Text is a much-maligned medium in online learning. But after giving some advice on writing text for screens and writing the perfect multiple choice question. let's evaluate text itself. Content is often criticised for being little more than electronic page turning or too text-heavy. However, much online learning, especially simple knowledge and procedural learning, may demand no more than a simple text or text and graphics approach. There are many reasons why text is learner friendly:
1. We read quickly
Practised readers read at the rate of about 300 words per minute. This is roughly twice the speed of normal speech and recorded narration can be even slower. The reason for this is that the grammar and meaning in written text is far more compressed in written text, than in speech. Written text tends to eliminate redundancy such as false starts, repetition, hesitation and asides. This has a considerable impact on the rate at which a learner will learn.
2. Text gives learners control
Just as important is the fact that learners can read at their own pace. This is fundamental to comprehension and retention. Readers optimise their reading pace to extract meaning and often stop to repeat, reflect, skip and digest information. This is important in building internal models and relating new knowledge to existing knowledge. Reading is in this sense can be more learner-centric than continuous flow media such as audio, animation and video. The web is a user-centric medium. Users object to control being taken away from them through pop-up ads and long video ads at the start of videos and websites. The web is fundamentally text driven, not because of limited bandwidth, but because users want to be in the driving seat.
3. Text leaves room for imagination
A well-written piece of fiction or non-fiction leaves the learner to create images, reflections and possibilities, unpolluted by sounds and pictures supplied by others. It keeps the imagination free to create appropriate thoughts in learning and doesn’t clutter learning up with inappropriate noise. Text is personal, which is why books are so dearly loved. Many sophisticated learners prefer straight text delivery as they can read at their own pace, re-read for understanding and get absorbed in the structural or narrative flow. Academic learners are well versed in learning from academic papers and often resent the packaging of learning in over-elaborate multimedia formats. In other words, there are some audiences for whom text alone can be sufficient.
4. Text is flexible
From the information perspective, a way at looking at the organisation of content’s structure, text is a powerful medium. The information architect Saul Wurman claims there are only five ways to structure information, using the mnemonic LATCH:
- Location – place, maps etc.
- Alphabet – dictionary, index, glossary etc.
- Time – timeline, storylines etc.
- Category – themes, lists etc.
- High and low – menus, numbered lists
Note that the alphabetic presentation of content in indexes, glossaries, lists, menus, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and so on, is a feature of text itself. Rich story lines can also be text driven along with categories, themes, etc. In other words, information of many kinds is often best represented in text. We should not ignore the sheer extensive, subtle and sophisticated ways in which text quite simply gets the job done.
5. Text is searchable
Searchability is another simple but profound quality of text. The web is the web because of text. Google only works because of the ability of computers to handle and sift through strings of text. Text is eminently searchable and it is this searchability that gives us unique access to the web, now the largest learning resource on the planet. Even searches for other media are largely mediated by text tagging.
6. Text is linkable
As we know from Wikipedia and other well-used learning resources, the humble hyperlink is a powerful means of navigation. It is also a powerful aid to learning, allowing elaboration, further exploration and revision. The web is built on linking as it is this that gives us control of our own learning, allowing us to navigate and access personalized paths more suited to our own learning.
7. Needs simple skills and tools
Reading and writing, despite obvious problems with literacy, even in advanced societies, are still widespread skills. In most jobs we expect the employee to be able to read and write. It is also commonplace to be able to use a word processor. Within this tool, text is easy to manipulate, spell check, grammar check and format. Specialist knowledge in the production of the medium is not necessary. In this sense, production in terms of the tools is easy and cheap. This is not to say that writing good content is easy. Good writing, especially instructional writing, is difficult and painful. It needs to be done by practised professionals. There’s a world of difference between the skills needed to operate a word processor and those involved in writing a novel, similarly in online learning. The fact remains that in terms of online learning, text is a medium that trainers, teachers, lecturers, instructional writers and subject matter experts know well. It is the easiest medium for learning professionals to deal with and produce. Therefore, in terms of resources, tools and skills, text works well.
8. Requires low bandwidth
Text is so insignificantly small in file size that it is hardly worth worrying about. Audio, graphics, animation and video are far more bandwidth hungry. Neither does it require special plug-ins such as audio players or video players. This is important in terms of access, as one of the major barriers to e-learning is the lack of bandwidth and poor technical infrastructure. Text is easy to get to learners.
9. Easy to update
Text is also easy to update. Changing a text file requires little in the way of technical knowledge or specialist tools. Changing one word on a piece of voiceover can involve getting and expensive voiceover artist in, recording the new audio file, using specialist audio tools, getting the sound levels right and getting it programmed back into the original online learning programme at the right volume level. Graphics requires specialist skills in both design and the use of graphics tools, and animation or video can be even more complicated and expensive to redo and edit. The simplicity of updatable text is a real virtue.
10. Text is ubiquitous
Remember that many learners complete entire degree courses with little more than text resources in the form of papers and books. The success of books as a medium, even in this electronic age, is staggering. Even online, Wikipedia and other massively successful services, such as email, Twitter and Facebook are still fundamentally text-driven.
Text has more going for it than many people imagine. It should not be written off as dull until its many advantages have been understood. Text can be read quickly, read at the learner’s own pace, be subtle, sophisticated, flexible and searchable. It needs simple skills and tools to produce, requires low bandwidth and is easy to update. It is used in menus, in other navigational features such as text, on tabs presentation, captions, feedback, instructions, help, glossaries and in many other components in online learning. On the other hand there are significant audiences for whom text may cause problems. Text may be unsuitable for audiences that have low educational standards, low levels of literacy, visual impairment, have English as a second language or are simply not used to reading large amounts of text. Of couse, text on its own is rarely adequate for entire online learning programmes. It usually has to be to be supplemented by audio, graphics, animation and video to make the learning palatable and improve the learning in itself.