Instructional Design

Getting Over Stumbling Blocks (of Text): Creating Engaging Content Pages

By Tom Armbrecht, PhD

Online courses today are generally composed of various elements, such as content pages, quizzes, discussions, etc., that are organized by a Learning Management System (LMS). Content pages (i.e., those whose primary job it is to present information) are the bread and butter of most courses, since they contain the material that students must read, hear, or watch to complete the learning activities that follow. Unfortunately, since reading, listening, and watching don’t ask much of the reader except attention—admittedly a precious commodity—many content pages risk being the most boring part of an online course. Moreover, in an age when we are used to digesting large amounts of information rapidly, asking students to encounter ideas slowly, by scrolling through screens of pure text, might not be the most effective way to introduce new ideas.

Of course, reading, listening, and watching can be boring in a classroom-taught course, too—more so than in the online classroom, perhaps, since students cannot skip or fast forward through things they already know (or “rewind” to return to things they don’t). Chronological flexibility is just one of several advantages that online content presentation has over the live version. Even if the default is to simply present large blocks of text, online courses have the possibility of making the material more appealing to the reader/listener/viewer and of requiring interaction with the ideas presented. Strategies for enriching content pages can be divided loosely into the two categories: presentation techniques and engagement activities. Presentation techniques aim to make the content page itself more stimulating, whereas engagement activities require the person encountering the information to do something with it. The best presented pages employ both to capture their readers’ attention.

Presentation Strategies

Given that the web is, foremost, a visual medium, improving the graphic appeal of a page is a first step in attracting the reader to it. Although it is common to include a picture in a content page, too often the image chosen is simply a placeholder that at best reiterates the theme of the page announced by its title. Including illustrations of the important points is a more useful way of drawing the reader to the page, since they are called to “read” the image, rather than simply admire it. Even if the information presented in a graphic essentially repeats what has been conveyed in the text, illustrative pictures can make it easier for visual learners to grasp what they have read.

Finding royalty-free images that correspond closely to page content is difficult, however. It is often more efficient and cheaper to create your own, even if drawing is not your forte. There are a number of free software tools that allow you to easily manipulate photos without requiring the knowledge (or talent) necessary to create in more complicated programs such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. Ironically, some of the most useful apps are, in fact, Adobe products, and are available free for the iPad: Photoshop Express, Mix, and Sketch.

Adobe Products for iOS

These intuitive applications allow you to create photo-collages by manipulating photos and by combining drawing and photos. Enlight by Photofox is another excellent (and free!) app for turning photos into original illustrations. It is simple, yet powerful enough to create course-worthy illustrations, even on your phone. Although you may not fancy yourself an artist, it is now easy (and cheap!) enough to create visuals that it’s worth scrutinizing content to see what information could be communicated graphically. Even if an illustration may seem only to underscore information conveyed through words, it will appeal to visual learners and can also service as a mnemonic to help everyone retain information.

Sound can also help appeal to a wider variety of learning styles, especially auditory learners who find it easiest to remember what they hear. Although most browsers already have built-in text-to-speech, including recordings of passages of a text (e.g., quotes) or explanations of difficult words and concepts can make a text come alive, particularly if those recordings are in your own voice. Creating audible media directly in LMSs such as Canvas or Blackboard is simple. They have built-in tools that capture both sound and video that is then embedded directly in the page itself. Although adding sound to a page whose most important information is communicated primarily through text might seem superfluous, savvy designers should look for opportunities to clarify or supplement readings, or even to add a ludic aspect to the page.

As clicking on the above recording will most likely convince you, sound can also distract, however, so do not enable audio (or video) to play automatically, which most users find extremely irritating. (Thanks to for this royalty-free track, “Dubstep.”)

Hierarchization of information on a page is a very useful tool for helping students to prioritize what they must retain. Although footnotes and endnotes are not effective online tools, it is possible to separate tangential or less important information from the main body of text by using visual page breaks, boxes, or hyperlinks.

LMS-friendly applications to create “hotspots” (i.e., rollover points that supply additional information) can also prevent supplementary from distracting students from the main points. Providing a summary at the head of long pages (or at the end) with links back to the paragraphs where the point was elaborated will help students navigate a text. Even doing something as simple as putting key points in bold gives students “footholds” that allows them to find their bearings. Of course, providing too much meta-information might make the student decide to forgo reading the page, but when used judiciously, page layout, clickable text, and “scaffolding” can make the most textually dense page more comprehensible.

Engagement Activities

Asking students to do something while working their way through a block of text is a way to keep them involved and to verify their comprehension. The simplest way to get students to read for meaning and retention is to ask them questions, either at the start or end of the page, that they cannot answer without understanding the document. Couching readings between activities is a good way to encourage students to take notes while reading, as well. Requiring students to organize and share their notes, assures that students read carefully and present the information thoughtfully, so that the instructor can assess their understanding and their peers can benefit from it.

Activities can also be inserted directly in a text. Although the quiz function of most LMSs is designed to assess students, it can be used simultaneously to present idea. Quizzes do not limit the length of questions, which means that they can contain readings, as well. An effective strategy is to have students respond directly on the page, either to verify that they have understood what they have just read, or more importantly, to develop their own thoughts on the subject they have just encountered. Quiz creators in LMSs allow for a variety of questions, including fill in the blank, short answer, matching, and many other types, which makes it easy to insert them in the middle of readings to make sure students stay involved with the text.

Integrating Google Docs into a course (which is also easy to do in most modern LMSs) allows for assigned readings to become spaces for collaboration: by using the comment feature in Docs, for example, students can annotate a text and even reply to each other’s notes. (Zachary Fruhling’s blog entry on Google Docs provides more details.) The automatic identification of the author of the comment, along with the ability to look through the history of a document, makes it possible for multiple people to interact with a document while maintaining its legibility and integrity. Collaborative reading not only exposes class members to their colleagues’ ideas, it also is an excellent way of getting people to work together in preparation for group projects, and could in itself even be considered effective model for doing so.

None of the above suggestions is revolutionary; they are meant instead to encourage content creators to look at all pages with an eye towards student engagement. Pages whose primary purpose is simply to convey information will attract the reader by being visually appealing. A more important benefit of a variety of presentation strategies, however, is reaching a larger number of learners. Today’s course writers don’t need special skills or expensive technology to enrich their pages; many tools are free or integrated into the LMS itself. Content authors do need new strategies to see through the eyes of their learners, however, and should consider each page not only an attempt to share information, but an opportunity to engage students by getting them to interact with the material provided for them.

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