zyBooks 2 Years In: What we’ve cared about from the beginning

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Smita Bakshi
zyBooks co-founder/CEO
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zyBooks is now 2 years old, and as I write this, we’ve just created the 167th zyBook for the Fall term.  167 and counting. That’s pretty cool. Over 10,000 students in 167 introductory undergraduate classes will learn computer science and engineering using interactive “web-native” materials rich with animations, tools, games, questions for self-assessment, a coding environment, simulators, embedded homework problems, and more.

We know that many of these students would otherwise have struggled as they tried to grasp concepts from textbooks, slides and notes. Some of these students, who otherwise might have been discouraged, will now do well in their course, go on to take the second course in the sequence, and the next and the next. They’ll graduate and enter a job market where their skills will be highly valued. That makes us smile, and that’s the “heart” behind zyBooks.

I’d like to offer some of the decisions and “guiding principles” we’ve followed – some conscious, others less so – that have brought us this far.

1. Less text, more action. For some, no text, all action.

We started with the premise that the STEM disciplines are best learned interactively. As my co-founder, Frank Vahid, often says, “You can explain to a child all day how to tie shoelaces, but until you just hand her a pair, she won’t learn it.”  Math, computer science, and engineering are just like that. So we decided to introduce concepts using animations and “hands-on” interactive tools. We observed that many students skipped over even the few short paragraphs of text, and went straight to the animations, tools and question sets. We listened, and the next version of zyBooks contained even less text – no more than 2 to 3 sentences at a time – and more tools, many of which are now adaptive to the student. We observe students, seek feedback, measure and analyze data, and that’s a guiding principle.  I wouldn’t call this a conscious decision – it’s just in our DNA.

The first of our user studies was recently published and awarded the best paper award at the ASEE (American Society of Engineering Educators) conference.  This paper presented results of randomized controlled studies which showed huge improvements in learning outcomes when students used zyBooks over traditional textbooks. You can check out the paper here. We’re currently working on a cross-semester study across 4 universities showing improved course grades, as much as 2/3rd of a letter grade improvement. Stay tuned for more details on that front.

2. Content first, platform next. Don’t fear the hard stuff.

Two years ago, as we kicked zyBooks off with a C++ zyBook used by 60 summer students at UC Riverside, many cautioned us not to work on content. It doesn’t scale. It gets stale. It’s costly. We acknowledge that some of this is true. But, what platform would we build without first knowing what the content should look like, and without first engaging with authors? We could see several emerging platforms that were making relatively little impact on learning. They were merely a different way of distributing or formatting content written for paper.

A zyBook weaves together several paradigms: it’s interactive, web-native, adaptive, data-centric, and customizable. To get it right, we decided to build content first, deploy it, experiment with it, and then use that experience to guide the platform. This decision is why we can proudly say 25,000 students this year have a higher chance of succeeding in their chosen STEM discipline. Next, our platform will help us reach 250,000 and more.

3. Do right by the student. In our world, the student is king.

Many of our decisions are guided by this principle. We remind our team – engineering, support, marketing, sales – that it **really is** about the student. Do right by them, and everything else will follow. That’s why we made our interactive content even more interactive, kept the prices low, allowed 100% refunds for students who dropped classes, provided immediate feedback to their homework problems, and so on. This is the reason why we have thousands of emails and notes from students delighted with the product and the service.

That said, we are very much here for the instructors too. They are on the front lines, some of them teaching an 800-student class, others teaching at multiple community colleges, others teaching with no assistance from TAs or graders. We provide them the best supporting material, automate homework grading, make it easy for them to reward students who “read before class”, point out the topics and concepts that students are most struggling with, make it easy for them to insert their own notes or links, and much more. We remove as much of the mundane parts of teaching as possible so they can focus on the useful and fun parts of teaching.

4. Understand what’s working and why.

It’s often tempting to experiment with different business models (free vs. paid), different channels (direct to students vs. via instructors), and different/adjacent markets (middle/high schools vs. higher-ed). However, we decided to pay attention to our initial wins, to analyze them, and to figure out how to get from better to best. We learned that it’s really important to make it simple and hassle-free for instructors to adopt a zyBook. We added features to make it even simpler. We doubled down on our efforts to do more user studies across multiple universities and zyBooks, so as to make it an even easier decision to adopt.

Looking Ahead

We are thrilled with our success and growth, and this is just the beginning. Expect to see us continuing to innovate and experiment with our platform and content. We’ll keep on analyzing outcomes, studying what works and what doesn’t, and making adjustments accordingly. With every passing semester, we will have reached a larger number of students, across a larger number of STEM disciplines, with outcomes even more significant than what we’ve demonstrated so far. It’s an exciting journey, one that we look forward to sharing with you.

Visit us at zybooks.com

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