it didn’t help. I’ve been employed since late 2010, and my job isn’t anywhere near either Tech Support of Product Management. I’m kind of bitter about the job market – after almost two years of looking, they only job I could find was as a contractor (read: temp) and even though I moved into a company as full time then, I took a major hit in pay. I probably didn’t lose my earlier job due to my age, as my company had just been purchased by another and I was downsized in the consolidation, but I suspect my age stood in the way of getting a new position. “Yeah, he’s probably going to retire soon, let’s hire somebody younger…” But in today’s market, how many people stay in the same job for long periods? I’ll bet whoever they hired instead of me didn’t stick around as long as I would have.

So when I see official govenment releases telling us atout the wonderful recorver, I wonder who exactly is fooled by that crap? Look at average salary. Look at the number of people who are not counted in the ‘unemployment’ figures because they have given up looking. They don’t have a job, they are not working, and they would work if they could, but the official ‘unemployment rate’ doesn’t count them. Any ratio will look better if you define it so it leaves out half of whatever it claims to count. Look at percentage of employable adults who actually are employed, instead.

I won’t be posting about my job. My friend is posting about writing – he’s a good one. I’ll probably post about writing too, maybe even post some of what I am writing at any given time – maybe knowing that something I’ve posted is unfinished will give me some incentive to finish whatever it is.

So, back to a story I’m working on, next time I come by here, I think I’ll post some completed stories about AVant Guard, a pair of superheroines living and working n San Francisco in the late 50s/early 60s in a ‘parallel dimension’. I’m planning to fit them into the ‘Other Earth’ universe I’ve written in before – my plan was to create a framework with stories set in the 40s, 50s, 60s, etc, as part of a background, and see if anyone else wanted to set stories in the same universe, not necessarily using my characters – after all, the world is a big place,with room for lots of unrelated stories.

Work keeps me very busy during working hours,and the job is stressful, so I’m looking forward to periodic vacations on Other Earth!

Thanks for reading, I promise I won’t complain about the world in future posts!


July 21, 2010

Transferrable skills and attitudes

Filed under: Customer Service,general,job search,Product Management — ddswanson01 @ 12:29 pm

I am interested in two different types of positions, Manager of Customer/Product/Software/Technical Support and Product Manager for Software Products and Services.  I keep running into people who don’t quite see how closely related the two positions are, and how the attributes of a good Support Manager transfer to Product Management. I am looking for a position as either type of Manager; I’m hoping this post will highlight some of my skills and show how they transfer…

I am a very good Manager of Support (actually, I’m outstanding, but I’m too modest to say that – oops, no I’m not!, I have references to prove it, too) and I am certain I would be a very good Product Manager. At my last job I actually received an award for filling in for a Product Manager in the development of 2 software products, so I have potential!

Here are a few attributes that I believe make a good Manager of Support, related to attributes of a Product Manager.

  • Ownership of the Product. Support is a product. It is mostly a ‘service product’ as opposed to a physical product, but it is one of your company’s products and everyone who contacts your support organization will add their impression of your support to their evaluation of your company. The Manager of Support is responsible for the quality of the support content, the quality of the delivery of the content, the infrastructure required to deliver the content, the relationship between support and other stakeholders and insuring that the overall Support product suite is current and meets customer needs and the company’s business objectives.  As well, the Manager of Support needs to work with the business office to develop a sustainable long term support strategy that aligns with the goals of the company.Product Ownership is an attitude. It means ‘I am interested in everything that relates to my product, and I want everything that is related to be the best.’ Successful Support Managers have to have it; successful Product Managers as well.
  • Uncovering and documenting stakeholder needs.  As Manager of Support, I dealt with customers and internal stakeholders, all of whom needed something from my support group, on a daily basis. Determining their actual needs, rather than what they originally expressed, is extremely important, as working on the wrong issues is very unproductive.Documenting the needs and making them into action items is even more important. The people or groups who will take action are usually less familiar with the operation of the software than a support agent (or the Product Manager) and the universal response to a poorly-documented action item is ‘I can’t figure out/replicate the issue; I need more details and a better explanation – and I’m not going to do anything until you give me a better description.

    Product Managers work with the same product stakeholders as those who support their products. The issues are the same – uncovering the real issues and documenting them concisely and accurately.

  • Developing Product Strategy. A good Support organization requires a long term strategy, which acknowledges and integrates with the company’s business strategy and the product strategies of the various Product Managers. It is important to offer valuable support products, adding new products and perhaps sunsetting older products, as time goes on. The strategy should be reviewed every year (or more) and adjusted as required to accommodate new technology (for example, how is social networking going to be integrated into support?), changes in the user base, and changes in the vision and/or mission of the company.The Manager of Support is responsible for the development, implementation and maintenance of Support strategy, just as the Product Manager is responsible for the Product Strategies.

In addition, both types of managers are intimately familiar with the software development process, often having worked as a developer or closely with developers in a prior position.

There are a lot more similarities, but I try to stress these ones.  Nobody goes to school to learn to be a Product Manager or a Manager of Support (this is changing, so it might not be ‘nobody’ now, but the number is very few); everyone who does these jobs learns on the job. It seems to me that the skills learned in either one of these positions is a very solid background for the other.

March 12, 2010

Good service

Filed under: Customer Service — ddswanson01 @ 1:26 pm

Almost every position I’ve held has been in the customer support/service area, and quality of service is important to me. To me, the customer’s perception of quality of service is almost always dependent on the customer’s interaction with an individual service agent. If the agent is good, the service is perceived as being of good quality. Who is a ‘service agent’? My definition is “Anyone in a company or organization who deals with customers on a regular basis”. In my case, I managed Product Support agents, and everyone has dealt with Customer Service agents. But Sales Representatives, receptionists, cashiers, and wait staff are service agents as well.

If your company is in the customer service business (and almost everyone is, no?) there are some corollaries to the observation that the agent determines the customer perception of service quality:

  • If a particular customer almost always deals with the same agent, then your company’s reputation, in the eyes of that customer, is in the care of a single agent. You can’t afford to have a bad agent in this situation. This is one reason why two customers might have widely differing perceptions of your company’s service quality.
  • If a customer’s first experience with one of your agents is bad, it is very difficult to repair your reputation with that customer.
  • If your agents consistently provide a customer with good service, that customer is usually willing to overlook an isolated instance of poor service, but it is not easy to overcome a poor start.
  • If a customer regularly deals with several different agents, and one of them is good and the others are not as good, the customer is going to try to contact the good agent, regardless of the issue. So if you have a poor support rep and a great sales rep, your customers will tend to take their support problems to the sales rep. So a ‘bad’ agent, in almost any department, can make the job tougher on a good agent, even in a totally different department.

Again in my opinion, good agents:

  • Are pleasant, easy to reach, and good listeners
  • Know how to uncover what the customer needs. Customers don’t always say what they need or need what they say. A poor agent solves problems the customer doesn’t really have.
  • Never say “That’s not my job.” The customer’s issue might be ‘not an issue I (or even ‘my group’) can resolve’ but it is ALWAYS a service agent’s job to help the customer. Helping the customer reach someone who can resolve the issue is part of the job. Following up later is also part of the job, and that customer contact is open until the issue is addressed.
  • Usually have the right answer to most customer issues, but when they don’t, they are empowered to say “I don’t know, but I will find out for you”. And then follow up, find the answer, and get back to the customer. It is never acceptable to knowingly give wrong answers to customers to avoid the work of finding out the right answers.

When I was first hired as Manager of Support, I promised my company that nobody who worked for me would ever say “That’s not my job.” I never hired or had to release someone who had that attitude.

I dealt with customer service agents three times yesterday. One of them said “You need to contact <someone else> to help you”. I wasn’t happy to hear that, but she was right. Another one of them said “I don’t know the answer. Hold on and I’ll find it.” And she did. The third one (a guy this time) unraveled what I needed from what I said and gave me the correct answer. Whenever I find good service, I like to acknowledge it, and I did. When I’m the boss, that’s how I want my organization to operate. It should be everywhere you look; unfortunately it’s not.

March 4, 2010

Discussion Boards in elearning.

Filed under: education,elearning — ddswanson01 @ 7:47 am

A few years ago, I participated in an online program, given by the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on ‘How to Teach Online’. We used one of the dominant online learning platforms in the market at the time, so the participants got to find out what it was like to be a student in an online course, in a distance learning environment. One of the biggest time-sinks was the discussion board. I tried to read every post my fellow students made, and I had to log on several times a day to keep current, or I could easily get behind to the point that it took me 45 minutes or longer to catch up.

Participation in the discussions was part of the grade; the instructors had some rubrics for judging both quantity and quality of posts. In discussions, the instructors indicated that evaluating discussion responses took more time than even preparation for the course. At the time, there weren’t many tools included to help in this evaluation. I’ve unfortunately not familiar with the cutting edge improvements in online learning tools, so I hope this post covers new ground – it’s new to me, at least.

After my first couple of days reading the discussion board, I asked my fellow learners if perhaps we could institute a rule that said ‘If all you are going to say to a comment is “I agree” please don’t post.’ There was a lot of pushback on this; for some people, agreeing with what was said was their major contribution to a discussion. I didn’t think of it at the time, but another reason for these short comments is affirmation. Some people are shy about posting (not me!), and seeing several people agreeing with their posts made it easier for these folks to post subsequent messages. But to me, it wasted a lot of screen space, plus my time, having to scroll through all these short messages with virtually no content.

Facebook has addressed this nicely with the “Like” button. This is a neat way for those whose only response to a post is “I agree” to provide that response without taking up screen space. It does more than that; it counts the number of people who agree.  This might be something instructors are interested in.  Combined with other information, this tool might help evaluate student participation in discussions.

The discussion board in this particular platform came with only two tools that I knew about to help evaluate discussions; they counted the number of threads a particular student started, and they counted the number of times a student posted a comment. These didn’t help much in performing a qualitative analysis, though. I don’t know if there was a tool that counted the number of responses a thread got, but a tool that counts ‘significant’ responses to a thread and gives the instructor a way to define ‘significant’ might be useful in the qualtitative analysis of discussion board postings.

What about qualitative analysis, assisted by the computer? It could be useful to see how many keywords each student used in a particular thread, but defining keywords in advance takes a lot of time and thought. How about a tool that reads through a thread when it is finished (or even still in progress), and provides the instructor with a list of words used in that thread?  The list would be appropriately filtered, to keep out ‘a’ and ‘the’, etc, and sorted by frequency of use.  The instructor would select keywords from the list appropriate to the thread and save them in a file associated with that thread.

The instructor can certainly ‘prime’ this list by posting comments that use some of the desired keywords for a particular topic, but this kind of tool would allow students to bring their own ingenuity into the keyword analysis as well. If thread topics and the associated keyword files can be saved in a library separate from any individual course, they can easily be reused in the future.

If I were being interviewed by a Product Manager, I would request this functionality:

  • can run tool on a thread topic which already has a keyword file to add new words to the file
  • keywords already in the file are distinguished from words not in the file
  • can associate an existing keyword list with a new or existing thread topic
  • add keywords words directly to any existing list
  • delete words from a list
  • merge two existing lists

Finally, build another tool that evaluates the keyword density by each participant in a thread. I wouldn’t use this tool on its own, but it could be used as an indicator, particularly for finding students who don’t add much value to a thread, or maybe go off topic a lot.

I know that CollegeBoard has built a similar but much more complex tool for evaluating essays. You feed it several hundred essays on a particular topic, already graded by humans, and it learns the characteristics for good, average, and poor essays on this topic. You can then feed it ungraded essays, and it grades them. The tool is only as good as the sample, and it should never be used as the sole source of a grade, but I understand that the correlation between the grade given by the tool when it is well-trained and the grades given by well-trained human readers is very good, and often better than the correlation between two different human readers.

Of course, a good Product Manager doesn’t just add ‘nifty’ features to a product but instead uncovers the needs of the target audience. In this case, I’m talking as part of the target audience instead of as a Product Manager.

February 23, 2010

What good are Product Managers?

Filed under: Product Management,publishing — ddswanson01 @ 10:32 am

I’m not an expert Product Manager yet, though I expect to become one, but one thing I am an expert on is things that can happen if you don’t have a Product Manager, and today I’ll describe an incident that shows some of these things. I’m talking about a time when my company didn’t have Product Managers, and I’m depending on memory, so the details might not be exact, but the incident described below did happen. The company desire to lower costs by avoiding incidents similar to this is one of the reasons the PM position was created, back around 2001 or so.

A new edition of a textbook and an ancillary software product were released. Instructors who had used the prior edition of this textbook and software started calling the famous author, because the software for the new edition was missing one of the features found in the prior edition. Instructors threatened to go back to the old edition, or worse yet, adopt a different author’s book from another publisher.

An extremely important part of the Product Manager’s job is to uncover market needs and address them in new products and product upgrades. This missing feature was not just a market need, it was a critical need for the product, and any good or even adequate Product Manager had better recognize critical needs and prioritize them accordingly.

The missing feature was a skill-building exercise. The student was presented with a problem similar to a homework problem from the book. The student solved the problem and the program verified the answer. If desired, the student could then solve another similar problem, and the program would present a different problem each time. Solving similar yet different problems was supposed to build the student’s knowledge about this particular type of problem.

The problem was conveyed to a project manager and although I didn’t actually see the specifications that were provided, my later experience with the feature suggests they were something like this:
· Create a self-grading skill-building exercise for this product.
· Do it fast and cheap

The upgraded product was quickly re-released. The new feature did not resemble at all the skill-builder from the earlier version; it had apparently been designed by the developer based on the specs above. Tech Support quickly became intimately familiar with this new skill-builder; it seemed that every student who used it called support. In addition, the author got even more calls from instructors about the new feature than there had been about the missing feature. There were two problems with the new feature:
· It graded the first problem it presented to the student correctly; every subsequent iteration of the problem was graded incorrectly.
· The presentation of the problem was such that even when it worked correctly, it did not promote student learning.

Our hypothetical ‘good or even adequate’ Product Manager would have insured that these issues never made it into the release. The PRD would have given more details on what the skill-builder should do, and the test cases in the user stories would have avoided both issues.

The bad feature was quickly updated and the product re-released (still without a PM) and guess what? Only the first issue was addressed. Whoever prioritized these issues didn’t understand that a skill-builder that doesn’t promote learning is as useless as a skill-builder that doesn’t work. Our PM would have prioritized these issues correctly.

What did this particular problem cost us? We could accurately compute Development and Testing costs, Tech Support cost and the cost of scrapping bad inventory and building new inventory (three times!). Sales provided the dollar value of lost adoptions. Harder to calculate are: costs for future lost adoptions; opportunity cost of reassigning the development resources; the dollar value of loss of goodwill from authors and customers and damaged morale of the product stakeholders, and the resistance of the Sales Team to selling this product in the future.

What is clear is that the lack of a Product Manager had a direct impact on the bottom line. Perhaps for a single textbook the expense wasn’t that much compared to the bottom line. But we sold over 200 textbooks. The example above was an extreme case; most ancillary products didn’t have issues as severe or expensive as this one. But with over 200 products and less than 1 Product Manager, there were definitely other similar issues.

We did learn from this incident and others like it, and Product Managers were hired and Product Management methodology adopted. And our products got better!

February 9, 2010

A simple view of networking

Filed under: job search,Networking — ddswanson01 @ 10:06 am

When you are looking for work, one of the most often heard pieces of advice is ‘network, network, network and network some more’. Networking may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and even after almost a year of trying, I’m still not getting the hang of it, particularly the ‘cold contact’. Unless it’s been part of my job in the past, I’ve never been good at meeting new people. There are exceptions; playing volleyball or softball, for example, situations in which I am comfortable and know I have something valuable to contribute. The problem is self-confidence. I know why I want to talk to the Director of Product Development, for example, but why would s/he want to talk to an unemployed job seeker like me? How can I add value to that conversation and make it worth both our time? I have a good friend from college who has always been better at talking to people that he doesn’t know than I am, and who has gained a lot of influence over the years, started, bought, and sold companies, even a measure of fame. He told me a lot of interesting things about networking. I have a networking phone call today, so I’m going to use this opportunity to remind myself what I am bringing to the table.

First, a lot of folks network because they like it. They like meeting new and interesting people, talking about things that interest them, learning new things, and yes, they like helping people. I am always pleased when I am able to help someone else in a networking situation; why shouldn’t other people feel that way? On the other hand, there are people who don’t like networking. These people usually don’t participate, but hey, all that can happen is that they say ‘no’, right? Of course, being turned down is tough – one of my problems is that I take it personally. Instead, what you have to do is think ‘That person actually did me a favor; now I won’t waste my time there.’ It’s ironic: part of networking is an exchange of favors, so if someone turns you down for a networking opportunity, in a way, you have just networked successfully.

Second, the exchange of favors. Good will is the ‘currency’ (or ‘chips’) in the game of networking. But what makes it so interesting is that it is not a zero-sum game. To make things easy to talk about, let’s call the person from whom I am requesting an interview the ‘mentor’. It’s not always the case, but I need an easy name.

When someone networks with me, it is pretty clear that I have just benefited, and my supply of chips has grown. But how did I contribute to the growth of good will for my mentor? At the absolute minimum, my mentor may refer me to someone else in the network who might be able to help me. This does two things, at least:
· It tells me that my mentor thinks that referring me to someone else will not be a waste of the third person’s time. It affirms that my mentor feels that I have some intrinsic value to add to the network – and if you understand this, it will make it easier to initiate a networking opportunity, and make it easier to talk to that third person as well.
· It gives my mentor more good will, increases his/her supply of chips. Why? A very basic reason is that if I get referred to someone who hires me, that person has probably saved an agency fee, maybe a third or half my salary. When someone saves you that much money, generally your good will towards that person increases. That’s not the only benefit, but if you can’t think of _any_ other reasons your mentor might benefit from your interview, there is at least this one.

Most people don’t count their chips, i.e., keep a list of who owes a favor or how many favors are owed. There are people who do this, of course, but most networkers are happy to simply increase the supply of good will in the network. It is easier to work together with someone when there is good will between you, and someday you might benefit from the good will you added to the network, even years in the past.

Two other things:

If you are networking and someone makes an offer to you, to refer you, for example… even if you are uncomfortable accepting favors, don’t turn it down. What you are doing is in effect saying “No thanks, I don’t want to play. I’m not really interested in networking, which is mutually beneficial, I’m looking out for myself.’ I’m not sure the message you are sending is quite that strong, but you are being ungrateful, and NOT building good will. Because it IS a favor to your mentor when you follow up; it builds goodwill between your mentor and the third person. And this doesn’t just apply to people you approach for networking; if anyone you know offers you a favor, do that person a favor in return and accept it. It will make your friend fell good, and increase good will between you. And both of your networks have just benefited.

Make sure your mentor knows that you are willing to do something in return. Your mentor may not have a job for you, but might be looking for someone else. Ask. Maybe you can refer someone, and save an agency fee. Let your mentor know that there is now good will going both ways between you, and you are willing to continue to build that good will in the future.

Networking is way more complex than this. There are probably hundreds of thousands of books on networking. But to me, the most important thing I have to remember is that even though I am the one looking for a job and approaching someone who might be busy and who probably doesn’t have a job for me, just by accepting a networking invitation from me, that someone’s own supply of good will has just grown; therefore I am adding value to the network.

Now all I need to do is keep this in mind later!

February 8, 2010

Grammatical errors on web sites

Filed under: education,publishing — ddswanson01 @ 3:35 pm

I worked for an Educational Publisher for years, and would enjoy doing so again; I like contributing to books, eBooks and helping people learn. This morning something caused me to recall an incident that happened some time ago, and it sounded to me like a good topic to write about.

We used to have self-tests on our textbook web sites, with True/False, Multiple Choice, or Short Answer questions that were automatically graded. These were for review purposes only, since clever students could easily take them over and over again until the had all the right answers, and they were one of the most used features on the sites. If one of these stopped working, we could easily get hundreds of support calls before we got it fixed.

One day, one of the Tier 1 agents forwarded an angry student email to me. We had a chemistry test with fill in the blank including some definitions that looked something like this:

“__________ is the combination of a substance with oxygen.”

The proper answer to this is “Oxidation”. This student had entered “oxidation” and it was marked wrong. The student called Tech Support to complain; when the support agent tried to explain, the student used offensive language and then hung up, and then wrote an email. The email was offensive and contained obscene language; you would have thought our Web site had caused this student to fail the course. Remember, this test can be taken multiple times until you get all the questions right, if that’s what you want.  It would have required much less energy to do it over than it did to write an email.

The reason for the complaint? We were enforcing the rules of English grammar on a CHEMISTRY test. How simply terrible and impudent of us! How dare we?

As a representative of an educational publisher, I always felt it was our duty and obligation to get things right on our Web sites. To me, this includes using proper grammar and proper spelling, regardless of the discipline involved.  If for no other reason that just to set a good example. It doesn’t matter that we could easily have programmed this test to accept ‘oxidation’ as well as ‘Oxidation’. I know this seems picayune to some people, but it is important to me.

Your website is marketing collateral, often the first and sometimes the only marketing collateral your customer will see. When the web site is the source of a customer’s first impression, I want my Web site to say ‘The employees of this company are erudite and pay attention to detail, and believe that education is a holistic process. They believe that your English skills are important in everything you do in life.’

If I see a Web site that is poorly written, full of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, I tend to think that whoever built and/or owns that site is careless and doesn’t really care about the impression the site gives to potential customers.  Personally,  I don’t really want to deal with companies like that. My grammar isn’t perfect, but I think it’s pretty darn good.  If I see an educational site with that kind of error, I usually send an email to the Webmaster, because I hope other people in the Education industry have a similar attitude. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m disappointed. It’s still worth doing.

February 2, 2010

Why eBooks aren’t free…

Filed under: eBooks,publishing — ddswanson01 @ 4:00 pm

What’s the deal with selling eBooks?  Why do they have to cost anything?  Once you’ve got the book in electronic form for printing (the pBook), all you have to do is save that file in PDF form to make an eBook, right?  It’s a virtually free byproduct of the print product, right?  And hey, once you’ve got the digital file, you just post is and the only cost to the publisher after that is the bandwidth required for a customer to download it.  How much easier could it be?

NOT!  All of this might have been true when an eBook was just a flat PDF file, but eBooks are much more now and perhaps there are consumers who don’t understand what goes into making an eBook.

My eBook experience is in the textbook industry, so I can’t speak to any other kinds of eBooks, but here’s a discussion about some of the things that go into the eBook version of a textbook.

To start with, there is usually the flat PDF file.  I’m pretty sure most publishers these days have updated the book development process so that the PDF file does just drop out automatically, and you do get this file pretty much for free.  But the book development process up to that point isn’t free, and the eBook needs to cover some portion of those development costs.  And since eBook sales are growing at the expense of pBook sales, publishers can’t necessarily count on the pBook sales to cover the development costs any longer.  If the eBook sells for almost nothing, and sales of the pBook don’t cover the development costs, a lot of eBooks have to be sold to make up the difference.  And maybe the total market for that particular textbook isn’t large enough for eBook sales to even reach the break-even point.  Publishers can’t stay in business if they don’t make a profit.

But very few students would buy a flat PDF eTextbook any more; if they are buying an eBook, they want the bells and whistles.

Some of the bells and whistles are: videos; animations; simulations; interactive exercises; historical reenactments; links to paid news services; links to online live tutors; content management tools so you can make notes in the book; additional content that’s not in the pBook, and in the case of online eBooks, content that is regularly updated.  Maybe an online language lab, or graphic calculator, links to spreadsheet templates, and I’m sure there are lots of others I can’t recall right now.  Plus, someone is paying Web hosting fees and bandwidth charges.

You might think video is easy; the publisher I worked for had thousands of hours of video when we got into eBooks, which should minimize the cost for videos, right?  Unfortunately, having a video on a video tape doesn’t instantly translate to having downloadable video; even converting video tape to a digital movie file costs money.  And making new videos is expensive; an educational publisher can’t just use a cell phone or handheld video camera in a classroom – the place I worked had a reputation for high quality and the videos had to match that quality.  That means a studio, at least one professional-grade camera and camera operator, someone to write a script, people to read the script, cutting, editing, content verification, etc.  If a math book had a 2 minute video to illustrate every concept in the book (and some of the do), the cost for new video could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range.

Animations, simulations and interactive exercises aren’t free either; they share some of the same costs – someone has to write the script, and then software developers go to work, and someone has to review the final product and content.  Software developers aren’t free, and a textbook might have several of these items per chapter.

In fact, everything that is part of an eBook other than the flat PDF file is an additional expense, some of which didn’t even exist before eBooks.  And every publisher is currently looking for new types of content and services that can be added to their eBooks to provide a competitive advantage over all the other publishers.

I don’t know how the cost of developing the eBook bells and whistles compares to the cost of sale plus costs of printing, warehousing, distributing and dealing with returns a pBook, but if a textbook publisher totally dropped pBooks and their eBook sales had to cover the total development costs, I’ll bet the minimum eBook price to stay in business would surprise a lot of people.

Of course, I worked for a textbook publisher, and I hope to remain in publishing, so I’m clearly biased against free eBooks.  But I think the perception is that publishers get eBooks for free, and that’s far from true.  I also buy books, and as a consumer I want prices to be as low as possible, without driving the publisher out of business.  It seems to me that a new business model might be needed to satisfy both publishers and consumers.  What might that look like?  I’m sure there are a lot of people, much more aware of the financial facts than I will ever be, who are also considering this question right now.

January 31, 2010

what about Educational eBooks?

Filed under: eBooks,Volleyball — ddswanson01 @ 8:48 pm

I’ve been involved with online course management systems (Blackboard, WebCT, etc) since the mid 90s.  My company designed 4 of our own, the first one never made it off the drawing board, the second one (ExchangeSpace) was very simple; it mostly automated the exchange of documents between instructor and students.  The third one, eduSpace, was the real thing, a totally proprietary system for online homework, and it ran for two years before we decided to stop competing with Blackboard, WebCT and eCollege, and developed Eduspace Powered by Blackboard – which was Blackboard with a proprietary building block that let us run proprietary applications in Blackboard that were designed to facilitate homework.  I was the user administrator for Eduspace for 4 years; taught instructors, students, Sales Reps and Product Managers how to use it, resolved instructor issues – so I have a lot of experience with how online course management systems are used in colleges.  So what’s that got to do with eBooks?

Almost everyone uses an online course management system now, and publishers are now building eBooks that live in the OCMS or that can interact with it.  I find the eBook concept exciting, and I would love to be associated with eBooks for the rest of my working career or until the Singularity, whichever comes first.  What makes an eBook useful in an OCMS? Let’s talk about online eBooks that are password protected.  Perhaps actually embedded in your OCMS or on another site – but integrated with the OCMS to a lesser or greater extent, as opposed to downloaded eBooks or eBooks on disks…

There’s homework… When I was in school, we didn’t have personal computers, and the homework assignment was usually something like, ‘Do the odd problems in Chapter 4’.  That was OK if you had the book.  How nice if the instructor can say ‘Do the odd problems in Chapter 4’ and you open the eBook, from wherever you are, and there are those problems.  They should be algorithmic, so me and my roommate, working on the same assignment at adjacent desks, don’t see the same questions, though the type of the question and the difficulty are similar.  And even better, they are attached to the gradebook, so the instructor doesn’t have to collect them, grade them, enter the grade in the gradebook and then turn them back to you.  If the problems are tagged correctly, you should be able to go to the page(s) in the book that tells you how to solve that type of problem.  And if you still don’t get it, direct links from within the eBook to a video and to an online tutoring service.

There’s studying… Reading the eBook wherever you happen to have access, it can provide you with example problems of every type, and if they are algorithmic, you can work them over and over again until you get them right.  And you have immediate access to interactive teaching tools, videos, animations, simulations, if you have problems with a concept. For the instructor, perhaps your progress can be monitored in some way, and the areas where you and your fellow students are having problems can be highlighted for additional instruction.

There’s convenience… many instructors don’t teach the whole book, and in fact, would rather the whole book didn’t have the chapters they don’t teach.  With an eBook, it should be possible to hide these chapters so they don’t distract anyone – but, on the other hand, students who want to study these chapters should be able to access them.  And there are a lot of instructors who would like to teach out of two or more books.  With eBooks, it shouldn’t be all that difficult to pick chapters from several books and make them available in a single eBook.

There could be a tool that allows the instructor to add course notes to the eBook; to highlight sections in eBook before class even begins, to add post-it notes, for the entire class and perhaps for individual students.  And how about a way for the instructor to add links right to the eBook?

The issue for me with this kind of eBook is availability after the course ends.  To some people this isn’t an issue, but I used some of my schoolbooks for several years after I got out of school.  This issue could be overcome with a DVD with a limited feature set, perhaps created individually for each student at the end of the course, so you get to keep all your notes and customizations…

Surely instructors and students have ideas for making eBooks more useful.  And there must be other services that could be designed to complement eBooks.  That’s what I’d like to do!

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