What is a zyBook?
Textbooks were written when the only items for authors were text and figures. So authors did the best they could. But imagine teaching how to tie a shoe using just text and figures. That’s the state of textbooks today. Better than nothing, but not the most effective way.
Today, the web supports animations, interactive learning questions, and more. The author’s palette is richer.
Porting textbooks, from the era of text/figures-only, to the web, is a bit silly if you think about it. If the web is a superhighway, it’s like putting horses on that highway.
Thus, most zyBooks are written from scratch for the web. So they look very different from a textbook. zyBook authors use less text, because some concepts are better taught with:
- 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 speaking to me". Thus, 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. Instead of:
- “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.
Having authored for major publishers, we've learned many textbooks focus on ensuring instructors adopt, rather than helping students learn. 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 helping students learn (and strive to educate instructors of our approach's benefits).
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. A zyBook is the same material, in a form that improves learning.
Participation and challenge activities
A participation activity is typically 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 just needs to be eventually answered correctly, and answers are available to students.
Participation activities are NOT homework problems, quizzes, or supplementary to the text. They are an integral part of the reading material. Many concepts only exist in activities. 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 to skip some participation activities. That is akin to telling a student to skip some sentences in a textbook. Such skipping is inappropriate, indicating an instructor's misunderstanding of what those activities represent. Your students will have gaps in critical knowledge.
A challenge activity requires the student to answer correctly, and answers are not provided to the student. A CA is akin to traditional homework: Small tasks that give students practice. In education lingo, they are formative assessments. CA's give students immediate feedback, aiding the learning. Some CA's 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 (about 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 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 (may require contacting support for access). Of course, instructors can keep any downloaded reports as long as they wish.
Catalog zyBooks vs. class zyBooks
A catalog zyBook is a zyBook in our catalog that can be subscribed to for individual 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, a class zyBook is an instantiation of one or more catalog zyBooks for use in a particular class. About 1/3rd 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. In contrast, instructors cannot see student activity for catalog zyBooks.
An instructor requests a class zyBook using an online request 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 using that code.
Each new term typically involves another request, a fresh class zyBook, and a new zyBook code; on request, we clone a previous term’s zyBook for the new term. We’ll try to keep your previous class zyBooks available to you for at least a year (may require contacting support for access).
zyBooks are steeply discounted, to remain affordable for students. Thus, subscriptions to catalog zyBooks are usually limited to students.
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. Ex: 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 hardcopy is often better than an ebook; but a zyBook is not an ebook.
Once students use a zyBook, surveys show nearly 100% prefer it over a textbook, realizing the interactivity is hugely helpful. 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.
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. But 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, so use it as a supplement or optional book. That rarely yields good results. A zyBook is the core learning material, so if not experienced fully (as required reading, typically due before lecture, and with points awarded), the student's experience is incomplete. It's like dipping a toe in a pool; feels cold, no thanks. But if you jump in, you find the water is fine.
We note that a zyBook is not a reference. A zyBook is core learning material. Today's web is a better and more complete reference, with basic topic coverage, plus common questions, discussions, pitfalls, advanced topics, etc. 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.
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. And, 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; just a fair price that sustains the product.
And, rather than preventing saving 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 with 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 videos; interactivity 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 consistent 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.