A new edtech startup, zyBooks, is taking a "less text, more action" approach to an old classroom staple: the textbook.
The company's online, interactive books, designed primarily for lower-division STEM courses, have been brought into University of Arizona classrooms by Roman Lysecky, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The UA is one of some 250 universities using zyBooks today.
Lysecky thinks adapting to different kinds of student learning should be the goal of an instructor.
"We're supposed to help more students be successful and gain knowledge," he says.
Many universities are moving away from tradition in STEM courses, in favor of more engaged, dynamic kinds of learning. The electrical and computer engineering courses Lysecky teaches used to be centered on lectures and readings, but he's not so sure that learning environment is in the best interest of contemporary students.
The UA joins seven other universities, including Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania, in spearheading the Association of American Universities' five-year initiative to improve the quality of undergraduate educational experiences in STEM. And as a project leader for this AAU STEM Initiative on the UA campus, Lysecky thinks zyBooks represents the kind of learning experience students need and deserve.
The startup's vision made sense to him from the get-go.
"It seems that the textbook is less and less students' go-to source of information. So maybe the traditional style of textbook isn't translating very well to some of the modern teaching practices," Lysecky says.
As the co-lead of zyBooks' authoring efforts and a zyBooks author himself, he has produced content for "Programming in C," "Programming in Java" and, most recently, "Data Structures Essentials."
Lysecky joined the zyBooks team in 2012 after one of the co-founders, his former University of California, Riverside, doctoral adviser Frank Vahid, asked him to author his first book on programming.
As a student-focused startup, zyBooks keeps its eye on two things today's students covet most: cost efficiency and grades that reflect true understanding of the material.
A zyBook costs a fraction of its old-school counterpart and has been shown to improve grades. A research paper that was named "Best Paper for Computers in Education" at the 2015 annual conference of the American Society for Engineering Education found that using zyBooks' interactive learning material increased student performance by more than a quarter of a letter grade compared to traditional textbooks. It increased performance by more than a third of a letter grade for students in the lower quartile.
Although zyBooks now offers just 14 books, most of them related to computer science, it is expanding and will be moving into other lower-division STEM courses. "Those are the ones that a lot of students take early on and really struggle with," Lysecky says.
zyBooks are used for three different electrical and computer engineering courses on campus, including ECE 175, an introductory course in programming. Instructors have used zyBooks to teach this large class for the last two years, and this semester about 350 students are enrolled.
"Text is not the ideal way to describe these topics," Lysecky says. "You can describe them much better by creating interactive animations. When you teach a student, you want to interact with them. You want to ask them questions that lead them to think and come to correct answers."
But in a large, lower-division course, that can be tough.
"So we're translating that idea into zyBooks," Lysecky says.
Questions are built into each chapter of a zyBook, meant not for assessment but for learning.
"This way we reinforce their understanding, or we break down misconceptions. We're trying to provide that learning environment in the book," Lysecky says, adding that the books are meant to function similarly to how he might work with a struggling student who turns up at office hours.
For him, it all comes down to active learning.
"It's about improving student learning, and helping students succeed in critical courses for their long-term success," he says.