Week 4: Text (Winter 2023 Webster)


Let’s start this week by reading a story from Socrates, in conversation with Phaedrus, as recounted by Plato in Phaedrus:

The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.  (Plato, trans. 1925, pp. 247e, 275a, 275b)

Here is an education thought leader who rails against educational technology, circa 360 B.C.E. No matter what the innovation, there will be a risk that the easy path presented can lead to poorly designed learning, and learners who struggle to meet course objectives. Is Socrates supporting rote learning? Or, is he concerned about superficial learning without the rigour of discourse? His argument above could be applied to many online courses today.

Text is the first media used in teaching and learning, and it is the first technology to stand between the teacher and student. Text also enables teaching and learning over time and across distance. While text is familiar, it is the composition of the narrative that is often emphasized while the design of the text can be an afterthought. Like other forms of media, the intentional design of text, in accordance with research-based principles, supports effective learning. This week we are not concerned with the actual narrative or exposition that you would select or create to support learning; rather, we will look at the design elements of presenting text to learners in an online environment.

When we write, the text is presented as words in a row forming sentences and paragraphs, but words are also titles, headers, and lists. In other ways text signifies more than its semantic or literal meaning. This non-narrative element to text—the choices around headings, font, bullets, and placement—make-up the visual rhetoric of text.

This week is an opportunity to introduce the concept of accessibility, a subject that will have relevance in many weeks to come. The digital nature of online learning puts educators one step closer on the road to ensuring accessibility and utilizing universal design for learning in courses, but that slight head-start can be squandered if it is forgotten.

Learning Outcomes

When you have completed this week, you should be able to:

  • Design and configure text for learning.
  • Develop text boxes, headers, and other textual elements for learning.
  • Create accessible text.
  • Evaluate web pages for visual accessibility.

Topic 1: Text for Learning

There are several resources to consult when making design decisions around text for learning. In this course we can apply some of the principles from Mayer that we learned in Week 2, and we can apply the findings of research from a variety of fields. There are two important takeaways from this topic:

  1. There are research-based guidelines to the design of textual elements like titles, headings, and text boxes that will increase communication effectiveness.
  2. There are design issues around text for a narrative or exposition where research points to best practices.

In your role as a teacher you will have control over the placement and formatting of some text elements, but in other cases you will have to work with the styles enforced by a learning management system (LMS) or content management system (CMS). Even in these situations, you may have an ability to provide input on the styles used in the system.

Activity 1: Readings

Read The Brain on Books: What the neuroscience of reading can tell us about reading on screens (Cohn, 2021).

How might the issues raised in this chapter impact the ability of your students to read online? How would you change your teaching practice to support effective online reading by your students? If your students are very young, try addressing these questions in relation to an older cohort of students.

Read Keep eLearning Readable or Don’t Bother Using Text at All (Gutierrez, 2014).

As you read this article, consider one or two tips that could make a difference in the way you use online text for learning. How would you improve the effectiveness of your text?

Now read “Text Design for Online Learning,” which is a lesson from EDDL 5131 Multimedia in the Curriculum (Webster, 2018).

This post tries to offer a quick, coherent introduction to the most important elements of text design for learning. What elements of organization (headers, lists, etc.) could you use better in your own online materials?

Activity 2: Information Architecture

In this activity you will create a structure that maximizes readability of the following text, which has been modified from the Wikipedia page on moose. (No peeking at the current format of that page!)

  1. First, review the content in the file “Moose” (2019, CC BY-SA 3.0) with an eye to creating a single web page about the Moose. Rearrange the content as seems logical to you, and then use any or all of these tactics create a more effective presentation of the information:
    • different levels of headers
    • bulleted lists
    • callouts
    • bold or italicized text

You can drop some of the content and rewrite some as well. You may also want to try creating a table of contents at the top of your page that links to the sections within it.

Create a version of the text that maximizes readability and emphasizes the most important information based on your understanding of text design.

  1. Second, share your finished web page as a portfolio post or a document linked from a portfolio post. In a reflective paragraph or two (kept distinct from your formatted content), describe the process you used for organizing the content, differentiating it on the page, and highlighting sections or important elements, etc.

Also, include how you believe your formatted text uses best practices and research-supported strategies for effective communication. There is no single right solution for this activity, but some responses will be better than others. Go around to other submissions and see what others have done. Lastly, (if you must) go to Wikipedia’s Moose page to see how they organized it (not that they have all the answers either).

Your Open Learning Faculty Member will provide feedback on your formatted text to help you improve its impact on learning.

Activity 3: Font Comparisons

There are several tools available to quickly try different fonts and other text formatting options to see how they will display. Experiment with Font Comparer to compare a few different font selections. Beware of the sneaky advertisement in the middle of the page, the comparer tool is at the top. Identify a few fonts that you would consider for lengthy paragraph text, and some fonts that would be useful for headers or to draw attention to elements of a page.

Use Designer Plaything to experiment with some of the other text formatting choices, and consider how and when you might need to modify the formatting on a site for students.

If you wish, create a portfolio post describing what you’ve found. It’s completely optional.

Topic 2: Accessibility to Text

Accessibility issues in text typically relate to one of two issues: the perceivability of text, and the understandability of text.

Understandibility: this relates to the reading skills of the learners as compared to the language (vocabulary, complexity, cultural bias etc.) found in the text. Text may be at an inappropriate grade level for your learners, or it may be unsuitable for English language learners. This is a pedagogical design issue; sometimes you need to push your learners to improve their reading skills. We won’t address this issue here, as it is better considered within the subject material.

Perceivability: this is the ability of learners to see and decode the text as observed on the online platform. There are many elements of online text display that will be explored this week.

Activity 4: Readings

Read the section “Text Display and Screen Layout” in this report from NorQuest College (Brokop, 2008, pp. 19–23). The content is a little old (e.g., the types of screen readers are not all available anymore, and others are now prominent), but it does a good job of laying out the basic considerations for developing online text that is accessible.

Watch the video Simply Said: Understanding Accessibility in Digital Learning Materials on YouTube (National Center on Accessible Educational Materials, 2015).

Activity 5: Apply the WCAG Accessibility Guidelines to an Online Resource

In the Simply Said video, the four WCAG guidelines for accessibility in online resources were explained. Try applying these guidelines against an existing online resource—either one you have used or one that could be a good fit for your teaching practice.

Write a short portfolio post explaining how you found the resource to measure up against each guideline. Take a look at the posts of other students, and comment or reply as appropriate.

Activity 6: Try No-Coffee

In this activity we will consider vision impairment as the condition to achieve accessibility for. This is a common source of difficulty in reading online text (while others might include dyslexia or language barriers). The rate of uncorrected low vision in North America has been measured at around 2% using North American standards (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; & Committee on Public Health Approaches to Reduce Vision Impairment and Promote Eye Health, 2016). This does not include people who have corrected vision but whose vision is impaired without their glasses; people with vision affected by fatigue; and those with vision that can be corrected but has been under diagnosed. You can find more information in the optional readings below.

In this activity you will add the NoCoffee extension for the Mozilla Firefox browser. (If you do not already use Mozilla Firefox, I recommend installing it.) NoCoffee simulates various visual disabilities in your Firefox browser.

Once you’ve installed it, go to a favorite online resource; select the NoCoffee extension; and try different vision disability simulations. Consider which issues could be worked around and which would negate the use of the resource in current form.

Write a short portfolio post describing your findings and how you think one of your favorite online resources could be made more accessible for those with visual impairments (include a link to the resource you evaluated). Visit the posts from some other students and comment or reply as appropriate.

Download the NoCoffee – Vision Simulator from the Firefox Browser Add-ons – NoCoffee page.

References and Resources

Required Readings and Resources

Brokop, F. (2008). Text display and screen layout. In S. Kram (Ed.), Accessibility to e-learning for persons with disabilities: Strategies, guidelines, and standards (pp. 19–23).

Cohn, J. (2021). The Brain on Books: What the neuroscience of reading can tell us about reading on screens In Skim, Dive, Surface : Teaching Digital Reading. West Virginia University Press, 91-124.

Designer Plaything. (n.d.).

FontComparer. (n.d.).

Gutierrez, K. (2014, December 4). Keep eLearning readable or don’t bother using text at all [Blog post]. Shift: Disruptive eLearning.

Leventhal, A. (2016). NoCoffee – Vision simulator for Chrome [Chrome browser extension].

Moose [Modified]. (2019, November 23). In Wikipedia.

National Center on Accessible Educational Materials. (2015, March 3). Simply said: Understanding accessibility in digital learning materials. YouTube.

Plato. (1925). Phaedrus. In Plato in twelve volumes (Harold N. Fowler, Trans.; Vol. 9, pp. 247e, 275a, 275b). Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd. (ca. 365–375 B.C.E.)

W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). (2018, June 22). Web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) overview.

Webster, K. (2018). Text design for online learning. In, EDDL 5131 Multimedia in the Curriculum [Online course].

Optional Readings and Resources

Ableser, J. & Moore, C. (2018, September 10). Universal design for learning and digital accessibility: Compatible partners or a conflicted marriage? EDUCAUSE review.

Cohn, J. (2021). Skim, Dive, Surface : Teaching Digital Reading. West Virginia University Press.

Coolidge, A., Doner, S., Robertson, T. & Gray, J. (2018). Accessibility Toolkit (2nd ed.). BCcampus.

Maberley, D., Hollands, H., Chuo, J., Tam, G., Konkal, J., Roesch, M., Veselinovic, A., Witzigmann, M., & Bassett, K. (2006). The prevalence of low vision and blindness in Canada. Eye, 20, 3341-3346.

Mayer, R. E. (1996). Learning strategies for making sense out of expository text: The SOI model for guiding three cognitive processes in knowledge construction. Educational Psychology Review8(4), 357-371.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; & Committee on Public Health Approaches to Reduce Vision Impairment and Promote Eye Health. (2016, September 15). In A. Welp, R. B. Woodbury, M. A. McCoy, et al. (Eds.), Making eye health a population health imperative: Vision for tomorrow. National Academies Press.
https://doi.org/10.17226/23471 (free registration required)

Schwartz, K. (2016, October 16). Strategies to help kids ‘go deep’ when reading digitally. MindShift.

University of Minnesota, Disability Resource Center. (n.d.). Accessibility vs. accommodation.

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