Six Ways Text Can Make (or Break) Effective Online Course Design

Six colorful sticky notes in the shape of talking blurbs

The importance of well-crafted, thoughtful text to effective online course design can’t be overstated.  Assuming your learners are literate, it’s simply the most efficient way to communicate virtually any topic, except those that are highly visual such as art history or anatomy/physiology, or that are highly performance or process-based such as industrial engineering, physics, or drama.  And even with respect to communicating these specialized types of topics, text plays an indispensable supporting role.

But while many of us focus on the obvious uses of text when designing an online course—namely, content readings and instructions, familiar to us from the traditional classroom—text actually plays a much bigger, often-overlooked role in courses designed for online delivery, especially asynchronous online delivery.

Here are the six different roles that text plays in online course design and tips for maximizing the effectiveness of each.

1. Scope-and-sequence text (text that communicates what learners need to do and when they need to do it). 

The course syllabus and schedule have long been used to set expectations and communicate precisely what learners need to do and when they need to do it. Traditionally, a few minutes of the first day of any course was spent going over both schedule and syllabus to ensure learners understood both what was expected of them and what to do if conflicts or questions arose as the course progressed. 

In an online course, the burden is typically on learners to locate these materials, read, and understand them, and reach out proactively with questions.  So, it’s critical that both syllabi and schedules:

    • are easy for learners to find and access throughout the course (preferably in a single location);
    • are clear, concise, and complete, leaving nothing to interpretation; and
    • include contact information (preferably in the form of a direct link) for questions.

2. Course interface text (text learners must navigate to get to what they need to do).

In a perfect world, the course interface and the syllabus/schedule would be one and the same: a straightforward, sequential, interactive list of tasks. Learners would scroll to Week 1 on the schedule, and then click through the sequentially numbered readings, activities, and assessments listed under Week 1, completing tasks one by one.  There would be no need to click around the site or guess where anything was located; all necessary materials would appear as soon as the learner clicked, and a “completed” checkmark would appear automatically (or in response to a learner’s click). In a best-case scenario like this, online learners would always know exactly where they were in the completion of their coursework, including what they’d already completed, what they had left to complete, how much time they had left to complete it, and what dependencies they had to consider.

Unfortunately, most learning management systems don’t support this approach, instead requiring a straightforward course schedule to be reimplemented as a series of multi-click chunks that require learners to drill down to necessary content in different ways and use their own tracking system to keep on top of what they’ve already visited or completed.  In environments like these, which are what most of us are dealing with, we can still tip the odds in favor of our learners by ensuring that:

    • text activity/assessment labels are crystal clear; 
    • labels link either to the activities/assessments themselves, or to specific directions learners can use to locate them; and
    • activities/assessments are labeled inclusively if possible (activity 1 of 5, activity 2 of 5, etc.).

3. Content text (text that instructs).

This is the text we’re most familiar with: onscreen content and links to online books or printable handouts. Things to keep in mind:

a. Quality. Faculty and instructional designers tasked with designing courses quickly, with no budget, often create original content or incorporate free open educational resources (OER). While there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these approaches, it’s wise to apply the same criteria to these sources as we ask learners to apply to all other course materials:

    • Currency. Currency isn’t typically a problem with OER—unless your subject is time-sensitive (e.g., law or current events). Expect to review and refresh any content you create on a regular cadence.
    • Relevance. Because it’s challenging to find high-quality OER that explains exactly what you need to cover in the way your learners need it presented, many faculty “pad” OER resources with short explanatory videos or hand-outs.
    • Accuracy. It goes without saying that you’ll be sure to check any OER you’re considering for accuracy. But consider the quality of writing, as well.  Poorly written text obscures technical accuracy by making it harder for learners to understand what’s being communicated.
    • Authoritativeness. OER authored by recognized experts can be challenging to find, especially for contemporary subjects. If requiring the purchase of traditionally published textbooks isn’t on the table for your course, consider suggesting them instead.
    • Purpose.  By definition, OER is designed for classroom use.  But it only takes a few minutes to double-check that the author isn’t using OER as a loss leader to drive sales in another venture.

b. Format. Online learners may need to print materials (because, for example, the materials won’t display properly on their device). Conversely, they may not be able to print materials.  Because content text must be usable in both instances, format is important. Things to keep in mind:

    • Stick to a file format such as PDF that’s both printable and viewable onscreen—and that can’t be easily edited.
    • Make sure each resource is uniquely identified to take any confusion off the table. Unique identification need not be any more elaborate than a specific document name, date of publication (date file created), and page numbers.

4. Supplementary image-related text.

Figures, tables, graphics, and illustrations are useful additions to most content—and critical for highly visual subjects.  Whether you create them yourself or source them from an OER provider, ensure learners take away what you want them to from the images you include by adding, if necessary:

    • Labels that uniquely identify the image assist in discussions and review.
    • Captions that describe the “take homes” – that is, descriptions of why you included these particular images and how they relate to the other content.
    • Callouts that direct the learner’s eye to salient points.

5. Supplementary animation/video-related text.

Whether you create your own videos and animated clips or source them, be sure each includes:

    • A title, which not only acts as a unique identifier but also sets expectations, helps learners make meaning, and assists with review.
    • Callouts that direct learners’ attention to salient points.
    • Closed captions, which are required by the American Disabilities Act for some institutions, but useful in a host of other scenarios, too, involving non-native-English speaking learners, technical jargon, and quick-search review.

6. Activity/assessment-related text.

Like a syllabus or schedule, highly effective online instructions and rubrics should:

    • Be crystal clear and easy for learners to locate.
    • Include contact info (preferably a quick link to instructor, even though other ways to contact the instructor are available in other places in the course).
    • Be paired with worked examples featuring callouts to rubric categories. While worked examples are expensive to produce, they’re a game changer when it comes to making it easy for learners to understand, and therefore meet, expectations.

Paradoxically, the further we move away from the classic text-book-and-handouts format and toward innovative course design involving interactive multimedia, the more important text becomes—and the more varieties we need to understand and master.  Applying the tips in this article to the design or your next online course will boost its effectiveness and, most important, promote learner success.

Emily A. Moore, MEd, is an instructional designer, author, educator, and speaker with over a decade’s experience in higher education, K-12, and corporate training.