Frank Vahid had a radical new concept for textbooks. Students in STEM fields would learn more by engaging with information presented in an interactive, visual format that didn’t depend entirely on text. Even digital textbooks, he reasoned, typically repackage the traditional “wall of text” approach in electronic form.
HTML5, cloud services, and the plummeting cost of tablets and laptops offered a chance to reinvent this educational staple in the form of a web-native learning tool that allows students to participate as they learn and keep pace with instructors and relevant material. And so Vahid, a professor of computer science and engineering in the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering at the University of California, Riverside, got together with former UC Davis engineering professor Smita Bakshi and other professors to create zyBooks.
zyBooks are web-based, interactive textbook replacements whose hundreds of learning questions, animations, interactive tools, and embedded homework enable students to learn by doing. In 2012, Vahid co-founded Zyante Inc. with Bakshi, who led the company as CEO. UC Riverside provided the company’s first office space in downtown Riverside, and the first zyBook was tested in a UC Riverside Introduction to Programming course in fall 2012.
Four grants totaling more than $2 million from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research Program helped the researchers develop their product, hire their first employee, and grow the company. In 2016, a $2 million investment round led by Bialla Venture Partners supported significant expansion: additional zyBooks, new product features for instructors and students, and new sales and marketing initiatives.
Since 2012, zyBooks have provided courseware to more than 500,000 students at over 600 universities. Using zyBooks boosts test scores, student engagement, and the success rate of initially weaker learners.
A two-year study of nearly 2,000 students at three universities found that those who used zyBooks achieved an average quarter-grade higher in their coursework than those who used static content. A controlled study of 136 students revealed they spent twice as much time engaging with the interactive zyBook material as they did reading static electronic textbooks, and that the initially least-prepared students had dramatically improved learning outcomes.
But just as importantly, zyBooks save students a lot of money. At around $60, they cost far less than a traditional STEM textbook.
Big publishers couldn’t help but notice this kind of market penetration and the positive experiences of students and instructors. Earlier this month, John Wiley & Sons Inc., one of the world’s foremost textbook publishers, acquired Zyante Inc. for $56 million.
“It's been fun growing so quickly and hearing the success stories from students as well as instructors,” Vahid said. “Now with Wiley, we can expand even more rapidly, creating more zyBooks and supporting more features while reaching even more students to help them succeed.”