Sunday, December 16, 2007

Trim the Text

I was at a meeting last week when someone commented on a thick file folder I had brought along, bursting with papers related to the project at hand. When asked about it, I replied that I am of the generation that does not like reading a lot of text off a screen. My eyes get tired easily, I feel I cannot read as quickly or accurately on screen, and I end up printing off the relevant information and reading it and marking it up off-screen.

I suppose on-screen readability will improve as technology improves. Amazon, for example, contends that its new Kindle digital book technology has overcome these limitations noted above.


However, the comment on my printing habits, along with the following things I have come across in the last couple of weeks, has lead me to reflect on how much I rely on text in the eLearning I produce, and whether less text and more visuals and narration would be more effective. To wit:
  • Tom Kuhlmann, who runs the user community for Articulate, outlines in this demo how you can present a concept much more effectively via the use of graphics and narration. The demo shows four different ways that you could teach someone how cell phones work.
  • Cathy Moore, in her Making Change blog, shows how you can create more effective eLearning by trimming copy, showing rather than telling, and letting learners explore rather than being spoon-fed.
  • There is a whole conference (VizThink) now dedicated to the art and science of visual thinking.
  • There is sub-field of architecture, transportation and urban planning called wayfinding, that focuses on how best to help people navigate their ways through cities and buildings as intuitively as possible (i.e. via good clean design, creative use of symbols, and an economy of words).

There are lessons in all of these examples about delivering messages and enabling learning with more than just flat, one-dimensional, and often overly long text.

I think I tended towards an over-reliance on text in eLearning in the past because I began in this field in a post-secondary environment wherein text is revered. It is the bedrock of scholarship after all. As I move farther from the university environment, I am relying less and less on text. And not just for the practical considerations of ease-of-use. Rather, I do so because:
  • Most of the adult learners being served by the eLearning I produce are time-starved and do not have the time or the patience to read great tomes (online or otherwise), and;
  • Using a variety of approaches (text, narration, graphics, animation, video, etc.) makes the learning more engaging and memorable, and accommodates different ways of learning.