Text Design for Online Learning


Text is both the most common media form used in online learning, and the form least likely to have received serious design consideration in its development. The familiarity of educators with the use of prose leaves us complacent, certain that we intuitively know how to use text to promote learning in our online materials. This unit introduces the underlying theory and major practical issues involved with designing and producing effective text for asynchronous online learning.

Web design for learning shares most of the principles of effective web design generally. It’s just that the purpose of web design for learning is specific to the educational project, and that in asynchronous online learning you will be designing for both short, interactive pages, and longer, content-based resources.

The purpose of this piece is primarily to offer advice on how you should design and structure text-based resources for asynchronous online learning. There is also a great deal riding on the actual text used in this mode – the narrative itself – but the aesthetic quality of your educational prose will not be addressed here.

Theories of Text-based Narrative Design

Work investigating the success of textual communication has been conducted within several disciplines. In this realm most studies have adopted (either explicitly or implicitly) a framework that equated effective communication (or learning) with efficiency of reading. This was measured in the speed at which passages can be read, usually checked with tests of comprehension and memory (though always short term). Another object of measure has been the impact of various design choices on eye strain. In the educational project, the object of expository text is to relay meaning to learners in such a way that learning (long term memory retention or transfer) is achieved, with or without the assistance of other forms of media.

Theories for Visual Text Design

Much of the research that exists in the use of text for learning is focused on the use of text in combination with graphics to form ‘multimedia’ learning objects (this will in fact be a major focus of later units in this course). But there are things to know about using text for learning, and there are basic theoretical choices, some relating to a discrete pedagogy, and some related to media, that should be observed and acted upon by any designer of learning.

Selecting Organizing and Integrating

One model for media design with relevance to text used on its own is Selecting, Organizing and Integrating (SOI). This theory was first elaborated by Richard Mayer and it argues that specific strategies in the design and use of text (or any other media) can enhance the key cognitive processes of:

  • selecting relevant information,
  • organizing information into a coherent structure, and
  • integrating information with other knowledge.


Selecting relevant text means that when reading a description of a process, such as: ‘the difference between the low air pressure on top and high air pressure on the bottom of a wing in flight produces lift’, some words are more important to learning the concept at hand. If a learner selects ‘difference’, ‘low air pressure on top’, ‘high air pressure on … bottom’, and ‘produces lift’ then the necessary terms for learning this concept are available. If the learner did not select one of these segments to concentrate on while reading this section, success at the next stage will be less likely.


Much can be done to communicate the organizational structure of a topic within the text used to present it. Many of these strategies are familiar from textbook design but take on additional utility when combined with the web’s ability to link. Tables of content at the head of a web page help to set the stage for the reader as well as serve their traditional role of way-finding within a document. Table of content items can by hyperlinked to their appropriate spot in the web page using the ‘anchor’ tag (ie. href=”#part3″ directs to an element with the ID or name of ‘part3’).


Methods of encouraging integration with text often mean using graphics to help readers integrate the new textual content with prior knowledge. Advance organizers are a text-only strategy for helping students integrate new knowledge with old knowledge and old structures. An advance organizer that sets out a structure for understanding a topic, like categorizing it within larger strata of phenomena, or by testing a definition against examples and non-examples, presented using one set of unrelated content, can serve to prepare learners to integrate new material. Another strategy for integrating with text is to ask students to elaborate or explain concepts and processes in their own words or to apply the newly gained knowledge in an analogous situation.

Text Design

Text design at the larger scale is about headers, lists, paragraphs and their size, colour and placement. At its most basic though, it’s about the design choices we can make for the text that will be used for the narrative comprising the content of your page.

The following sections outline the design options supported by research for text that will support learning.

Typeface Choice

There has long been a belief in the world of web design that sans-serif fonts (fonts that lack small flourishes at the end of strokes) like Arial are easier to read in a digital display than serif fonts like Times New Roman. There has been little serious research done to establish this, and the results have given a slight advantage to sans serif fonts in a few studies. Research by Sheedy et al in 2005 indicated that, when displayed on a screen, Verdana was the most legible font while Times New Roman was the least legible. The sample size wasn’t very large and more studies would help to make this case, but as it stands there is some scientific backing behind the sans-serif choice.

Font Size

Font size is also a factor in the ease of reading (I avoid using the term ‘readibility’ here as it usually means the complexity of language, ie. the article has a readibility of grades 6-7). Text size is impacted by the size your text is designed to assume (ie. the size attribute in pixels, em or percent) in the combination of HTML and styles used, the pixel density of the display surface (ie. 72 pixels/inch on an older monitor versus 326 pixels/inch on a new iPhone), and the distance between the viewer and the display. While we design web pages with absolute (pixels) or relative (em, percent) sizes for text, researchers refer to perceived text size by the angular size (physical size/viewing distance*57.3) achieved by the combination of text size as displayed and distance between viewer and display. This is only logical and means that, while we typically design for the desktop computer, users are likely to be closer to their tablets and phones. Smaller font sizes will be appropriate on devices that will be viewed at closer distances. The bottom range for easily read text has been identified as 8 pixels high for a desktop monitor[1], while optimal legibility has been measured at 9 pixels or higher.

Some studies have indicated that optimal reading speed occurs at sizes larger than 8-9 pixels (note that these studies are invariably done with university students – your mileage may vary). It is important to remember here that ‘optimal reading speed’ may not equal the desired impact of the text on your web page. There are no studies cited that link displayed typface size and learning impact (ie. short-term or long-term memory, integration with existing knowledge, completion of task). These studies also were limited in the sample size and demographic variety of their participants, so slightly larger typeface sizes would be a good choice (remember, you’re not paying by the pixel).

This text is styled to 100%

This text is styled to 10 pixels

User ability to vary typeface size is part of most modern browsers, and is supported by most Learning Management Systems (LMS). When you design for online learning you must take care to preserve this ability when styling your fonts. This means that if you set a size for a tag that typically contains text (ie. p, li, h1-h6) that you use a relative value like 1.0em or 110%. These methods preserve the ability of a browser to allow user changes to the font size. If you use an absolute size like 10px (10 pixels) many browsers will no longer be able to alter the font size. In most modern learning management systems (like Moodle or Blackboard) or content management systems (like WordPress), the editor that lets you input and style your content will use relative measurements of font size that allow users to change the size in their browsers.

When you design your course site you should weigh the size of your text against the other design considerations of your content.

  • Do you want to keep your pages viewable without scrolling?
  • Do you want to emphasize graphics over the text?
  • Do you use lots of headers or organizers that would be impacted by text size?

Font Color

Research has shown that high contrast between font color and background color results in better comprehension and reading speed. For most designs this means black text over a white background. There are some designs that have featured white text over a black background and this has been shown to be effective in a limited number of studies, but black or dark backgrounds have other issues in the display of content and are better suited to pages that are viewed for short periods.

There is no research showing that very dark colored text on very light colored background is any less effective than black on white. As you design your online course you should consider that if you use a background other than white you will need to ensure that any graphics you create either have a transparent canvas (achievable with .gif and .png formats) or a canvas that matches your site background. Matching your site background in your images promises more work if you ever decide to change the color scheme of your site. Using transparent canvas color for your images can, in some circumstances, result in jagged image borders or artefacts (clusters of unwanted pixels).

The use of color (as opposed to black and white) in your text and background should also be considered against the perceptibility of your content by people who are color-blind. There are sites that will approximate the viewing experience of those with some of the most common forms of color-blindness. You should consider the results of such a test before including colors in your text and background, or any other important content or navigation section of your site.

Coblis – Color Blindness Simulator

The internet wouldn’t be what it is today without hyperlinking text. Setting the styles to be adopted by hyperlinking text on your course site will have an impact on its perceptibility and its functionality. The default behaviour of most browsers is to make text that is hyperlinked a medium-dark blue and to underline it. Links that have already been visited tend to be given another color. Some sites may also alter the appearance of links as you hover over them. For some time it was common practice to prevent the underlining of hyperlinked text in order to preserve a better text appearance overall. For people with limited visions a color cue for hyperlinked text is insufficient so underlining is preferred. You should ensure that the color used for your hyperlinked text is also sufficiently dark to be perceived easily by those with limited vision or color-blindness.

Line Length

Limited research has been done into the optimal length of lines of text for reading efficiency. Strangely user preference differs from optimal efficiency with users desiring shorter lines but reading faster with lines of about 10 inches on a desktop monitor.

The problem of line length is further complicated by the variety of desktop monitor sizes and the potential that content will also be viewed on mobile devices like phones and tablets. In almost no circumstance is text that wraps across an entire desktop monitor desirable. Most course sites will have one (or perhaps two) margins that are filled with navigation and other tools, and these also serve to narrow the text field. Limiting the span of text across the monitor can be achieved by applying styles to the container for the central body of the course site. In Moodle or WordPress this can be achieved by modifying the theme but with these tools, and any website, this can also be achieved by making your own container for central content (using the ‘div’ tag) and applying styles to it at the source or via a style sheet. Ideally such a style can also be applied in such a way that it is ignored on tablets and phones – you don’t want your text to use only 80% of the space on a 5 inch display. If you are using an LMS like Moodle or another system like WordPress, you should be able to have the system itself adopt a different theme when if detects a smaller screen, thereby rendering text and graphics in an appropriate manner. This is the sort of work that technical staff supporting your platform should manage, but it is also within the realm of any dedicated educator managing a smaller site.

Text that is the main content of your lesson (ie. that goes on for several sentences up to several paragraphs and more) should always be left-justified. Full justification may look better on some pages, particularly for very constrained pieces, but the net effect for paragraphs of text online is that it becomes more difficult to read unless the line-height (space between lines) is quite large. Centered text should only be used for headings, and then rarely.

Line height

This paragraph has the line-height set to 150% of the normal spacing for a paragraph. Most learning management systems (ie. Moodle or Blackboard) and content management systems like WordPress set the line-height in the theme.

This paragraph has the line-height set to 85% of the normal spacing for a paragraph. Most learning management systems (ie. Moodle or Blackboard) and content management systems like WordPress set the line-height in the theme.

Line height is the distance between wrapped lines of text in a paragraph. It can also refer to the distance allocated between a line of header text and the bottom of the last element above that header and the distance from the bottom of the header text to the next element below. To a certain degree, increased line height can improve readability, but this must be contrasted with the additional screen space used by the text, and a more cluttered appearance for your page.

To the right is an example of text with the line height adjusted as a percentage of the original value. This method is preferred to setting an exact value in pixels as it allows the display to adjust for different devices or user preferences.

Like other attributes, the line-height attribute is set by default in learning management systems and content management systems. You can adjust these settings with styles in the head of an HTML document or by using inline styles with each text tag.

Visual Design to Match the Purpose of your Text

Organizing Tools

  • headers
  • lists
  • paragraphs


The use of a hierarchical set of headers – specifically prominent titles for sections or sub-sections of text – has a long tradition in non-fiction print publications, particularly textbooks. The use of one, to four levels of headers can help readers differentiate levels of topics, understand the grouping of some topics within others, and maintain a sense of their current place within the subject hierarchy.

An important principle in the use of headings is consistency. Before you can design your educational text, you need to map out the architecture of your headings. What topics or groups of topics constitute the second level of headings (beneath the top level which is the title of your piece/work/page)? How many levels of heading make sense for your content and will be comprehensible by your readers? These are questions that confront authors and editors in many contexts.

Header and text example

Header Level 1

Grizzly bear


The grizzly bear (Ursus arctos ssp.), is any North American subspecies of the brown bear, such as the mainland grizzly (U. a. horribilis), the Kodiak (U. a. middendorffi), the peninsular grizzly (U. a. gyas) and the recently extinct California grizzly (U. a. californicus). Specialists sometimes call the grizzly the North American brown bear because the grizzly and the brown bear are one species on two continents. In some places, some may nickname the grizzly the silvertip for the silvery, grizzly sheen in its fur.

Header Level 2


Header Level 3

Meaning of “grizzly”


The word “grizzly” means “grizzled;” that is, golden and grey tips of the hair. This is not to be confused with the word “grisly”. Nonetheless, after careful study, naturalist George Ord formally classified the California grizzly in 1815—not for its hair, but for its character—Ursus horribilis. Thus Ord made a famous pun. Indeed there were many accounts of grizzlies fighting and beating longhorn bulls.

Header Level 3



From 1815 on, grizzlies were classified in a species separate from all other bear. However, after modern genetic testing, the grizzly joined the brown bear (U. arctos). So in Eurasia, it is the “brown bear;” in North America, it is the “grizzly.” In other words, the grizzly and the brown bear are one species on two continents. Currently, Rausch and others classify three subspecies of the new “North American brown bear:” U. a. horribilis, middendorffi, and gyas. But more recent studies of mtDNA suggest that this three-fold division of living grizzlies needs revision. Further testing of Y-chromosomes is required to yield an accurate new taxonomy with different subspecies.

Creative Commons content from Wikipedia, Grizzly Bear.

Technical production

You can develop web pages that feature distinct levels of headers by using the HTML tags h1, h2, h3, h4 and h5. The lowest number (h1) is usually styled as the top level header, with each subsequent number styled as a lower level of header. In any learning management system (ie. Moodle or Blackboard) or content management system (ie. WordPress or Joomla) there will be default styles associated with each of these levels of header. This will typically include size, font-weight (ie. bold) and color attributes. You can override these style choices by defining styles in the head of an HTML document or by using inline styles each time you use each header tag. The text editor in the platforms mentioned above (and their competitors) will also allow you to define the attributes of your headers.


Sometimes text content can best be displayed as a list. This should be reserved for instances where distinctly separate, succinctly described items, phrases or descriptions are required. A list should not be made up of multi-sentence paragraphs and is should not break up a narrative that could just as easily be presented as a paragraph. Ideally it should provide some advantage for the reader to perceive each element separately.

Lists can complete a sentence, in which case they should stick to proper grammar. An example of this type of list would be one that:

  • uses a colon to announce the beginning of a list,
  • has a comma or semi-colon separating list items, and
  • uses ‘and’ or ‘or’ to append the last item.

Another list might consist of self contained terms or phrases, like this list of learning theories.

  • Behaviourist
  • Cognitivist
  • Constructivist

Bulleted and ordered lists

On the web lists are bulleted by default, most commonly with a solid disc. You can also use different symbols for bulleted lists as well as create ordered lists. Ordered lists should be reserved for instances where something is done in sequence or where accurate reference to list items is needed (ie. question numbers in an activity). Lists without bullets will be less distinct from normal text, which may be a desired effect.

Lists can be nested to include sub-lists that will typically be indented further from the original list. In fact you can nest lists within lists within lists (if you wish, and if you think it’s a good idea). You should be careful to avoid an overly complex structure of lists and sublists unless there is a real meaning to these categories. One common use of lists and sublists is in the numbering of paragraphs and parts within legislation and regulations, where it serves the purpose of identification.

Bulleted lists and numbered lists can be styled to use a variety of symbol styles or number styles, or no symbol at all. These styles will be set by default in most learning management systems and content management systems, but can be altered by adding styles in the ‘head’ section of the HTML document or by using inline styles.


The bulk of your content will take the form of paragraphs. Remember that effective paragraph structure for non-fiction prose keeps topics or sub-topics contained within paragraphs. When distinctly different points consist of only one or two sentences, use single paragraphs to keep them discreet – short paragraphs are common in this type of content.


Good writing, in prose and non-fiction, has always relied upon the simplest form of ‘chunking’ to enhance their ability to communicate. Mindfully creating written text in amounts that can be read, comprehended and reflected upon by the reader is a strategy to promote the maximum understanding by your readers with the least extraneous effort.

Strategies for chunking include:

  • using paragraph breaks to signal changes in topic or sub-topic
  • use headings to indicate meaningful chunks of your text
  • putting your content in order, consider using numbering if the sequence is an important aspect of your content
  • if your content is not sequential, putting important chunks first or last – but explicitly pointing out your strategy

Call-outs and asides

The aside usually contains interesting information, or perhaps a quote.

Sometimes you may want to feature text or place it to one side as distinctly separated from the developing narrative. These techniques are popular in high school and first-year university textbooks. The aside usually contains interesting information, or perhaps a quote, that provides color to a topic, but not vital knowledge. Students can read these asides, or not, without affecting their basic comprehension of the topic.


Call-outs are more conspicuous than asides. They may physically interrupt the narrative flow or they may be placed prominently on the page, and they are likely to have a title. They present a point or element of the current topic that is not strictly part of the narrative but one that is substantive to the understanding of the content. Call-outs are designed to be noticed and read by all students and they may be referenced separately from the standard text narrative.

In the beginning, hyperlinks were the only thing that was new in the way the web offered text to the world. The ability to construct multiple and ever more complex alternative paths to a narrative were originally considered to be a revolutionary possibility. While there was some early theorizing on the possibilities, hyperlinked text has remained fairly mundane in most applications. For your purposes it is still important though to think of your text as running both in a linear fashion down the page but also branching out, directly to other places on the page or to other pages entirely. How you want learners to progress through your text, what you want all to read, and what is optional, and where it’s OK to leave and perhaps not return, is the design problem you face with hyperlinks.

Stay or Go?

There are three types of links that you might use on your page.

  • Anchor links: go to another location on the same web page
    This <a href="#intro">introduction</a> link (hover over the link and look at the destination URL) goes to the page element (above) that has id="intro" added to it. You can also link to a specific space on another page by including the URL of the page before the ‘#’ symbol in the link. Some LMS or CMS text editors will allow you to link to ‘anchors’ within a web page, but many will not.
  • Internal links: go to another page within the same web site
    <a href="http://courses.olblogs.tru.ca/eddl5131-jan18/">http://courses.olblogs.tru.ca/eddl5131-jan18/</a>.
    Most LMS or CMS text editors will allow you to make a link open in the same window/tab.
  • External links: go to a page on a different web site
    <a href="http://www.tru.ca" target="_blank">http://www.tru.ca</a>.
    Most LMS or CMS text editors will allow you to make a link open in a new window or tab.

The first decision in any needed hyperlink is whether the link should take the reader to the new page in the same browser window as the current page or have it open in a new page or tab. The typical standard for most websites, including educational sites, is to have internal links (links to another page within your own site) open in the same browser window or tab and have external links (links to a page at a website outside your immediate project).

Link to Remedial Resources

A common hyperlinking strategy for educational text is to link away to further information that will help readers who have less than the anticipated familiarity with the given topic. This would mean providing a limited number of links, presented strategically, to material on topics and in depth sufficient to make the originating content successful in meeting the learning goals.

In order to do this you will need to locate outside resources appropriate for your students or create them from scratch. This depth of additional resources can make for a significantly increased workload for unprepared students. So, while it can solve the problem of discrepancies in student preparedness, it translates it into discrepancies in time to complete. In order to be accessed as appropriate links to remedial resources should be placed within the text where students will need them. Links left to the end of a unit will not necessarily be accessed when needed.

Link to Supplemental Resources

A frequent strategy is to link to resources that allow students to extend their learning beyond the level required for meeting the learning goal. These resources can meet the needs of learners with a desire to expand their knowledge in one or more areas, or they can serve learners who started the unit with more initial knowledge. You could place these links with the topics that they supplement but this could also lead to learners wandering off in the midst of your text, when they would learn better by following your intended structure. Links at the end of the lesson are more likely appropriate for this purpose.

Link to Term Definitions

A useful habit for text that uses new or potentially obscure terms is to link these words to their definitions. You can do this by linking to entries on an existing online dictionary or encyclopedia, or you can create web pages with definitions specific to your usage. If you undertake this sort of strategy you should consider a consistent scheme of linking terms. All terms of similar difficulty, or of similar importance to the lesson should be linked. A few systems will support the creation of a glossary that will provide a platform to create and present term definitions. The Moodle LMS glossary tool will even allow auto-linking of terms in the glossary with their occurrences in course pages.

Use Tip-Tool Text

You can provide short definitions or other hints within your text by using the ‘alt’ and ‘title’ fields of a link tag. By setting up a link without a destination URL you can use the ‘alt’ and ‘title’ fields to add text that will appear as the reader hovers the mouse over the link.


The text elements described here are some of the most common tools for text design in educational websites. Many of these are derived from the same components in print media, though the opportunity to make these more flexible in a web environment adds complexity to the design problems. The web specific elements of text for learning have been around for close to twenty years but their possibilities have only begun to be explored. As you work with this media you will have the opportunity to move beyond the conventions outlined here. As you do, apply the design thinking conveyed in this course to your new developments.


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Typetester: Compare Screen Type.


Designer Plaything.

Font Dragr.

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