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2018 April 22

Leanpub changing their pricing model again

Filed under: Circuits course,Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:50
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I’ve been publishing drafts of my book with Leanpub since August 2015, shortly after I first heard about them from Katrin Becker.  I took the chance with an unknown publisher largely because it cost me nothing, they took no rights to the book, and their e-book store had very generous royalties.

About  a year ago, they changed their pricing model for authors, so that there was a flat $99 fee for starting each new book, though existing books like mine were grandfathered in with no fee.

They just announced to authors another change in their pricing plan (though again, existing books are grandfathered in).  Now authors have a choice between a $99 flat fee per book or subscription plans of $8, $19, $29, or $59 a month, depending on how many books they have—the $8/month plan is for up to 3 books.  For the 32 months I’ve been with LeanPub, the new subscription pricing scheme would have cost me $256—much more than the $99 flat fee, which would have already been high enough for me to look elsewhere when I was starting.

The new subscription pricing scheme strikes me as a sucker’s deal, if you are really going to stick with a book long enough to complete the book and sell it. Unless you remove a book from Leanpub quickly (taking it to a traditional publisher, for example), the subscription fees add up fast.  Unless you are churning out books and moving them off Leanpub within 2–3 years, the $99 flat fee per book remains a better deal.

number of books months until flat fee cheaper
1 13
2 25
3 38
4 21
5 27
6 32
7 37
8 42
9 47
10 53
11 38
12 41
13 45
14 48
15 52
16 55

They do have some deals where earning sufficient royalties will provide the subscription for free, but I’m still a long way from the first breakpoint ($1000 in royalties), because I give away the book to students in my classes (235 free copies of the book vs. only 133 paid-for copies) and because I charge so little (the price is now $9.99 recommended, $4.99 minimum).  At that low price, my royalties are minimal.  I suppose that in another couple of years I’ll be up to the level that would unlock their standard plan, allowing me to do up to 3 more books without a subscription fee (unless they’ve raised their thresholds by then).

Of course, if I could get some other teacher to adopt my book for a course, my sales would go up substantially, but self-promotion has never been one of strong skills, and Leanpub provides no marketing.  Other than the authors of books on Leanpub and their students, no one knows about the website or looks for books there.

Leanpub has also changed the royalties they give, from 90%–50¢ to 80%.  For the lowest price they allow ($4.99), the royalties are the same either way, but for higher prices, they now take more (again, existing books are grandfathered in under the old agreement, though they are trying to induce authors to switch to the new royalty scheme with a not-very-exciting promotion scheme).  The new royalties are still much better than Amazon’s 35% for ebooks, but Amazon provides much more visibility for books.  Amazon does have a 70% royalty deal for ebooks in a very narrow price range.

I understand why Leanpub has been making changes to their business model—their initial pricing was a loss leader, to build up a sufficient clientele while they were developing their software for book publishing.  The main value they add (in their view) is their mark-up language for producing EPUB, MOBI, and PDF formats from the same source, and most of their development costs have been for improving their mark-up language (first Leanpub-flavored Markdown and now Markua).

But I’m not using their mark-up language, because it is not really suited for the graph-heavy, math-heavy textbook I’m writing. I’m using LaTeX to produce PDF files directly.  I gave up on EPUB and MOBI, as they are not suitable formats for graph-heavy books, even though that locks me out of many of the e-book markets. I’m using Leanpub only for their storefront, for which their 10%+50¢ charge was quite reasonable, but increasing the charges to 20% and adding a $8/month subscription fee to that would make me think twice about staying with Leanpub, if they hadn’t grandfathered in the existing books.

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2018 April 15

Rapid delivery

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:37
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I made a serious mistake in putting together the parts list for my Applied Electronics course this quarter—I forgot to include a potentiometer on the list. I think what happened is that in previous years I had put the trimpot on the first quarter list, but we didn’t use it until the second quarter. I had a note to move it from the first-quarter list to the second-quarter list, but the move only happened half way (it was removed from the first list, but not added to the second one).

The mistake was pointed out to me be students in my Thursday office hours (they were asking where the potentiometer they were to use was).

Late Thursday night (after the evening labs were ordered), I ordered 85 25-turn 10kΩ trimpots from DigiKey, and they arrived Saturday morning (at 36 hours, about the fastest delivery I’ve ever had for anything other than pizza—particularly good for a delivery from Minnesota to California).  The Post Office package delivery gives good service here (now that they are no longer short-staffed as they were in December).

Because the lab course fee for the Applied Electronics course has all been spent on parts and tools already, I probably won’t be able to get reimbursed for these parts. The $76.52 they cost is probably the price I’ll have to pay for my mistake. (It isn’t my most expensive mistake in the last year—I forgot to pay my first installment of property taxes on time, which cost me a couple hundred dollars in penalties.)

Although I’m very happy with DigiKey’s rapid service, I might still specify trimpots from AliExpress next year, since 100 trimpots would cost only about $12 with shipping (ePacket, not the unreliable China Post).

2018 April 4

Quiz disappointment

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:31
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Today’s quiz in class was very disappointing for me, and I don’t know what to do differently to get better results.

Yesterday in lab I returned the quizzes from before break and urged students to look through all the old quizzes and rework any questions they got wrong, reminding them that I recycle questions.

In this morning’s class, before the quiz students asked me to show them (again) how to do one of the questions on the last quiz:

Design a voltage divider implementing Vout − Vref = G(Vin − Vref ), where G can be adjusted from ≈ 0.33 to ≈ 0.67 using a 10 kΩ potentiometer. Use port symbols to connect to Vin, Vref , and Vout.

I showed them two solutions—one that I had expected and a correct, but different solution that a student had come up with.

Here are the two solutions: mine on the left and an alternative one on the right.  (There is a third solution, similar to the second one, but with the potentiometer as variable resistor on the lower leg, rather than the upper one, and the two fixed resistors swapped.)

I had already shown them my solution a week and a half ago, right after they took the quiz, and I had posted both solutions on Piazza.  I not only showed the solution, but gave them an explanation of how it worked again and answered some questions students had about it (like why the gain was expressed the way it was with Vref, and why it was even considered a gain).

Right after that I erased the board and handed out the quizzes.  One of the quiz questions was the identical question that I had just worked on the board for them.  I was resigned to this being a free point for them (just like putting their section number on the quiz is a free point, which I use to distinguish those who are absent from those who are present but get no questions right).

But 20 of the students got no points for the question and 15 got only half credit (out of a class of about 72—there were supposed to be 79, but there were 7 students absent).  So almost half the class could not retain for 5 minutes a simple circuit that they should have been able to derive in a couple of minutes and which they had seen at least 3 times already.

Help!  During the last 10 weeks I’ve gone through just about all the ways I can think of to have the students understand voltage dividers and potentiometers, and I’m obviously not getting through to 28% of them (probably more, since the absentees are likely to be in the group that can’t do the problem also).

Does anyone have any useful advice?  (Giving up on the students is not useful advice—I want them to succeed.)

2018 April 1

Starting new quarter

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:20
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Tomorrow the new quarter starts, and I hardly feel like I’ve had a break—I was grading continuously through Monday, working on my book through Friday, and setting up Canvas with all the assignments today. I also spent several hours this week reading course syllabi and student petitions for the Committee on Courses of Instruction meeting that is tomorrow afternoon and a little time reading senior thesis proposals from students wanting to start senior theses next quarter.

It probably doesn’t help that I’m on the third week of a cold—it has settled down to being a minor cough, but it is still making me more tired than usual and interfering with my sleep (the cough is worse when I’m lying down).

There is a new draft of Applied Electronics for Bioengineers posted—those who have already bought the book should have gotten an e-mail about the free update.  The minimum price for the book has gone up by 1¢, as Leanpub now has a $5 minimum, and I had set my book at $4.99 minimum.  There are not many changes this time, because I did not have a lot of writing time last quarter:

  • Beefed up the chapter on lab report guidelines.
  • Many typo and minor wording fixes (mainly ones reported by students in class).
  • Replaced Waveforms 2015 references with Waveforms 3, due to name change by Digilent.
  • Added paragraph to thermistor lab about doing design around standard parts.
  • Also added specific discussion of using parallel resistors for current sensing in power-amp lab.
  • Added the missing section on high-pass active filters.

By being somewhat generous on my grading for the final lab report, I managed to keep the number of failures for Winter quarter down to two—one flaked so much that all five labs had resulted in the partner requesting doing separate lab reports and the other did not do the last lab.  This is about the usual failure rate (2–3%). Still, I was not happy with how many C grades I had to give—I’d like to see a higher distribution Spring quarter.

Several of the students in my course had previously taken EE101 (circuits) or were taking it concurrently.  I checked, and there was essentially no correlation between the EE101 grade and the grade in my course (Kendall tau correlation about -0.03 for not-taking/taking and +0.07 for grade among those who took—neither is a statistically significant relationship with p-value>0.64).

I think that what would make the biggest difference in the grades is better writing from the students—many of the lab reports were a struggle to get through, with poor organization, poor paragraphing, poor grammar, poor word choices, poor punctuation, and poor formatting.  Only about 10% of the class was writing at a level I would consider acceptable for college students, and I’ll be stressing writing more in Spring quarter.

Having undergrad graders in Spring quarter rather than a TA may help, as I have a couple of very competent undergrads who can provide writing feedback on the prelab assignments in a timely fashion.  The foreign TA I had last quarter took a long time getting feedback to students and was not really able to provide writing feedback—not a bad TA for an EE course, but not up to the heavy grading demands of this course.  The graders will be grading the homework and the prelab assignments, but I’ll still be grading the quizzes (which only take about 2–3 hours a week to grade) and the final lab reports (which will take about 150–200 hours to grade for the quarter).

The grading last quarter was stressful, and I expect it will be again this quarter.  Grading at home during finals week resulted in me putting on five pounds—I kept rewarding myself with snacks after getting through another couple of papers.  I’m hoping that I can get the students to write a little better and a little more tersely this quarter, so that the grading will be less stressful (and I can take the weight off again).

I’m hoping that I can convince more of the students to get out of answer-getting and point-scoring mode (see Just scoring points) on the quizzes and rework any problems they get wrong—I’m tired of asking essentially the same question in quiz after quiz and having students still miss it.

2018 January 20

Active Learning Classroom

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:40
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This quarter, I’m teaching the labs for the Applied Electronics for Bioengineers course in just two sections, despite having 89 students enrolled in the course (the largest offering yet). The sections have 50 and 39 students in them.  What I need for the lab is just tables, chairs, power outlets, and enough room to move around and answer questions with 50 students working at once.  That turns out to be an amazingly difficult combination to find at UCSC.  Almost all the rooms that have sufficient space have fixed seating with no room to move around, and most have almost no power outlets.

This year a new classroom was opened up that fits the bill almost perfectly: the Active Learning Classroom (ALC).  It has a legal capacity of 93 people (including instructors), has movable tables and chairs, and has a grid of floor outlets, as well as wall outlets. The ALC is a bit of a boondoggle, paid for with grant money.  They had a consultant come in to design it, and so it has very expensive equipment (12 interactive whiteboards each with a Mac mini, 5 projectors with screens, a fancy lighting control system, video switching to allow any of the whiteboards to be connected to any of the projectors, … ).

I’m not using any of the equipment that the consultant put in the ALC—instead I had about $10,000 worth of equipment bought to equip 25 stations.  The main expenses were Analog Discovery 2 USB oscilloscopes (which also serve as power supplies and function generators) and temperature-controlled soldering irons and fume extractors.

I don’t currently have access to any storage near the ALC, so I’m keeping 9 huge tubs of stuff in my office and carrying the lab setup over every Tuesday and Thursday with a cart.  I have to push or pull the cart all the way around the building, because I was denied permission to use the handicap entrance with it—on days when we are using the soldering stations, the cart weighs about 200 lbs, so pulling it up the steep hill behind the building gives me quite a bit of exercise. I’m a little worried that the wheels won’t last two quarters on the rough asphalt—they seem designed for indoor use only.  We’ll probably have to get some heavier duty wheels for the cart for next year.

 

Here is the cart, set up for use in the thermistor lab, where the students need access to boiling water and ice water. It is nice that the cart can serve as secondary containment, as this reduces the number of containers needed.

In the picture of the cart above, you can also see a couple of the power towers provided with the ALC (I think that they are Steelcase products).  These are very expensive surge protectors with very short cords.  At least, I assume they are surge protectors, since they do have circuit breakers with a reset button at the base of the tower. We’d have been better off with some 15′ or 25′ extension cords—at least they would reach the tables from the floor outlets or wall outlets.

I did order surge protectors for each station, but either I goofed in specifying them or the staff ordered the wrong ones—I wanted ones with 8′ cords and I got ones with 4′ cords.  There are enough floor outlets to make this work, but we often have to move the tables around to get close enough to have every station powered.

The tables are a fairly flexible setup of narrow tables on wheels, though there isn’t really time in 25 minutes I have to set up the lab to go around unlocking the wheels and moving the tables.  I have the feeling that the tables are not moved in any of the courses that use the classroom.

The chairs are expensive “node chairs”, which seem to have been designed by someone who has not recently been in a classroom.  They have oversize bases, ostensibly to provide a place for students to stash their backpacks.  Of course, almost no one does.  (I made a count on Thursday—about 6% of the students used them as intended.

Students put their backpacks on the floor, even when it interferes with where they need to put their feet.

The ends of the tables are a much more popular place to put backpacks than under the seat, where they are both difficult to access and not visible to the owner.

The wide bases and flaring arms for the chairs make them take up a lot of room, even when no one is sitting in them:

It is rather difficult to pass between the tables here, though it would have been straightforward with less bulky chairs. Note: this picture shows one of the rare students using the space under the seat as the designer intended. 

I think that we would have done better with the $40–50 padded shop stools that were bought for the School of Engineering labs, but the consultant apparently preferred the over-$300 node chairs from Steelcase.

So far, the labs have gone pretty well in the new space.  With 4 people working (me, a TA, and 2 undergrad group tutors), we’ve been able to set up each lab in the 25 minutes we have between the previous class leaving and our lab starting.  It is fortunate that I got the last choice of time slots (TTh 5:20–6:55 p.m. and 7:10–8:45 p.m.), because the gap before the 5:20 slot is the longest one of the day—the rest are only 15 minutes, not 25. We’ve also usually been able to clean up and repack everything into the tubs and onto the cart in about 40 minutes, so I’m back in my office by about 9:30 p.m. and home by 10 p.m. to get supper (unless there is urgent e-mail to attend to, in which case I don’t get supper until 11 p.m.).

The ALC is somewhat strangely located in the Science and Engineering Library.  I’m not quite sure why they still call the building a library, as there are almost no books left in it, no periodicals, no reference desk, and no librarians.  Perhaps it should be renamed the Science and Engineering Study Hall, since that, the ALC, and the video game room seem to be all it is used for now.

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