Online Text-Based Course Content Best Practices

Online education can be a satisfying experience which allows users to learn while managing multiple work and life responsibilities. It is the preferred option for many, and for some a good and perhaps the only alternative for continued development. However, the online environment can also be difficult for learning because of its inherent complexity.

Online education can be a satisfying experience which allows users to learn while managing multiple work and life responsibilities. It is the preferred option for many, and for some a good and perhaps the only alternative for continued development. However, the online environment can also be difficult for learning because of its inherent complexity. The learning management system in itself usually comes with its own learning curve, but beyond that, the course’s overall structure, the access to individualized learning resources, and navigational logic all add to the long list of possible learning barriers.

When tackling the subject of online course effectiveness, text-based content is a good place to start. All too often, ill-prepared instructors dump the content of their face-to-face classes into the online course shell, or attach existing text-heavy content such as handouts to the course modules, both being improper approaches. Even linking to a web site can be inadequate when the web pages are built of non-interactive text or with non-intuitive navigation. But beyond that, research such as Garland and Noyes’s work (2004) shows that students have a harder time transferring knowledge from on-screen text compared to learning from the same paper-based text. Partially, this is due to the eye not locking onto words the same way in the two different mediums, but it is also partially due to instructors not applying best practices when using text-based content in online courses.

Simple tactics such as those that follow can help improve the readability of our online courses. First, there is the aspect of white spaces, meaning the white screen areas that are located between content elements. Using sufficient white space helps reduce the feel of clutter on the screen and naturally guides the learner’s eye to the essential material sections. Second, whenever possible, it is a best practice to set attachments and online content to open up in a new window and avoid overly long pages to reduce scrolling. Next is the alignment of the text which should be set to left, unless it is to draw attention to it or for a heading or title. Backgrounds should always use solid, light colors and text color should contrast well with the background for easy readability. In general, most text should be dark, and when color is used, attention should be given to the way colors are perceived. Finally, font typefaces and styles are to be chosen carefully, and be set, at a minimum of 12 points in size. Wider characters, such as Arial, are generally easier to follow on the screen than narrow fonts. Also, underlining should be removed to avoid confusion with hyperlinks, and bold faces and italics should be used sparingly to effectively bring the reader’s attention to a specific content area.

Read more about online text best practices at http://campustechnology.com/Articles/2013/03/13/8-Considerations-for-Online-Text.aspx, at http://www.usability.gov/government/guidelines/index.html or at http://www.iraqtimeline.com/maxdesign/basicdesign/principles/prinformat.html.


Reflect: Take a minute to reflect on your own practice…

  • Do you currently teach in an online environment or supplement your in-person classes with online resources?
  • Does your text-based online course content follow the best practices mentioned above?
  • Are there additional opportunities to improve the accessibility and readability of your online text-based course?

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