Collaborative Faculty E-Textbook Authoring for Mastery Learning

min read

Key Takeaways

  • When the textbook changed for a language course at the University of Southern California, instructors piloted creating a new textbook themselves, starting with the last portion of the course.
  • Because paper management was an issue and instructors needed to print out and photocopy numerous handouts, the director of language instruction decided that the best solution would be a collaboratively-authored electronic textbook.
  • Deciding on the best format and creating document templates were key to the project's success, as was organizing the writing and proofing of the e-book's 13 chapters.
  • Among the lessons learned on this project was that the desire for a better learning experience — not the technology to facilitate it — is the main driver of innovation.

Edward R. O'Neill is a senior consultant for Learning Design and Technology, and Atiyeh Showrai is director of the French Language Program, University of Southern California.

French 220, also known as French III, is a third-semester language and culture course that fulfills the undergraduate foreign-language requirement at the University of Southern California (USC). The course meets four days a week for fifteen weeks.

When a new edition of the course textbook was issued, it was different enough to cause the teaching staff to discuss replacing it with something they authored themselves. Not yet ready to take that plunge, the director of the Basic Language Program (and co-author here), Atiyeh Showrai, suggested starting with something smaller.

So, combining what used to be their "handouts," six third-semester French instructors created a workbook, or "cahier d'activités." In short, they decided an e-textbook for the last five weeks of the course could serve as a pilot for a whole-course faculty-authored e-textbook. Students complete the workbook exercises in class, at home, and sometimes immediately after class to remedy any discovered deficiencies or move to the next level. They can print the entire e-textbook or use it on almost any device or operating system. The result is more self-directed students and fewer pieces of wasted paper.

French III students discuss their mobile study habits — and the downsides of regular textbooks (1:46 minutes).

The Context: French 220

French III typically consists of 10 or more sections of 19 students each. Sections are taught by full-time lecturers and graduate students. To ensure the program's overall quality and that its students meet the standards and learning objectives set by the university and by the American Council of Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), the sections are standardized: all sections use the same teaching method, syllabi, written assignments, and tests.

The department's approach to teaching French is to make the experience as rich, contextual, and culturally specific as possible. This approach develops students' linguistic proficiency and cultural competency simultaneously. USC's introductory French courses do not teach dry grammatical exercises separated from purpose, meaning, and life; all activities are communicative, contextualized, and function-based.

This pedagogy address the Five C's of the ACTFL national standards: communication, culture, comparisons, connections, and communities:

  • Students communicate in a foreign language by conversing, expressing ideas, sharing information, and so on.
  • Students gain knowledge and demonstrate an understanding of other cultures and perspectives.
  • Students compare linguistic mechanisms and cultures.
  • Students connect, reinforce, and further their knowledge of other disciplines through their study of French; they grasp distinctive viewpoints of other disciplines that are only available through the study of the French language and culture.
  • Students use French to join communities beyond the school setting: they become life-long learners by attending French cultural events (cinema, art exhibits, lectures, conferences, restaurants, etc.), creating reading groups, following the news online in French, etc.

All Five C's are blended holistically throughout French III, but they also converge strongly during the last five weeks of the course. Those weeks are dedicated to studying a single literary work: Albert Camus's famous novel L'Etranger (The Stranger). L'Etranger is the first substantial literary work USC French students read in its entirety; in prior coursework, they read only poems and 2–3 page excerpts from longer literary prose and press articles. With L'Etranger, instructors are interested in giving the students a thoughtful and enjoyable experience of French literature, one of the jewels of France's rich cultural history.


An e-textbook used during the L'Etranger unit of the course had to solve a number of problems: orient students towards a complex literary and cultural work, tame a flurry of pieces of paper, and meet the needs of a large group of students with heterogeneous skills and needs.

French III students discuss L'Etranger (1:09 minutes)


L'Etranger fits well into the overall pedagogical goals of French III, as the novel concerns France's colonial history, the Algerian struggle for independence, existentialist philosophy, the death penalty, and the justice system. It provides an introduction to literary analysis and close-reading techniques that develop critical thinking skills.

The fact that this final segment of French III lacked a formal textbook had been a long-standing challenge to coordinating instruction. Instructors prepared their own handouts and ancillary material, which were disparate enough to create a pedagogical concern for the lead instructor. Further, although there was a common final exam and instructors knew what students would be tested on, students reported feeling somewhat lost without a formal text and at times "shortchanged" when comparing sections.

French III students explain the downsides of paper handouts (1:46 minutes).

Managing Pieces of Paper

Instructors guided students toward learning goals orally and through the use of printed handouts. But neither the instructors nor the students found paper handouts particularly convenient:

  • The instructors had to make the copies.
  • Students often lost the handouts or were sometimes absent, which meant that the instructors had to keep copies of almost all handouts with them.
  • With one to several handouts each day, four days a week, the paper piled up quickly.

In short, French III had all the familiar organizational issues that crop up in handling paper documents.

Heterogeneous Student Preparation

The population of USC's French courses is heterogeneous. Some students have taken French I and II at USC, while others took French I and II in high school or at another college and entered French III via the placement exam. Further, some students grew up in or had spent time in a French-speaking culture, while others have never conversed with native speakers.

Given this disparate preparation, the diverse skills that students develop in French III (speaking, comprehension, reading, and literary analysis) vary enormously from student to student. One student might be good at speaking but weak on comprehension, whereas another might read well but have trouble producing a grammatically-correct utterance. As a result, diagnosis is essentially non-stop. The instructor is constantly determining both where individual students are and where the class as a whole is on different skills. The instructor can then make individualized recommendations. But when there is no textbook, it's difficult to point the student to resources, whether remedial or advanced.

The Solution

It was essential that students be able to print pages from the e-textbook, so they could write on the pages and turn them in for feedback. The director therefore decided that a collaboratively authored electronic textbook would solve many problems:

French III students discuss how a pdf e-textbook met their needs (3:14 minutes).

  • An e-textbook would provide a unified pedagogical framework across sections.
  • Handouts would be eliminated and assignments would instead be combined and refined into the e-textbook — a single "super-handout."
  • The fatiguing aspects of handouts (arising from instructor control of the documents) would be eliminated. Students could print whichever pages of the e-textbook they liked, whenever they liked, as often as they desired or needed.
  • Exercises would integrate grammatical issues with real speaking and writing situations, as well as literary issues — all geared towards the ACTFL standards.
  • Finally, diagnosis and additional work could be centralized in one resource that students could carry with them.

The solution also supported the French III faculty in pursuing mastery learning: the instructor ensures competence and supports proficiency, so the students can pursue mastery.1 Students can now do comprehension exercises and compare their answers to an answer key before class, then come to class knowing where they stand. During class discussions, instructors determine the group's competence level and pursue activities to provide practice where it's most needed. Once students have the basic competence with the linguistic functions and textual comprehension, the instructor can move to exercises that improve proficiency and deepen literary understanding. After class, students can use the e-textbook to pursue areas where they are either weak or want to study further.

Technology Options and Choices

Instructional technologist (and co-author here) Edward R. O'Neill provided a framework and support for the project by

  • gathering the requirements,
  • offering the instructors clear options,
  • presenting working methods to supplement the tool options,
  • helping set up the basic tools, and
  • providing support when problems arose.

Format Options

E-books have many formats, and the choice of format proved critical. Because of the popularity of the iPad and the Kindle, instructors and students alike are aware of both devices, and it was tempting to author for these formats. Tools that author to multiple formats, however, tend to be complex and have a steep learning curve.

O'Neill also gave the French III instructors information about e-book file formats and their related consumption platforms and devices, and authoring tools, including which file format each tool could create, their various features and limitations, and their learning curves. The choice was then up to the instructors.

The .ibook and .kindle formats have the convenience of being able to resize the text, which flows from page to page. But this feature was not desirable for handouts, because reflowing a handout would change the page layout, and printing was of paramount importance to instructors.

In the end, neither the .ibook nor the .kindle format proved desirable for a very simple reason: given their existence as a platform for selling commercial volumes, neither of these popular formats allows for robust printing. With the iPad, it's possible to take a screenshot of a single page and print it as a photograph, but this workaround is clumsy, and most students are puzzled by the notion of treating a document as an image for the purposes of printing. Further, at the time of the project, .ibook files could be read only on an iOS device –– an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch — which not all students owned or could access. (Now, iBooks can be consumed on Mac OS X, but not all students own Mac OS X hardware.)

Because it was unreasonable to assume that all students would be using the same device (laptop, tablet, or smartphone), the best choice was the BYOD option in which students could use whatever device they needed, whenever and wherever they wanted.

French III instructors thus chose the Adobe Acrobat (pdf) format as the only viable option for their goals and constraints:

  • Printouts look exactly like the screen version, so the instructor-author can lay out the page with enough space for students to fill in short answers.
  • Chapter headings and subheadings are bookmarked for easy access.
  • Students can print a single page or the entire workbook.
  • Students can read the pdf in iBooks on iOS devices, or wherever needed.

For authoring, Microsoft Word was chosen because the instructors were familiar with it, and it presented no technical challenges. Word's pdf output does not contain live hyperlinks, so O'Neill added the single live link using software not readily accessible to the instructors.


Making the vision of an e-textbook a reality required a few steps that were largely organizational: creating a systematic chapter structure and a set of styles, organizing a workflow for creating and circulating drafts, versioning, proofing, and distributing the resulting documents.

Getting Organized

To get started, the French III instructors met once during the spring semester. They completed the rest of the work over the summer, largely off-site. The team consisted of Nathalie Burle, Julia Chamberlain, Paulette Chandler, Colin Keaveney, and Julie Nack Ngue.

The lead instructor devised the overall scheme of 13 chapters, which included an introduction, 11 book chapters, and a conclusion. Each book chapter is divided into three sections: comprehension, application, and discussion. Each section has activities of varying difficulty for instructors to choose from.

Instructors created a single template document with the desired sections, headings, fonts, and so on. The instructors copied the document and renamed each file to indicate the chapter and version number. The instructor in charge of each chapter then either cut-and-pasted an existing exercise, combined existing exercises, or created new ones, and then placed them in the template.

Conventions about folders and file names clearly identified the chapters, drafts, and finished products.

Sharing Files

An instructional technologist (Carl Kuzmich) helped orient the instructors to Dropbox and solve problems (such as when Dropbox temporarily refused to sync files). The instructors used Dropbox to collect their teaching materials (largely handouts). All instructors contributed whatever exercises they liked.

The Editorial Process

Each instructor was in charge of two chapters and decided what would go into those chapters. If more than one exercise covered similar material, the instructor in charge of those chapters would choose which to use. Each chapter was proofed by two instructors. Each time a chapter was proofed, additional errors were found, so a final proofing of the entire workbook by the director was deemed necessary. Where discrete answers were possible, the instructor editing the chapter created an answer key for that chapter. Each answer key was proofed in the same way as the chapters.

Also, not all text that was cut-and-pasted into place had the right formatting, so the most time-consuming part of the process was applying standardized formatting throughout the 13 chapters. (The lead instructor did this work.)

Export, Assembly, and Distribution

The 13 chapters were exported from Microsoft Word to pdf. Adobe Acrobat X Pro (Windows) proved a simple way to combine the documents into one — it was essentially drag-and-drop. The lead instructor also used Acrobat X Pro to create a detailed table of contents, though this required a bit of support because Acrobat X Pro's way of indenting subheadings is quirky.

The resulting pdf was shared in the university's Blackboard 9 learning management system. Instructors release answer keys to individual students as the course progresses.


Although no specific evaluation was undertaken, instructor observation and informal feedback from the students to the instructors suggests that both groups are pleased with the results.

French III students explain why an instructor-authored e-textbook makes sense to them (1:30 minutes).

  • Students have a clearer understanding of what's expected of them, and they can be more self-directed in their learning.
  • Instructors have a large repertoire of in-class activities, as well as additional tailored material they can assign to individual students.
  • The instructors report that final exam performance seems improved over prior years.
  • In addition, the French III instructors feel an added sense of community, having spent time together discussing pedagogical issues and pursuing a project that requires teamwork and consensus-building.

The editorial workflow for collaboratively authoring the French III e-textbook has become a template for subsequent pedagogical projects –– such as assembling audiovisual materials for in-class use across the entire semester, rather than just five of the last six weeks.

Principles and Takeaways

The problems that lead to learning technology interventions might be circumstantial, but the solutions are primarily pedagogical.

It was a matter of circumstance that USC's French III faculty considered adopting a new textbook –– and hence decided to explore the possibility of writing their own. But all the conditions bearing on the technological solution were about teaching and learning, how to manage them best, and how to adapt to the realities of the learners and the instructors.

The insight that emerges is: technology cannot be the star attraction but rather must be a featured player at best.

  • Technology can bring about new conveniences, but the main driver is a better learning experience.
  • The technology is just a means, a support, and a platform for pedagogy. Technology should therefore be as simple and lightweight as possible.
  • The solution should not overwhelm the goal. A sledghammer isn't needed when you just need to tack down a carpet; complexity might be fun for those with a technical mind, but users appreciate simplicity.
  • Plug-and-play is not a passing fad. Unless you're supplying everyone with the same equipment, technologies that function across systems will always have an edge.
  • Beneath and around the technology is a workflow. We can't expect the technology to do everything. The skills and motivation of the people using the technology must be taken into account. Microsoft Word can produce stylish or messy results, and Dropbox can be chaotic and disorganized or fluid and simple — it all depends on how you use them. Clear rules and roles (in this case, conventions for formatting and file naming) are not required by the technologies, but they facilitate the process.
  • Learning technology depends upon the willingness of those using it. In the kingdom of the slacker, the organized and motivated individual is king.

Finally, technology doesn't do the work: human beings do. Textbooks don't write themselves. Instructor handouts don't jump from our filing cabinets into an e-textbook. Motivation, discipline, and organization are required to bring any multistep process to fruition.


1. Benjamin Bloom, "The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring," Educational Researcher, vol. 13, no. 6, 1984.