We strive to make zyBooks usable without reading a manual. But, some description may still be helpful. Hence, this document, with underlying philosophy, tips / best practices, the background and mission of this project, and more.
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 most textbooks aren’t written for students, but for instructors. Because many instructors evaluate a book based on inclusion of their favorite topics, textbooks become the union of all topics, which doesn’t help the student. And because many instructors judge topic coverage by page counts, textbooks have lengthy expositions that one student said “cause my eyes to glaze over”. We strive instead for focused, concise coverage.
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”. No, no, no. A zyBook is the same material, in a better and compact form.
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.
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.
So you adopted – now what?
Minimally, switching from a textbook to a zyBook requires you telling us (so we can create your class zyBook), and then just telling students: “SpringfieldUnivFall1999 at zyBooks.com is your textbook”.
You don’t have to do anything else.
You can award points for completing activities (and we recommend that), reconfigure chapters/sections, add instructor notes, and more. But you don’t have to.
Most zyBook instructors suggest awarding course points for completing activities. Our studies across 20 universities show completion rates jump from about 40% up to 85% if you award points. Points are the currency of academia.
Our analyses show completion rates are steady (around 85%) whether you give 2, 10, or even 30 course points (30% of the course grade). We recommend 5-10 course points for completing participation activities. For example, UCR (where the co-founder teaches) gives 10 course points, and sees about 90-95% completion.
If you don’t award points, students who most need the activities are the least likely to do them. You likely know that the decision-making part of the brain is not fully-formed until about age 25; young students need some help. Ex: This NPR article states that an 18-year-old’s “prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. That’s the part of the brain that helps you to inhibit impulses and to plan and organize your behavior to reach a goal.”
Experienced instructors recommend a buffer, like requiring 90% completion rather than 100%. Students are somehow happier, though the learning is really the same.
For simplicity, instructors need not create an assignment in a zyBook; just tell students a due date (and time) for activities, using a zyBook’s instructor notes, posting to a class announcement board, etc. Then, download a report anytime after the due date, selecting the due date for the report. Reports, in CSV format, can be uploaded (maybe with minor tweaking) into most LMS’s. Note: We are working on an assignment system as well, hopefully coming soon.
“Framing” is important. We suggest you remind students that this is state-of-the-art learning material, proven effective, and designed to maximize learning while respecting student time. It’s true; our participation activities are carefully designed to avoid student fatigue, with authors prohibited from “drilling” students. We have extensive research to show that students who complete the activities learn more and get better grades (resulting in ASEE 2014 and ASEE 2015 best papers). Don’t just expect students to know this; you’ve got to frame it for them. Recall various well-known experiments where framing heavily influences people (Wikipedia article).
We recommend participation activities be due before lecture, and challenge activities after lecture (like end of the week). You can separate those activities when downloading reports. By requiring participation activities before lecture, students arrive knowing the basics (“less clueless” in one instructor’s words), allowing an instructor to use lecture as desired: Doing more examples, emphasizing harder concepts, going over student mistakes, having students solve problems in groups, or just lecturing as usual (but with students following better). One instructor told us “You freed me”.
Analyses show students spend about 10 minutes per section. Some sections take longer, some shorter, so instructors should examine sections a bit.
Challenge activities are harder, so making them due after lecture has advantages. It reduces stress, since students are more capable of finishing the CA’s after lecture. And since many students will attempt the CA’s before lecture (since they are doing the participation activities anyways), students come “tuned in” to learn concepts they struggled with, asking questions. Lecture is more like the ideal: Students come wanting to learn (so they can finish the CA’s, but hey, that’s something).
We recommend you have a help forum where students can get help on challenge activities when needed. For example, UCR (where zyBooks’ co-founder teaches) uses a discussion board (Piazza). Other instructors use Slack, or Facebook, etc. Some have drop-in labs with tutors (lucky them!). We recommend class policies that encourage students to help each other (without giving away the answer).
Some instructors ask why we don’t just provide challenge activity solutions to the students. Other instructors beg us NOT to make solutions available, because a lot of learning comes from trying to figure things out. We tend to agree with the latter. Looking at something vs. figuring something out are entirely different mental processes. Again, you framing this for the student is important. Some struggle is important (but too much is frustrating; hence the importance of a help forum).
Before your term begins, we recommend you configure a zyBook’s chapter/section ordering to match your syllabus, such as making each chapter one week of class, thus helping students focus on academic content and not tracking down what to do that week. While sections are modular, there are still dependencies, so be careful not to violate dependencies (just as any instructor who jumps around in a textbook).
We created the default ordering to match how we teach the material ourselves. However, most zyBooks have more content than for one course, so that you can choose the subset that matches your needs. In choosing, we recommend you consider erring on the conciseness side; better that students learn X, than to forget 2X. Sometimes less is more.
For sections you won’t require of students:
- If you want to encourage students to read that section, just mark it as “Optional”. Students will see it in-place in the chapter, but its title will include “optional”. An optional section’s activities don’t appear in activity reports.
- If you instead want to make a section available as reference, consider moving it to a new chapter named “Extra Material” or similar.
- You can move the remaining non-required sections to the zyBook’s “Unused” region, which students don’t see. If your class zyBook is from one catalog zyBook, few non-required sections will likely be Unused; most will either be marked as optional, or put in “Extra Material”. But for class zyBooks that combine two or more catalog zyBooks, moving more items to Unused can avoid overwhelming students. Unused sections usually stay in Unused the entire term, though you can move sections back into regular chapters if you change your mind.
Your book may have an “Additional material” chapter. Those are usually topics some instructors asked for, made available to everyone just in case. You might take a look in case a topic you like is there. If you’d like to see particular topics added, email email@example.com; we can’t promise anything, but we pay close attention and are continually updating our content.
Adding instructor notes
Instructors can add brief notes for students, akin to comments in MS Word or PDF’s. Common uses: List due dates / Link to resources, lecture notes, slides, or other homework / Mention style differences from the zyBook / Comment briefly on a topic. Brief notes are not for instructor-created content, as supporting such content requires capabilities for maintaining, sharing, copying, training, placement, and more; we do hope to support instructor-created content in the future. Notes are thus limited to 750 characters (a section’s first note can be longer), which helps make clear their purpose, and encourages conciseness, which is a core zyBook principle. For longer notes, instructors can link out to a google doc or other web page.
When adding notes, instructors should remember that our content changes from term to term, such continual improvement being a key benefit of digital-only content. We thus encourage instructors not to invest excessive effort into fine-grained complementing of our content with notes, because those notes may not have a place, or may become irrelevant or inconsistent, in the next version of the content.
For the simplest experience and lowest price, we recommend that students subscribe directly at zyBooks.com. Nearly all our students do. Due to the low price, most students on financial aid can pay, and reimburse themselves with their later aid disbursement (and for those few who really can’t, they can request deferment from firstname.lastname@example.org).
How can an impaired student use zyBooks?
The majority of zyBooks content is accessible and adheres to WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines but in the case of some animations and specialized tools, we provide alternate captions and detailed descriptions to aid students using assistive technology (AT) such as screen readers. In order to provide the best experience, we have created an accessibility mode for students who would like to use these features. Students who would like to try this mode should contact accessibility@zyBooks.com. Reverting to the original view is always an option and can be done quickly.
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.
Won’t students cheat the system to get points?
With answers readily available to students, instructors often wonder if most students will just rapidly click to get points, without trying to learn. We’ve analyzed activity data of thousands of students at dozens of universities. The heartening finding — most students earnestly attempt the activities. It seems students realize the material is useful and respects their time. (With that said, about 3% do blatantly cheat the system. You can lead a horse to water…).
Can I add my own material?
Currently, you can add instructor notes. From such notes, you are welcome to link to your own material, perhaps a google doc, or web page, or PowerPoint slides.
Eventually we do hope to support having instructors create and add their own material directly in a zyBook. But there are several tricky issues.
One issue is maintaining consistency of terminology, quality, and style, which is surprisingly hard; abrupt switches within a zyBook may not be a great student experience. We are working towards creating guidelines, processes, and some automation to help instructors make material that could fit into a zyBook.
Another issue is maintenance. If instructors create their own material that extends or modifies our material, then it becomes harder for us to maintain our material. For example, if we teach X, and an instructor adds material on Y, and we later update our material to teach X and Y, then students may get confused with two presentations of Y, and the instructor annoyed that he/she spent effort that is now “wasted”. Or, if an instructor creates a section between sections A and B, and later we merge A and B, where should the instructor’s section go? Or, if we decide to replace term U by term V throughout our material, instructors may be frustrated since their material used term U. Dozens of such maintenance details exist.
There are also issues related to how such material would be kept track of by instructors, how an instructor would include previously-created material into new class zyBooks, whether instructor material is maintained as one source or whether material is cloned each term, how such material would be shared with other instructors at the same school (which also introduces copyright issues), etc.
Many of the issues are due to modern learning material being much more dynamic than traditional static textbooks. It’s a new frontier, and we’re learning as we go, but wish to just share that ideas are often harder to implement than they may seem.
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 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.
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.
Where are your presentation slides?
Instructors often ask “Why don’t you provide PowerPoint slides?”
In short, we provide what we believe is a more modern and superior approach form of presentation content for lecturers.
For starters, a zyBook itself can be projected during lecture. Instructors can zoom in, highlight text, play animations, code in coding windows, etc. This is how many instructors (including ourselves) use the content, obviating the need for slides entirely.
Plus, we have a “View as presentation” mode, that removes items like paragraphs and question sets, leaving figures, tables, animations, coding windows, and more items that normally would just be copied into a traditional slide. All defined terms are automatically made into large bulleted text, like on a traditional slide.
Having information duplicated between a book and slides is not necessarily good for students, requiring reconciling the information. For most textbooks, having slides is nice since they summarize lengthy text content, but in contrast, a zyBook is designed to use concise text and instead teach through animations, questions, tools, etc.
Redundant material (book plus slides) makes continual improvement of material harder; the more places that information needs to be changed, the harder to make changes, and the more likely content will stagnate. Supporting maintanence and continual improvement are very important in this era of publishing.
We have placed tremendous effort into animating most key concepts. Creating a redundant set of animations in PowerPoint is thus unwise and creates a further maintenance problem as well.
What if the internet fails during lecture? First, many instructors today (including us) rely on the internet during lecture for several things: Coding in a cloud IDE, playing videos, displaying in-class surveys, projecting student work, etc. So it’s not just the zyBook that uses the internet during lecture. Second, an instructor who wishes to still project content during an internet outage can save our content, using their browser’s “Save page as –> Webpage complete” for each section, or printing a chapter to pdf. While the saved content won’t be interactive, the content can be projected to help get the instructor through the internet outage.
Why don’t you have testbanks?
Some instructors note that many publishers provide testbanks, and wonder why we don’t.
We do plan eventually to add testbanks. (Actually, we do have one, for Computing Technology For All).
One reason we haven’t yet is that our content is a LOT harder to create and maintain than traditional textbooks. We’ve previously authored traditional textbooks for major publishers, and estimate our material takes about 2x more time to create, and about 10x more time to maintain (really, one might say infinite, because most textbooks are just published and then nothing happens until the next edition, while we are continually maintaining our content). Thus, a lot of our time goes into providing the most-effective core learning content, responding to feedback, maintaining interactive elements in the presence of a changing web (browser updates, new browsers, cloud computing updates, etc.) — thus leaving less time to work on testbanks.
Another reason is that we want to provide a better, more modern form of testbanks. zyBooks are configurable, so testbanks would need to adjust to your class zyBook’s configuration. More schools want to give online tests, and with online tests we might want to include more than just multiple choice, but rather could include auto-generated problems, programming and auto-grading, etc. We’d want a way to collect performance data so that schools could know how their students compare to averages. We’d likely want to allow instructors to contribute questions.
We certainly understand that making exams takes time, and a publisher can help reduce that time via testbanks. But we want to create a modern form of testbank that will best serve instructors and students in the era of the web. We are as eager to work on testbanks as you likely are to have them.
Via the zyBook’s class management page, an instructor can set up a zyBook to have class sections. Students are then required to choose a class section when subscribing, and can change their own section as well.
Class sections support the common class model where a few instructors (including TAs) co-teach a single large class. Due to a school’s room size constraints or to provide student scheduling flexibility, students at a school may enroll in different sections of that large class. The zyBook’s section attribute is thus a convenience that allows instructors of such classes to download activity reports for specific class sections.
In that common class model, the students are still part of one large class, and the instructors are all teachers of that one class. As such, instructors (including TAs) can see all students, can run reports on any section, etc.
Specifically not supported is restricting instructor access to only specific sections, allowing instructor notes to appear only in specific sections, allowing configurations to differ across sections, etc. Supporting such features introduces numerous complexities, both to the user model, and the implementation, and is not a kind of class section model that our section feature is designed to support. If your class has multiple sections that differ from the above common model and instead are more independent, you may wish to create multiple class zyBooks.
If you have any questions or comments, please submit your feedback here. Thank you.