Teacher-Created e-Textbooks: A Brave New World At Mercersburg Academy
It’s a boarding school surrounded by mountains, where teachers of ancient prophecy, history, potions, and calculation provide magical textbooks that they create themselves. Not Hogwarts, but Mercersburg Academy, an independent college preparatory school in south-central Pennsylvania where teachers are harnessing the power of 21st-century tools to create the textbooks they have always wanted, tailor-made to suit their students and their courses.
Using the Apple program iBooks Author, teachers at Mercersburg have created a suite of 22 e-textbooks — as far as they know, more than any other secondary school in the country — spanning disciplines from Latin to Robotics, American History to Algebra II. Five more interactive texts are tentatively slated to join the virtual library next fall.
Mercersburg teachers are enthusiastic about what they can do with textbooks they have created themselves. “The eBook revolutionized my class,” comments Academic Dean Julia Maurer, the driving force behind the eBooks initiative. “I had been teaching Robotics for four years but developing my own textbook has enabled my students to move through and master the material at their own speed. The resulting new format of class time means I can spend more time with students who need help learning a concept. The e-book allows me to incorporate more support for students, such as explanatory videos my students can access outside of class, whenever they need it.”
Mercersburg teachers have designed each textbook to help students readily engage with the material. Some texts make use of embedded video and audio features, some include animated graphs, and many incorporate links to outside source materials that give context to the passage being read. Most include assessment features like vocabulary quizzes, and also allow students to contact a teacher with a question or join in on a class discussion right from their textbooks. The free books are downloaded as needed onto the iPads required of every Mercersburg student.
The eBooks initiative launched shortly after the school made the iPad its universal digital platform for every teacher and student in 2011. “The iPad gives teachers a great deal of flexibility when they know that every student has access to the same device and a common set of apps,” explains Maurer. “Students can have their textbooks, planners, classroom notes, videos, pictures of classroom demonstrations, and a research tool all in one lightweight package. When you visit our classes, you can see how much more efficient, student-centered and collaborative our classrooms are becoming as a result of this new technology.”
Tom Thorne, Latin teacher, David F. Chapman Chair of Classical and Modern Languages, and author of three e-textbooks, finds his eBooks support the “flipped classroom,” a popular approach to blended learning that moves the presentation of information, such as lectures, to the homework sphere via video and other interactive features. This shift leaves class time free for the deeper explanation of concepts and exploration of context. “Rather than listen to one student work his way through a passage in class,” he explains, “I can check in on how all of my students are doing via the assessment tools in our eBooks, and then spend class time explaining the grammar and giving them the tools they need to solve the problems in their way.”
Thorne also appreciates the adaptability of the eBooks. “Creating your own textbooks using these digital tools allows us to constantly improve the books in a way that is not possible with a static text. You can match your text to the way you teach. You can strip away content you don’t think is important and include what you think will pay dividends for students in the future. The emphasis in my class is to encourage fluidity in reading Latin. By incorporating dictionary entries, highlighting specialized vocabulary, and explaining references to the cultural world my students are reading about, right in the text, it keeps the focus on reading without the constant interruption of looking up a word or a reference.”
After just two years of teaching through his own textbook, Thorne is already seeing positive changes. “My students are reading faster and moving through material more quickly, and this year we received our highest scores ever on the National Latin Exam.”
To learn more, please visit www.mercersburg.edu and click on the “E-Books Project” icon. To receive access to examples of Mercersburg Academy’s suite of eBooks, please contact Luise Moskowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org. Books must be viewed using the iBooks app on an Apple tablet device.