UCR Magazine The Magazine of UC Riverside

Spring 2015

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From Mind to Market: zyBooks

Koren Wetmore

Drawing of Frank VahidWhen Professor Frank Vahid created textbooks for online use, he didn’t just transfer text into pixels. He created a new way of learning.

So when a fortuitous combination of technology — HTML5, cloud services and the proliferation of tablets and low-cost laptops — emerged, Vahid seized the opportunity to revolutionize the textbook. He created a prototype and successfully test-drove it during a UCR introductory programming course. Dubbed a “zyBook,” it became the central product for Zyante Inc., a company Vahid co-founded in 2012 with software developer Smita Bakshi, a former UC Davis engineering professor. The company received three grants totaling about $1 million from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovative Research program.

Drawing of Frank Vahid

ZyBooks use less text and rely on learning questions, animations and interactive exercises to convey information. They contain the same core concepts as a traditional textbook, but present them in a more engaging way. “They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I say an animation is worth 5,000,” says Vahid. “So we don’t have to write as much because we can replace a whole page of text with an animation or with learning questions.”

Using zyBooks boosts scores, student engagement and the success rate of the lowest-performing learners. A two-year study of nearly 2,000 students at three universities found that those using zyBooks achieved an average quarter-grade higher in their course work than those using static content. A controlled study of 136 students revealed that they chose to spend twice as much time engaging with the interactive zyBook material compared with reading static electronic textbooks, and that the initially least-prepared students had dramatically improved learning outcomes.Student reading zyBook.

Students like the books’ low cost (around $50), interactive style and use of learning questions. By rewriting text into questions that introduce new concepts, Zyante’s book developers not only hold students’ interest but also guide them to learn through mistakes. “I can ask a question that I intend for them to get wrong such as ‘Does sound travel faster or slower on the moon?’ Students might think, ‘Gravity is less on the moon so you jump up and then come down slower so maybe sound travels slower,’ and they click ‘slower.’ When they get it wrong and see the explanation — the correct answer is ‘not applicable’ because sound doesn’t move on the moon because there’s no atmosphere — they say, ‘Oh, I see,’ and there is a learning moment.”

Teachers also like zyBooks because they provide insight and automate time-consuming tasks such as assigning and grading homework. All learning materials, practice exercises and assessments are integrated into one Web system. An online dashboard lets instructors monitor student activity (so if a teacher asks students to read before class, now they finally do). The teacher can see which concepts students have mastered and where they might need help. “We’re trying to complement teachers’ efforts so they can focus classroom time on more challenging concepts, student collaboration and other things that make really good use of their time.”Teacher cutting figurative work.

Used by 40,000 students in 200 colleges and universities, zyBooks cover 12 subjects and in the future will include up to 90 subjects and tools such as virtual labs. “We want to provide more services so universities can outsource what makes sense to outsource and focus on what they can do locally to add educational value.”

Sprung from UCR, Zyante now employs a half-dozen UCR graduates.UCR provided the company’s first office space in downtown Riverside, and the first zyBook, on C++ programming, was test driven in a UCR Introduction to Programming course in Fall 2012. “Basically, right now we largely are a UCR shop. Our development team is all UCR grads and our engineering director, Scott Sirowy, is a UCR Ph.D. whom we attracted from a key position at a multibillion-dollar company.”Student reading zyBook.

Sample a zyBook today. Visit www.zybooks.com and register to read the first chapter of any zyBook for free.