Principles of Design for Online Learning: A Short Guide

Reading text on the screen is a different experience than reading print. The computer screen (screen being loosely defined now as phone, tablet, or computer) as a delivery medium works differently than a piece of paper.

Advantages of Text

Text is self-paced. It can deliver very precise meaning. It’s also easy to skim information with text.[1]

Disadvantages of Text

Text is limited in its expression. It can be very difficult to convey shades of meaning (as anyone who’s had an email taken the wrong way can attest). Likewise:

“Without considerable skill on the part of the author, text is not great at describing the physical appearance of an object or person (use photos or illustrations instead), actual events (use video), layouts (use diagrams or screen grabs in the case of software), or complex processes (use diagrams or animations). Text is also not ideal for describing sounds (use audio!).”[1]

Using Text Online: Rules of Thumb

  • Keep it short. This goes for both sentences and paragraphs. Large, dense blocks of texts translates into a “Do Not Read Me” sign.
  • Along the same lines, aim for 1 main idea/concept per paragraph. This helps keep in short.
  • Use descriptive and concise headings to break your text up. When possible, actually use Header 1, 2, 3 etc.
  • Keep in mind that readers will skim your text. You want text that conveys your information to someone who is not reading for details.[2]
  • Bullets and numbers help convey information quickly. Use them.
  • Avoid onscreen text (particularly redundant text) presented at the same time as a graphic and auditory narration. This utilizes too many information channels and causes information overload.[3]
  • All caps is the same as screaming at your reader. Do not use them.
  • Keep your average reader’s reading level in mind. If you’re writing for younger kids, keep your sentences even shorter and your word choice simple. Curious as to what level you are writing at? Check out the FOG Index of your writing.

Tools and Techniques

HTML Views

There are a number of tools to use for creating text. However, I highly recommend using  a tool that allows you to “convert views”. If you write for the screen, your text will inevitably be converted into HTML. HTML is the language of the web. Understanding it is key to understanding how your audience will see your text.

If you are creating text for an Online Learning Environment, you are almost guaranteed to have the ability to switch views. Moodle, Blackboard, Google Sites, etc all allow you to write using a “What You See is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) editor and then switch to HTML view.


  1. Onlinement. “The elements of online communication 1: Text.”
  2. “Writing for the Web.”
  3. Clark, Ruth and Mayer, Richard. e-Learning and the Science of Instruction. Chapter 6: “Applying the Redundancy Principle”.
Return to top