This SBIR project's innovation is a unique web-based authoring framework for creating animated interactive web content that replaces university-level STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) textbooks in traditional or online courses. The confluence of HTML5, cloud services, and ubiquitous portable devices enables widespread use of web-native content having engaging effective activities for students including animations, interactive simulators including mini-games, and self-assessments. Such content is difficult to develop/maintain in traditional publishing paradigms involving a small author/editor core team. A wiki-style crowdsourced approach, with oversight by an author/editor core team, is more scalable but web-based authoring tools support only limited content types like text or drawings. The project's intellectual merit lies in developing a novel web-based authoring tool for creating HTML5 code for animations, including a novel automated synthesis of the code from abstract restricted-form English-sentence specifications inspired by experiences in developing state-of-the-art automated circuit synthesis techniques. The merit also lies in a new repository of parameterized interactive simulations with potentially wide applicability in STEM fields. Results will include the initial tool and repository, plus use by instructors and graduate students from several universities to demonstrate crowdsourcing feasibility.
The broader/commercial impact of this project includes catalyzing a new partnering approach between a publisher and universities, striking a new balance between core-team authored content and crowdsourcing. A core author/editor team creates initial content and outlines needs, requiring less upfront investment, and the community adopts the content and contributes items under the core team's curation. Curated crowdsourced content can dramatically improve content and reduce creation/maintenance costs. The approach can expand to curated crowdsourced homeworks, automated grading, online help tools, quizzing services, student performance analysis, and more, unleashing synergy among universities to build common tools that benefit the community, a necessity made manifest due to drastic reductions in university budgets. The project's initial focus on computer science lower-division topics may yield company revenues of $5M in textbooks within a few years and $10M considering expanded services shifted from university to company, for CS alone, and $40M-$50M for multiple STEM disciplines. The addressable market for lower division STEM is $1B textbooks and $2B expanded services. The project's approach provides a practical strategy, with individual instructors initially adopting the content as a textbook replacement for campus-based or online classes, followed by possible expanded service arrangements made with departments/universities.
The Phase I project resulted in a powerful novel web-based authoring platform to create what we call a zyBook: webnative interactive learning content, including less text and more animations, question sets, autograded homeworks, tools for exploring and understanding STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) concepts. The platform is in use and supports the proposed new publishing paradigm. Zyante's STEM materials were developed or have been ported to the new platform: Programming in C, C++, Java, Python, MATLAB, Programming Embedded Systems and Discrete Math. As was proposed, an initial community of contributors (from UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, Univ. of Arizona, Univ. of Oklahoma, Univ. of Illinois) has used the platform to develop new material, and about a dozen others (graduate and undergraduate students, and contractors) have simultaneously improved the content via the platform. In summary, the Phase 1 project met and exceeded its objectives. 1) It validated the market need for webbased animated, interactive learning material for STEM. Zyante's zyBooks gained market acceptance and received excellent feedback. Over 10,000 students across 50 universties and colleges subscribed to zyBooks for lower division computer science courses. They used zyBooks as a more effective and lower cost alternative to traditional textbooks. 2) The overarching Phase I goal was to enable collaborative authoring of interactive content via the web, involving a core authoring/editing team, plus the community of instructors and other users. As stated above, this goal was successfully met. Zyante's Authoring Tools were successfully used by several authors to develop zyBooks for lower division computer science. Authors work in collaborative teams with designers, developers and other subjectmatter contributors. This notion of collaborative authoring was extended to the idea of crowdsourcing content. 3) In order to crowdsource animations, Zyante developed a web-based animation tool (ZYAnimator) which will be integrated in the Authoring Tools. The webbased animation tool is easy to use, does not require any download or installation, and is specifically intended to animate concepts in the STEM disciplines. ZYAnimator was prototyped and utilized in user studies to demonstrate the feasibility of crowdsourcing content. 4) Zyante also developed a question set creation tool, which was shown to be very useful. It is popular among authors. Students can also use it to create their own question sets, and to evaluate each others' question sets too. The tool forms an excellent foundation for continued experimentation and content development. Additionally, Zyante conducted several user studies which demonstrate that students show significant improvements in learning outcomes when using zyBooks as opposed to using traditional textbooks. In one such study, 128 students from UC Riverside's CS10 Introduction to Programming class were invited to participate in a randomized, controlled study. Each student was randomly assigned to either a section from Zyante's material on Programming in C++ on a specific topic that was yet to be studied in class, or to sections from a leading textbook on C++ on the same topic. Each student was given a pretest, and then he/she spent approximately 15 to 30 minutes learning the topic. The student was then given a posttest and a short survey in which to rank their engagement. The results were striking. While on average, the improvement score (score on posttest minus the score on pretest) was 16% higher for zyBook users, students in the lowest quartile had a 64% higher improvement score. Results from these user studies showing the positive impact of animated, interactive STEM learning material on learning outcomes received a best paper award at the ASEE (American Society of Engineering Educators) annual conference held in June 2014. The paper is titled: Effectiveness of Online Textbooks vs. Interactive WebNative Content. Authors: Frank Vahid and Alex Edgcomb. Zyante is now continuing to develop and commercialize the platform. zyBooks continue to grow in market share and as of September 2014, over 150 universities are using zyBooks in undergraduate computer science and engineering classes.