Discrete Math: out with the tome, in with the zyBook

Dr. Sandy Irani is a longtime Professor of Computer Science at UC Irvine. And like any good professor, she constantly looks for ways to improve the classroom experience. But over the years, Dr. Irani has kept running into the same issue; the classic textbook for her Discrete Mathematics course (considered the “standard” across universities) was just not as effective as she had hoped.

At 800 pages, the textbook was large, heavy, and had a $230 price tag to match. Students balked at the price, and many did not buy the book. Instead, they tried to get 100% of the class’s content from lectures alone. This frustrated Dr. Irani since “a key component of the learning process — preparation and reinforcement via text — was missing.” Of the students who did spend $230 on the book, even fewer actually used it. “I struggled with how to convey the crucial information found in the textbook to students in a meaningful way, without diluting the material. I really wanted the students to engage with the content more actively,” she adds.

Two years ago, Dr. Irani happened to see a demo of a new interactive textbook replacement called a “zyBook” for another subject (Computer Programming). “I could see how the dynamics of the zyBook could carry over into Discrete Mathematics and solve a lot of the problems I was facing,” she notes. To Dr. Irani, the zyBook’s animations “had the ability to show things moving through time – a much more powerful teaching tool than a static powerpoint, chalkboard, or textbook.”

The succinct style, replete with interactive examples, provided an opportunity for students to learn by doing. The price per course (under $50) appealed to her as well. If a zyBook was affordable and accessible on top of being effective, Dr. Irani was confident that students would be motivated to buy it. She then set about authoring the Discrete Mathematics zyBook.

Authoring of the zyBook was easy. “There is an incredible esprit de corps among the zyBooks team and they are great to work with,” says Dr. Irani. “Since I was doing the authoring while I was teaching full-time, advising and doing research, I had to fit it in wherever I could. If I sent a question to the zyBooks support staff at 8pm on a Saturday evening, I’d get a response back very quickly.” Dr. Irani found the experience rewarding, but notes she is glad it’s not over. “I still work with the support team to incorporate feedback from other instructors and students — there is continuous improvement.”

Departmental transition to the zyBook was also smooth. Colleagues and students alike were eager to try this new, affordable, interactive option, and Dr. Irani has now successfully utilized the zyBook for 4 quarters.

“My favorite thing about the zyBook is that students actually use it,” she says.

Dr. Irani is able to keep track of student progress through her customized portal, and students are able to easily communicate questions and ideas. “I can see from the reporting tool what they ‘get’ and ‘don’t get’,” she observes. “I can run through the animations in class, illustrating the dynamics as well as giving [students] my commentary.”

With the adoption of zyBooks, Dr. Irani no longer has to depend on her lecture being the only source of content for her students. “I can skip the basics and use the time to lecture more interactively and on more advanced content,” she says. “The classroom really changes.”

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