How to do we refine our online content for maximum clarity, minimum confusion, and full engagement?
I was talking with a colleague recently about the best way of structuring the information on her course’s Moodle shell. Her interest was around minimising the ‘scroll of doom’ and creating concise and engaging information that was pitched at the right level for her students. Much of this conversation was focussing on text content on the pages and ensuring there was not too much (that would make the message confusing), but also just enough (to get the message across clearly).
As academics (and I’m not referring to my colleague here) I think we can fall effortlessly into an unnecessarily roundabout form of wordiness (or periphrasis if you like) when talking about discipline areas close to our hearts. In its worst form, this looks like 12 pages of writing about a topic when one page will suffice. The problem for our students is that 12 pages of circumlocution about new subject matter is distracting and confusing when one page of fundamentals, threshold-concepts and key points could be much clearer.
So how does all this relate to ‘defining your online message’?
Firstly, realising and accepting that we can get too wordy and confusing, is the first step to rethinking how we communicate clearly with our students. We need to grit our teeth, give our egos the day off, and focus on providing clear messages and ideas to our students. We don’t need to prove how awesomely knowledgable we are. There is a real talent in refashioning complex ideas into simple concepts that our new learners can understand.
Here’s an idea on how to do this, and one I personally use almost on a daily basis. It’s a three-step guide which describes the order and detail of our information, based on the type of content.
This image looks blurry – click on it to open in higher resolution
A key point about this three-step guide is the intent around the hierarchy:
+ The ‘headline’ is the short phrase that gets their attention.
+ The ‘overview’ provides an opportunity for users to assess the information quickly and with clarity, allowing them to make the decision to move to the ‘detail’.
+ The ‘detail’ is the nuts-and-bolts and of course includes all content and media you feel is necessary to indulge the topic. It should also be an all-encompassing document or information that can be read in isolation, meaning that if you include it as a pdf download on your course, you need to include the ‘headline’ and ‘the overview’. It’s a good idea to offer users multiple ways of accessing this rich information. An example would be to have the ‘detail’ both on your Moodle page AND as a pdf download. The online version can of course include audio, video and embedded content like Flickr, Slideshare and more.
There you have it. Three steps to clarity with your online written content.
After reading this, you’ll probably be aware that good magazines and newspapers follow this approach to their information flow…plenty of examples to look at.
Thanks for reading.