Changing How Students Learn

Company focused on building interactive textbooks is already reaching more than 50,000 students at 200 universities and colleges

Employees at zyBooks stand in their office.

Members of the zyBooks team, with founders Frank Vahid and Smiti Bakshi in the center.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — A group of professors from University of California, Riverside, University of Arizona, UC Davis and UC Irvine have had enough.

While the web has transformed shopping, entertainment, socializing, and more, they say its use in college education mostly replicates old paradigms such as posting lectures online as videos and putting textbooks online as pdfs.

“That’s like building an eight-lane superhighway, and then populating it with horses,” said Frank Vahid, a professor of computer science and engineering at UC Riverside.

Meanwhile, he says teachers are getting squeezed from all sides: Larger classes, fewer resources, less grading help, and students who don’t read textbooks due to the exorbitant costs and a mismatch with today’s hands-on learning styles.

Vahid puts it like this: “For the past decade, teachers have been teaching with one hand tied behind their back.”

So, in 2012, Vahid and his former UC Irvine Ph.D. classmate Smita Bakshi, also formerly a UC Davis professor and currently a professional in Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry, founded zyBooks.com. Their goal: Reinvent college learning material, by starting from scratch, for the web.

“We began by thinking of the student first – what material is best for their style of learning and their modern ways of interacting with technology?” Bakshi said. “We decided to create entirely new material, because when you write for the web, you write differently – it’s less about text and explanations, and more about interactivity and doing.”

In 2012, Vahid and Roman Lysecky, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Arizona, began to write entire textbook replacements natively for the web, starting with several topics in computer science.

Vahid, Bakshi, and Lysecky recruited more authors, including professors from UC Irvine and UC Davis. They now have materials – what they call “zyBooks” – in about 10 topics related to computer science, engineering, and math, with more in production. Creation of those materials is now led by a team of seven engineers, all of whom who are UC Riverside graduates, including Scott Sirowy, who left a position as head of mobile apps at a multi-billion-dollar company to become zyBooks’ engineering director.

The material uses minimal text. Instead it is filled with interactive items such as animations, learning questions, and tools/simulations. Auto-graded “homework” activities are weaved directly into the material, often with auto-generated problems of varying difficulty.

“As much as I admire the recent efforts in creating free or open-source learning materials, our students deserve much more,” Vahid said. “We’ve come up with the right formula: highly-interactive material at low prices and we have research that shows it works.”

In early 2013, they started with just three universities. Now, they are being used at 200 colleges and universities (and several high schools) by more than 50,000 students.

“The growth has been faster than we expected” Lysecky said. “We struck a chord. I think teachers, myself included, see that zyBooks enable them to do their jobs better; students learn the basics from the online material, even before lecture, so teachers can focus on the more challenging concepts and on interesting examples.”

Bakshi agreed.

“Teachers forward emails to us from their students calling the material ‘Amazing’ — I mean, what student calls a book ‘Amazing’?” she said.

zyBooks have already taken over about 5 percent of the market for introductory computer science topics. But Vahid and the others aren’t just striving to gain market share. Their goal is to really help students learn. Research shows they are accomplishing this goal.

One research study showed students using zyBooks on average got 16 percent better scores compared to those using a  traditional book, and voluntarily spend twice as much time interacting with the zyBook. Notably, the initially weaker students (the lowest quartile) did 64 percent better. That research received a best paper award from ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education) 2014, the main forum for engineering education research.

A more recent study they conducted, which involved 2,000 students at three universities, showed improvements in all aspects of student performance (quizzes, exams, projects), including 1/3 to 1/2 improvements in letter grades, and fewer D’s and F’s too.

The research has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and Google.

Media Contact


Tel: (951) 827-1287
E-mail: sean.nealon@ucr.edu
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Additional Contacts

Frank Vahid
E-mail: vahid@cs.ucr.edu

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