What is a zyBook?
Text + animations + learning-questions
Textbooks were written when only paper as available, so authors did the best they could using text and figures. But imagine teaching how to tie a shoe, or play piano, using just text and figures. That’s the state of textbooks today. Better than nothing, but not the most effective.
Today, the web supports animations, interactive questions, videos, and more. The author’s palette is richer.
In the web era, porting textbooks from paper to the web is, well, a bit silly. It's akin to porting radio programs to the TV. Even with a few add-ons, such porting still falls short. Instead, TVs enabled entirely new ways of communicating. Likewise, the web enables entirely new ways of teaching. If the web is a superhighway, porting textbooks to the web is like putting horses on that highway.
So, most zyBooks are written from scratch for the web. So they look very different from a textbook. zyBook authors use some text, but then make extensive use of:
- Animations: Figures often try to teach a dynamic concept: Programs execute one statement at a time; a graph is plotted point by point; electrons flow across a resistor. Numerous figures with lengthy explanations can be replaced by one animation. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an animation is worth five thousand.
- Learning questions: A page of text is like a lecture. A paragraph plus interactive questions is like a dialogue. Most teachers prefer the latter. One student said, "I feel like the zyBook is working with me rather than talking to me." After defining a concept with brief text, a zyBook author uses questions to provide examples, expound, and more.
Beyond the above, we agree that “It’s not done when you can add no more. It’s done when you can remove no more.” As such, we aggressively minimize text.
- “Automobile manufacturers have installed special switches in order to prevent injuries inflicted upon children, such injuries being caused by a vehicle’s automatic windows rolling up on a child’s head and thus hurting the child,”
- “Car makers use special switches that prevent windows rolling up on a child’s head.”
Our studies show that students learn more from aggressively minimized text. Paradoxically, minimizing text is harder than more verbose writing. "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter" (Blaise Pascal).
We avoid digressions and non-critical topics. Sometimes, less is more.
Our animations and learning questions follow the same philosophy. We remove unnecessary complexity or length, so the learning stays as focused on possible.
Having authored for major publishers, we've learned many textbooks focus on ensuring instructors adopt, rather than helping students learn. So textbooks include all possible topics to satisfy more instructors, leading to bloat. Textbooks have lengthy expositions to demonstrate rigor and thoroughness to instructors, which one student said "cause my eyes to glaze over." We focus zyBooks on learning, not on convincing instructors to adopt (and we then strive to educate instructors of the benefits of our approach).
The net result of animations, learning questions, and minimized text is that a zyBook looks very different than a textbook. Some instructors say it looks “light” or “is a nice supplement.” That is inaccurate. For example, an animation looks at statically seems very light; just a simple figure. But when played, a well-designed animation can literally replace 2 pages of text and figures, and lead to better learning as well. In short, a zyBook covers the same topics but in a form that improves learning.
Participation and challenge activities
A participation activity (PA) is usually an animation or learning question, for which a student’s completion is visible to an instructor, and for which any student can get 100% completion just by participating. An animation’s steps just need to be viewed. A learning question must simply be eventually answered correctly, and answers are available to students.
Participation activities are NOT homework problems or quizzes. Nor are PAs supplementary to the text. PAs are an integral part of the reading material. Many concepts only exist in PAs. The questions' explanations are key elements, especially for wrong answers that seek to break down misconceptions (a proven-important part of teaching).
Some instructors want students to skip some PAs. That is akin to telling a student to skip some sentences in a textbook. Skipping will cause students to have gaps in critical knowledge. Wanting to skip PAs means an instructor doesn't quite understand what PAs are.
A challenge activity (CA) requires the student to answer correctly, without us giving away the exact answer. A CA is comparable to traditional homework: Small tasks that give students practice. In education lingo, they are formative assessments. CAs give immediate feedback, aiding learning. Some CAs are algorithmically-generated. Some provide solutions if a wrong answer is entered, requiring the student to then answer a different problem. Some are “progressions,” algorithmically-generating an easy problem initially and increasing in difficulty (usually 3-5 levels) after the student gets a level right. We are striving to make more challenge activities to be in progression form.
Instructors sometimes ask to select a subset of CAs for their students. We view CAs differently. Rather than being a large set of exercises that instructors pick-and-choose for their course (the traditional textbook approach), we strive to create just the right amount of CAs for a section of content, and then continually improve those CAs based on feedback and analytics, and on new ideas and new algorithmic-generation techniques. This approach relieves instructors of the need to pick-and-choose, and allows the content to always improve. In contrast, instructors who had meticulously selected a subset of CAs would not be happy when they learned we keep changing the CAs every term, obviating their selection.
Instructors sometimes ask for CA or PA scores based on the student's first submission. We intentionally don't provide that data, to provide a learning experience for the student that is safe and under their control. Fear of being marked down for incorrect answers can be a barrier to learning, as well as cause students to look to friends or the web for the "right" answer. Instead, for PAs and CAs at least, we err on the side of giving students agency over their own learning. With zyLabs and other course items that might be higher stakes and/or focus more on summative assessment, instructors can choose to shift the balance.
Instructors sometimes ask how long activity data is available to them. The data is available during the course. Afterwards, we'll try to keep the data for at least a year (which may require an instructor to contact support for access). Of course, instructors can keep any downloaded reports as long as they wish.
Being a digital publisher, we have a model of continual improvement, just like modern software companies. We balance that idea with maintaining stability during a class' term. So, we push thousands of small improvements to our live content live every term. For larger improvements, we create new releases of most zyBooks 1-2 times a year, and try to get classes starting a new term onto the latest available release for that term.
Many of the improvements come from the "Feedback" buttons throughout the content. Our content teams looks over all such feedback several times a year. And, any feedback where the user selected the "Error" checkbox becomes a support ticket, demanding immediate attention from our support staff; our goal is that no more than one person ever sees an error in our content.
We also continually monitor usage data. Our content team gets weekly lists of activities that might benefit most from some attention, like an activity that is taking students longer to complete than expected.
We view this effort largely as serving instructors and students, so very much appreciate feedback so we know where to improve. We obviously can't make every change that is requested, but do our best to think carefully on all feedback and make changes as appropriate.
Catalog zyBooks vs. class zyBooks
A catalog zyBook is a zyBook in our catalog that can be subscribed to for independent learning and that is not associated with any class. We have dozens of catalog zyBooks, like “Programming in C++,” “Discrete Math,” or “Introduction to MATLAB."
In contrast, the vast majority of our users use class zyBooks. A class zyBook is an instantiation of one or more catalog zyBooks for use in a particular class. About one-third of class zyBooks combine two or more catalog zyBooks. An instructor can reconfigure the chapters/sections to match the class’ syllabus, view student activity data for subscribers to his/her class zyBook, add instructor notes to sections, etc. (Instructors cannot see student activity for catalog zyBooks).
An instructor requests a class zyBook using an online adoption form, typically a few months or weeks before a term (but in a pinch, we can create a class zyBook in a day). Each class zyBook gets a unique zyBook code like SpringfieldUnivCS101Fall1999, and a title like “CS 101: Intro to Programming in C++ and MATLAB, Simpson Fall 1999." Students subscribe to a class zyBook having that code, gaining access for that class' term plus a few weeks (low-cost extensions, and saving as pdf, are available for most zyBooks).
Each new term typically involves another adoption request, a fresh class zyBook, and a new zyBook code. If asked, we can clone a previous term’s zyBook for the new term. We try to keep class zyBooks available to instructors for at least a year (may require contacting support for access).
Catalog zyBooks typically cost about $200. Many working professionals subscribe to them. Class zyBooks are steeply discounted for students, typically $50-$90 depending on content included and add-ons (like zyLabs). We get many requests from students to subscribe to catalog books (e.g., they are taking a class using a traditional textbook but know they learn better from a zyBook); we ask for an instructor reference in such cases, and then usually give the discounted student price.
In addition to a unique zyBook code, each class zyBook also gets a unique ISBN, which is needed for ISBNs by some bookstores and other entities, and helps prevent bookstores thinking that zyBooks on the same subject (like "Java") can be resold across terms or even to different schools -- instead, each class zyBook is unique.
Also, being a digital-first publisher, zyBooks do not have "editions" (and larger publishers are moving in that direction as well). Instead, we make non-disruptive updates continually that get pushed to live class zyBooks during a term. Larger updates (like a rewritten section or new content) are typically made once or twice per year, which usually get incorporated automatically into class zyBooks in the next term.
Why aren't previous answers shown?
When students return to a section, their previous answers to the learning questions (short answer, true/false, multiple choice, etc.) are not shown. This is an intentional pedagogical decision. When students review material, we want them to answer the questions again. Research shows that active reviewing (self quizzing) is more effective than rereading. This article notes: "When preparing for an exam, students reread their highlighted textbook and their lecture notes, but rereading doesn’t make information stick because it’s so easy to repeat something mindlessly. Think of the last time you tried to remember someone’s name by saying it to yourself again and again ... Instead of highlighting, posing and answering questions as they read forces students to think about meaning, and helps them recognize whether they really understand. To prepare for a test, self-quizzing actually boosts memory more than studying does."
If a student really wants to see answers, they can be easily revealed in seconds by clicking "Show answer" or clicking the options in true/false or multiple choice questions until getting the right one.
Anything less than "all in" may not work
In considering whether to adopt a zyBook, some instructors survey students. Such surveys yield results like 50% saying they prefer a textbook, in part due to the status quo bias, and in part because students actually don't know what is a zyBook. We agree with students that a hard copy is often better than an ebook; but, a zyBook is not an ebook.
Once students use a zyBook and engage with the interactivity, surveys show nearly 100% prefer it over a textbook. We get hundreds of students a term asking if they can subscribe to zyBooks that cover subjects in their other classes that aren't using a zyBook; the students realize they learn a lot from a zyBook.
Many students today have found ways (legal or not) to get books dirt cheap or free and don't want a book whose copyright can't be skirted. So when some students come to an instructor saying they prefer a textbook, the instructor might wish to read between the lines. And, instructors probably should encourage students to respect intellectual property; ultimately, somebody has to pay for quality content.
Some instructors wish to try out a zyBook, using it as a supplement or optional book. That rarely yields good results. A zyBook is the core learning material, so if not utilized fully (as required reading, typically due before lecture, and with points awarded), the student's experience is incomplete. You can't determine if a movie is good by watching a few scenes.
A zyBook is not a reference, but rather is core learning material. Today's web is a better and more complete reference, not only with more extensive content than possible in any book, but with specific user-posted questions and answers on various forums that often match exactly what a person is asking, like "When is X better than Y?". Today's engineers won't even get a book off a nearby shelf, searching the web instead.
One reason textbooks are hard to learn from is they try to be both learning material and a reference, polluting the material with excessive topics. We focus on the learning part and let the web be the reference. So when an instructor says "I want my students to have a hardcopy to keep after the course", such instructors may wish to think whether they are assuming times are the same as when they went to school, and may want to think of how people today get reference info.
Why are you a for-profit company?
We considered forming a non-profit organization but felt a for-profit company was necessary to: (1) Create very high-quality material, (2) build the software needed to support that material, (3) continually maintain that material and software, (4) help instructors hear about and evaluate the material, and (5) provide the best support to students and instructors.
“Company” is not a four-letter word. We are professors who put students first (and we put instructors a very close second too). We are trying to help. We felt this structure was a great way to achieve that mission.
Not all companies are the same. We probably have the same opinions on the actions of many big publishing companies that you do. Modern startups, especially Silicon Valley companies like ours, behave very differently than old-school companies. Startups focus on innovation; the best innovations in educational technology and material in the past decade are largely from startup companies. Furthermore, startups aggressively focus on a great customer experience.
Our prices are steeply discounted for students. If the same zyBook is used in a second class, students get a further 50% discount. Third time: Also discounted. Retakes: free. Drops: Full refunds. Renewals: Dirt cheap (currently $1.50/month). We aren’t trying to gouge students; we offer a fair price that sustains the product.
And, rather than preventing the saving of the material, we encourage it through a “Print chapter” option on most zyBooks (except those from other publishers). Of course, such a saved chapter is static, but may still be useful to refer back to.
We note all the above because instructors sometimes indicate they didn’t realize that our pricing is so student-friendly.
Why do you charge?
Many free resources exist today, such as free online books on python, free C++ tutorials, etc. However, they simply are not comparable to a zyBook. Most free items:
- Are created via a one-time effort (like due to a grant). That typically yields an old-paradigm textbook or video; interactivity, at best, is minimal. Improvements don’t come regularly, if at all. Maintenance is neglected. The web is littered with free material that is outdated and mostly unused;
- Or are created via crowdsourcing. That approach underestimates how hard and important it is to create consistently high-quality material. Most students get lost trying to learn from material from dozens of authors. Imagine watching a movie whose writer/director changed every 10 minutes. Yikes. Students deserve Spielberg.
Modern learning material should use the web’s capabilities: animations, learning questions, embedded coding windows, algorithmically-generated problems, auto-grading, configurability by instructors, activity recording, and more. No free platform provides all that. And maintaining such material is hard. The web is filled with outdated items like Java applets and Flash animations; without a current revenue stream, the makers can’t afford to update those items.
Eventually, organizations that provide free products have to find *some* funding. Grants dry up. Some companies use alternatives, like ads, up-selling to students, or selling student info to others. These alternatives are not usually in the student’s best interests. And some companies just start charging students. We're just up front about that, charging a price as low as we can while enabling a high-quality, sustainable, scalable endeavor.