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Origins of Hot Potatoes


Martin Holmes
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Hi all,

John Simkin asked me to post a brief outline of the origin of Hot Potatoes, so here it is, adapted from an article we published a few years ago:

Hot Potatoes arose initially out of our own needs. By 1997, the use of Web pages in support of educational courses was already widespread, and we found ourselves with the need to create a wide range of interactive exercises for the Web, in support of various language programs. At the time, JavaScript was the only practical and reliable method of doing this, so we evolved a set of template scripts for simple exercise types (multiple-choice, short-answer, gap-fill and so on) which enabled us to create exercises more consistently and quickly. However, creating exercises manually based on the templates proved very time consuming, and it wasn't long before a Windows-based authoring tool (the first version of JQuiz, the short-answer quiz generator in Hot Potatoes) was written to automate the process. It was first created to make our own work quicker and simpler, but it occurred to us that it might be useful for others working in the same field, so it was packaged up with an installation routine and a Help file, and issued as freeware. Further applications followed, with JBC (the multiple-choice quiz generator) issued under the invented name "Half-Baked Software". The name derived from a picture created by our graphics expert, based on a scanned image of my lunchtime potato, and this became the splash screen for the product.

At this point, interest was growing in our authoring tools, and more specific demands were beginning to arise in terms of support for foreign language characters, different operating systems, and browsers. In April 1998, we decided to create an integrated authoring suite bringing together new versions of five applications, and make it available for Windows and Macintosh. This became Hot Potatoes, which is now in version 6, and has nearly two hundred thousand registered users. It has spawned a real company called Half-Baked Software Inc., which we co-own with the university, and has become a small but useful source of revenue for our unit, the Humanities Computing and Media Centre at the University of Victoria.

Cheers,

Martin

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Hot Potatoes arose initially out of our own needs. By 1997, the use of Web pages in support of educational courses was already widespread, and we found ourselves with the need to create a wide range of interactive exercises for the Web, in support of various language programs.

This is another example of how the best websites have emerged from educator’s own teaching. This is a very different approach from commercial companies that attempt to exploit a perceived market. As a result of the willingness of educators to provide free materials on the web, for several years it was virtually impossible for commercial companies to make a profit from educational websites. In Britain the government has decided to interfere in the free market by providing e-learning credits to schools (for a debate on this see below). The problem about this strategy is that it encourages people to stop free access to their website and begin imposing subscription charges.

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=115

It has been argued that Tom Paine is the "moral father of the Internet". This dates back to the publication of The Rights of Man in 1791. The British government was outraged by Paine's book and it was immediately banned. Paine was charged with seditious libel but he escaped to France before he could be arrested. Paine announced that he did not wish to make a profit from The Rights of Man and anyone had the right to reprint his book. The Rights of Man was printed in cheap editions so that it could achieve a working class readership. Although the book was banned, during the next two years over 200,000 people in Britain managed to buy a copy. Only the Bible had enjoyed sales like this.

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.05/paine.html

I think Hot Potatoes follows in this fine tradition. As a result this has encouraged other educators to provide free educational materials. I have been at several workshop sessions where Hot Potatoes has been demonstrated to classroom teachers. Every time it encourages people to try their hand at producing web materials for their students.

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I ran a training session on designing web pages for learning at the Historical Association Lincoln Conference recently in which Hot Potatoes featured prominently. It is an excellent way to add interactivity to a site quickly, efficiently at no cost to the teacher or school. It is a Tool which empowers teachers to write their own online content customised to the needs of their own students. The htm files the software generates can be quickly uploaded either to a web side or put on a school network intranet. Creating a linked set of varied interactive activities for a lesson is very straight forward as is customising the style, colours and adding pictures and html effects. I recommend colleagues to down load the spuds and try them out... your pupils will thank you for it B)

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Hot Potatoes is great and I have been using the software for a number of years.

An additional product again produced by a teacher is Question Tools. This is free and downloadable from

www.questiontools.com

A bit more complex to use initially but if you've got the hang of Hot Potatoes you will be OK.

Doesn't quite cover the same ground so it is a useful addition. It comes with an editor if you feel more adventurous and want to produce your own look to the pages produced.

Also on the way is the ability to record individual students' marks on the server. This was at the beta stage the last time I looked.

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Great software and thank you once again:D

But how do you make even small amounts of revenue out of giving it away free?

Hi there,

We don't give it away free, actually. The terms of use are here:

http://www.halfbakedsoftware.com/hot_pot_licence_terms.php

Only teachers working for state-funded educational institutions who share their work through open Websites are allowed to use it for free. There are enough corporations, small companies and individuals who want to hide their materials behind Websites or sell them to provide Half-Baked with a small income; some of that goes to the university general coffers, some into our own unit (to buy computers for us), some goes to us as individuals and directors of the company, and some stays in the company to provide for future growth. It's working well. We're not going to get rich, but I don't think anyone gets rich from educational software!

Cheers,

Martin

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As a result of the willingness of educators to provide free materials on the web, for several years it was virtually impossible for commercial companies to make a profit from educational websites. In Britain the government has decided to interfere in the free market by providing e-learning credits to schools (for a debate on this see below). The problem about this strategy is that it encourages people to stop free access to their website and begin imposing subscription charges.

This is not strictly true. Since 1982, my small family partnership of three (formerly four) people has made a modest income from selling educational software. We were doing very well until the eLC initiative (Curriculum Online) raised its ugly head, causing us to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the bureaucracy that it generated. Curriculum Online almost killed off several small companies. However, we are now coping with the bureaucrats quite well and trade has picked up. My view of Curriculum Online is that is was designed to generate income for techie consultants and keep civil servants employed. It's also a reflection of the pre-1989 East European control-freak thinking of the current bunch that we have in power.

But what’s wrong with website subscription charges and paying for educational software? Our family business is frequently asked for free software by teachers. I have a standard reply:

“Thank you for your request for free software. We are currently trying to negotiate a deal with Sainsbury’s whereby they supply us with free groceries. As soon as this deal is concluded we’ll supply you with free software.”

As Martin says:

We're not going to get rich, but I don't think anyone gets rich from educational software!

We're certainly not seeking a tax haven, but I have a cunning plan: If the educational software market takes a turn for the worse I'm going to take up plumbing. The money is good: the basic call-out charge here in Berkshire is 45 pounds and 35 pounds per hour thereafter. And have you tried asking a plumber to do anything for free?

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“Thank you for your request for free software. We are currently trying to negotiate a deal with Sainsbury’s whereby they supply us with free groceries. As soon as this deal is concluded we’ll supply you with free software.”

Hi Graham,

I love your Sainsbury's thing. but there is one difference between groceries and software: you can't produce infinite numbers of copies of a cabbage for free, but you can produce unlimited copies of a piece of software for nothing. There are distribution costs for any hard copies, but propagation over the Web is very low-cost, so it is practical to give software away. However, if you want to make any money, you have to make your free distribution fit into a well-thought-out business plan that includes revenues from other sources which will be enhanced by the free distribution. Figuring out how to make that equation work can be difficult.

What we really sell nowadays, rather than "software", is technical support and the promise that the software will continue to exist and be fixed/upgraded etc. Freeware can rarely promise this (with some obvious open-source exceptions). More and more users realize that it's in their interest to pay, rather than use a cracked warez version, because that way they help to ensure the health and longevity of the product -- and if they use it a lot, they will be relying on that.

Cheers,

Martin

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Would that someone would find a way to reproduce cabbages for free! Mind you, current developments in battery farming and fish farming seem to be moving in that direction – and not necessarily to the benefit of the consumer. God knows what we are ingesting these days – I have a hospital appointment next week to investigate why, after nearly 60 years of eating fish with no ill effects, I now break out in a rash every time I eat any kind of fish product. Is there an analogy here with the regular computer virus invasions that we experience? MyDoom has tried to break into my system around 20 times in the past couple of days.

Yes, distributing software via the Web is a very low-cost operation relative to the number of copies distributed. Even distributing on CD-ROM or floppy disk is pretty cheap. As Martin says, it’s the technical support service that has a price tag – bearing in mind too that development costs have to be covered too – and teachers do appreciate good and sympathetic technical support. As a business owner, I have not yet noticed a major fall in sales of software that we retail, in spite of all the free stuff that is around. Besides appreciating technical support following the purchase, we find that teachers are very discerning and demanding customers before they decide to buy: they want lots of information about a product, a demo, screenshots, printouts of contents, etc. Interestingly, most teachers contact us by telephone for this kind of information rather than by email. Teachers - especially language teachers - like to chat!

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