zyBooks Touts 'Less Text, More Action'

November 25, 2015

ICS alumni Smita Bakshi and Frank Vahid have found success with their interactive online textbook replacement platform zyBooks.

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, animations are worth 5,000—at least, that’s one of the principles underlying interactive online textbook replacements zyBooks. Another principle: Students should interact and engage with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning as if they’re in dialogue with their education.

These principles drove zyBooks founders, who are also ICS alumni, Smita Bakshi (Ph.D. 1996) and Frank Vahid (Ph.D. 1994) to craft STEM material native for the web using “less text, more action,” as they put it.

The platform adopts a dynamic approach to STEM education, illustrating concepts through animations, question sets, experimentation and games. Beyond student engagement, the platform allows for immediate student-progress feedback to the instructor and student-instructor interaction. With instructors able to assign points for student progress, zyBooks “solve the read before class problem,” Vahid says. Over a dozen zyBooks—with topics in Algebra, Programming in C, Discrete Mathematics and more—offer low-cost alternatives to traditional textbooks.

Vahid, a computer science and engineering professor at UC Riverside, and Bakshi, an industry veteran and former electrical and computer engineering professor at UC Davis, know firsthand the pitfalls of teaching STEM material through traditional textbooks. Where textbooks are static—even e-books, which just import static text to the web—zyBooks are engaging. According to Vahid, such animation provides “the missing link in education.”

The results support Vahid’s statement. Two research inquiries into the platform—both of which received best paper awards from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) in 2014 and 2015—demonstrate the platform’s efficacy. With a single lesson, zyBooks improved student performance by 16 percent, while the least-prepared students improved by 64 percent. Student users also self-reported significantly higher levels of engagement with zyBooks, voluntarily doubling their time spent with the platform despite it having half the text of its textbook counterpart.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) agrees, supporting the platform with a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant, which “seeks to transform scientific discovery into societal and economic benefit by catalyzing private sector commercialization of technological innovations.”

Vahid and Bakshi credit their time at ICS, as well as its resources, as pivotal in their quest toward founding zyBooks. The two met while working in the same ICS research group. Bakshi notes, “UC Irvine and ICS were very instrumental to me, as it was the first place I came from India.” Moreover, Vahid mentored Computer Science Professor and Associate Dean of Student Affairs Tony Givargis, as well as Computer Science Lecturer Shannon Alfaro. Even Vahid’s family has ties to UC Irvine: His wife and two children both attended the university. Vahid also currently serves as a member of UCI's Center for Embedded and Cyber-physical Systems.

Beyond Vahid and Bakshi, ICS faculty members have contributed to the platform’s success. Givargis helped author early iterations of zyBooks, while Computer Science Professor Sandy Irani has collaboratively authored works on the platform. “We’ve worked very closely with [Irani] and she’s amazing,” Vahid says. “She’s really mastering this new domain. We feel very fortunate.”

To date, the platform has found its way into 280 universities and 25 high schools, a stratospheric growth from a handful of universities in 2013. In the first six months of 2015, 21,000 students had used the zyBooks platform, adding to the roughly 65,000 total users since its inception.

— Story by Courtney Hamilton

UCI ICS Feature: zyBooks Touts 'Less Text, More Action'