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The Literacy Factor in Online Education

The 'study anywhere any place' allure of on-line education

By Nicole Long

In literacy circles, there is a lot of talk about teaching students to cope with digital literacy and this is becoming increasingly important as online education becomes a mainstay of our educational environment.  However, another approach is to question the validity of online environments themselves and asking; are web designers taking literacy into account as they design these learning spaces? 

Online students must be able to easily access and read their online materials, utilize complex course tools and communicate with classmates and instructors; all from the confines of their computers.  For these reasons, we need to carefully examine how online learning is different from more traditional methods of learning and ensure that literacy needs are being met.

Any student can attest to the large amounts of reading necessary for study and online course designers need to be aware of this.  Many students resort to printing out their reading materials but if text is presented well, this doesn’t need to be the case.  A strong color contrast between the text and the background increases legibility and is beneficial for reading (Williams, 2000).  The black text on a white background implemented by Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as Moodle is quite effective in this respect.  Eye strain can be further reduced by using 12-14 point sans serif typefaces (Bernard, 2002), and font styles such as Verdana and Courier are more legible in comparison to the popular default of Times New Roman (Bernard, 2002).  Bernard’s studies also show that maintaining shorter screen lengths of approximately eleven words per line reduces errors in reading and eye strain by limiting the lateral eye movement across the page.  As well, headings that clearly delineate sections within the text permits easy scanning and understanding of the page content (Bernard, 2002).

There’s nothing worse than searching in vain for that essential piece of information because it is lost amongst the scrolling pages.  These simple design principles address a student’s literacy needs by increasing their ability to read course materials online. Good site navigation also plays an integral role in augmenting student digital literacy.  Having all of the internal navigational links located at the top of the page in a consistent color throughout the site helps learners move through the site without feeling disoriented (Lynch & Horton 2005).  A good example of this is the breadcrumb navigation used in the Moodle discussion forums that allows readers to easily access various posts in different sections.

Once the course materials are made accessible through good web design, it is time to consider the tools that they will require to collaborate and complete assignments.  Discussion forums, chat rooms, blogs and wikis are all offered with the Moodle LMS but if they’re not set up in a logical, consistent pattern, students become disoriented and overwhelmed.  Having all of the tools located in one area with recognizable icons and descriptions reduces confusion (Williams, 2000).  In addition, a consistent style throughout the site allows students to easily find and remember where important elements are located, (Lynch & Horton 2005).  Educational institutions can and should be training their staff about web design and basic digital literacy to promote these guidelines. 

We often talk about student literacy and how it should be achieved but really, the first step needs to be taken within the design elements of online learning places.  Gone are the days of the traditional classroom with its' familiar textbook and blackboard.  Online education has moved learning on to a new playing field; one with fresh challenges and innovative opportunities and if those challenges are to be met, the arts of web design and literacy must become interdependent.