Web Platform Seeks to Give Students an Alternative to the ‘Wall of Text’

It’s difficult to keep students engaged — and awake — when assigning them readings from long and often dull textbooks. Two researchers wanted to change that.

Their creation is zyBooks, a web-based platform that mixes learning activities such as question sets and animations with some written content, largely as a replacement for text. The idea is that professors can use zyBooks instead of traditional textbooks in order to help students engage with the material and perform better.

zyBooks was founded in 2012 by Frank Vahid, a computer-science professor at the University of California at Riverside, and Smita Bakshi, a former assistant professor at the University of California at Davis who is the company’s chief executive. They say the platform is being used by professors at around 250 universities, primarily in courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“Every time students see a wall of text, they skip it,” said Mr. Vahid.

Homework is another experience that Mr. Vahid and Ms. Bakshi wanted to improve, for students and professors. With traditional textbooks, students may have to flip between their texts and their assignments, often retaining less material. With the zyBooks platform, homework is integrated into the system and personalized to students’ ability levels. Professors can also track students’ progress.

Additionally, at $48 each, zyBooks products are considerably cheaper than the average cost of a new textbook.

Although likened to digital textbooks, Mr. Vahid said they “are very different than a book.” In fact, in the platform’s first year, the founders resisted even having “book” in the product’s name because they thought the word would inaccurately describe what they were trying to do. They eventually kept the name, however, to help explain the platform”s purpose.

Indeed, the digital textbook is hardly a new idea. While plenty of companies and groups have begun to shift content online and into e-books,  the “next step” is for such textbooks to personalize information and to encourage interactivity and collaboration with other students, said Erin Walker, an assistant professor of engineering at Arizona State University who was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to study digital textbooks. To her, it seems that the company “is really going for this idea of interactivity and active learning.”

The company has conducted research with people using its platform and found that students self-reported higher levels of engagement with a zyBooks product, as compared to a textbook on the same topic. Students also tended to perform better on quizzes and other activities, the research found.

Although the platform initially was focused on computer science and other classes in STEM fields, Ms. Bakshi said the group hoped to move into other topics, such as finance, accounting, and sociology.

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