Tuesday, December 08, 2015

10 text layout FAILS in online learning

Text is tricky. Looks easy but on screen it is so easy to make it difficult to read, even unreadable. You have to keep a cool head and resist the temptation to make it glitzy, noisy and ‘cool’ in favour of the clipped, readable and comprehensible. This tension between 'look' and 'literacy' is real, and needs balance, but you can make things look great and readable at the same time. That’s real design.
1. More than three fonts
Use fonts with great care. Two is best, three at the most. This keeps the design consistent, which readers expect. Every font change needs a cognitive jump, so minimise these transitions and use fonts to signify headings versus body text and so on. Think of a book, newspaper or any piece of good published material - they use fonts sparingly - so should you.
2. Coloured text
The most readable text is black on a white background. This is why 99.9% of books and newspapaers are black ink on white paper. The brain needs the highest possible contrast to read fast and well. So try to avoid coloured text. Above all, avoid text on coloured backgrounds and especially coloured texts on coloured backgrounds. Take a measured approach, as it can make the content look like an explosion in a paint factory. Sure, there may be exceptions, in children's learning experiences and so on but they are only exceptions because there's a rule.
3. Text on backgrounds
Text placed directly on top of a patterned or photographic background is often hard to read. When the background interferes with the foreground text, the brain finds it more difficult to apply its foreground-background interpretation, making it slower to read and understand. This is a common failing in online learning, a confusion between style and substance.
4. Centred text
Centred text is more difficult to read than left justified text, takes longer to read and therefore brings in problems of cognitive overload. Readers tend to read the lines separately and not the sentences, reducing the speed of understanding.
There’s good reasons for almost all text in books, newspapers and magazines being left (sometimes left and right) justified. Left justified text is easier and quicker to read. It is also easier to understand. It doesn’t matter if your graphic artist says, “it looks nicer”. They’re not the ones who have to do the reading.
5. Capitalised text
6. Fancy effects
Do you have your text t y p i n g l e t t e r b y l e t t e r on to the screen? Is it flying in from top, bottom, left and right? Is it rotating or flipping? Resist the temptation to make text move. This just annoys the hell out of learners. Keep it stable.
7. Overlong column width
When text is displayed in many VLEs and LMSs, such as Blackboard, it can appear as simply word-wrapped in a box that extends right across the entire screen. There’s a reason newspapers, magazines and books don’t do this. It looks awful and is difficult to read.
8. Large blocks of text
Huge undifferentiated blocks of text are not only difficult to read, as they encourage more scanning, they are also more difficult to understand. Written language took centuries to evolve and chunk down into chapters, paragraphs, sentences and words, for a reason. Use this linguistic ‘chunking’ to best effect. Cut text down into meaningful and short paragraphs. In learning, 'chunking' is an important cognitive principle, as, in order to learn, less is often more.
9. Long sentences
Screen text is more difficult to read, so check for long sentences and try to break them down. Sentence length is the great enemy of on-screen reading, far more fatal than on the written page. The bottom line with text is that it needs to be edited down for screens. Text for print is rarely suitable for the screen, as it’s harder to read on backlit screens.
10. Spelling and punctuation
For some reason, people are ultra-sensitive to even the occasional spelling or punctuation error in online leaning. They will dismiss an entire course on the back of the simplest of text errors. So spellcheck everything, proofread everything and when the graphic artist types stuff on the screen into a graphic, take extra care. I’m sure you spotted the ‘leaning/learning’ mistake – made you stop – no?
You may be thinking - do people really make these mistakes. Believe me - they do. All of the above rules can, of course, be broken, on occasion. Talking about the flipped classroom, flip the word classroom – that’s memorable. Centred titles, at times, may be better. Typing words onto the screen may be appropriate if you’re copying something being typed. On the whole, however, these rules are rules for good reason. They should only be broken when the act of breaking the rule is the point.
There's more!
Top ten tips in top ten topics in online learning:
10 ways to make badass INTROs in online learning 
10 bloody good reasons for using much-maligned TEXT in online learning 
10 essential online learning WRITING TIPS in online learning 
10 stupid mistakes in design of MULTIPLE CHOICE questions
10 essential points on use of (recall not recognition) OPEN RESPONSE questions
10 rules on how to create great GRAPHICS in online learning 
10 sound pieces of advice on use of AUDIO in onlinelearning 
10 ways based on research to use VIDEO in online learning
10 ideas on use of much maligned TALKING HEAD videos in online learning


Anonymous said...

Helpful! There’s a typo in 10. Spelling and punctuation. Unless you meant to say online leaning?

Donald Clark said...

Deliberate -see later explanation.