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Creating Digital Content

A key component to the 2020-2021 school year is the digital content delivered to students in both the hybrid and remote settings. But with so much at our disposal, the questions ‘What digital content should I use?’ and 'What is the best way to create content in the digital realm?' arise. Over the summer, while searching for content creation, I came across Michele Eaton and her book The Perfect Blend: A Practical Guide to Designing Student-Centered Learning Experiences. Michele currently serves as President for ISTE's Online and Blended Learning Network and has a wealth of knowledge regarding how teachers should be thinking about digital design for students. After reading a quick bio and a preview to the book, I decided it was a must have for this year, and months later is a title I continue to reference. Much of what is included in this blog is credited to what I have learned reading her book.


For most of us, this year we will be using some combination of adaptive software bought by our divisions and original content we have created. There are pros and cons to using our own made material vs adaptive software, and what works with one class may not work for another. Much like designing the routines for our classroom, there is no one “right” decision. As Eaton believes, there are only better choices for specific situations. One benefit of a teacher deciding to build their own digital lessons from scratch is the ownership of the content that occurs. In these cases we have a stronger understanding of the delivery methods and can teach and facilitate the lessons with greater efficacy. Because more teachers are having to create content from scratch, this post we will be looking mostly at designing our own content with the assumption that adaptive software will be blended into our original designs.



Designing Digital Content

Whether or not your own digital content is paired with adaptive software, there are several factors that can influence its success or failure.


Presentation Matters

The presentation of your digital content has an impact on how students comprehend the material and information presented. Simply introducing digital content into your classroom via blended learning is not in and of itself transformative. While technology can amplify instruction, it can also amplify bad practice.


Consistency of Design

Consistency is the key to functional design. You have probably experienced a group project using a slides presentation, where each slide had a different font, with an abundance of colors and themes. These kinds of presentations make me cringe, as they are hard to focus and just not aesthetically pleasing.


The same thing can happen to teachers when designing online lessons. Think of each digital lesson, presentation or document as essentially a brand new digital classroom. Consider yourself as the student when you have to “walk into” this brand new digital space each day. Does it feel like the same classroom, or are students having to relearn the classroom atmosphere each day? Think of your work space at home, perhaps you have a designated space set up that you work at most of the time; being in this familiar setting probably increases your productivity and gets you in the right frame of mind for instruction. This should be the same with students’ online experience--consistency of learning environments can have positive effects on student outcomes.


When trying to achieve consistency of design, it’s important to consider digital navigation, use of color and use of font. Your digital content should be organized in the same way so students know how to move from one lesson to another every time they jump online. Always consider: how lessons are organized and shared, where students go to get their lessons, and the naming structures the lessons. Creating simple, clean pages with obvious navigation is imperative. Cluttered pages with hidden icons may hinder your students’ ability to get started immediately. It is also good to start your first few lessons with video demonstrating navigation, such as with Loom or Screencastify. When you do choose to use icons or buttons, make sure you are using the same ones throughout your lesson and placing them in the same location on each page. Two great resources for icons are Favicon, which is a generator for creating your own icons, and Flaticon which offers a multitude of icons you can use for free when crediting the source. If ever in doubt, lean on the side of more clarity, as it’s impossible to make your digital content too obvious!


When choosing colors a good general idea is to use no more than three. Consider these three colors as part of your “digital brand,” and use them throughout your content. If you’re like me, you may have trouble coming up with a color palette that is appealing. Two of my go-to places for finding color pairings are Adobe Color and Canva Color Tools.


In addition, the continuity of font selection also helps students navigate digital content efficiently and effectively. Two fonts can help to create hierarchies that are useful for students, but more than that can be confusing. These fonts should be easy to read--keep the script, ornate, and novelty fonts to a minimum.


Consistency in type size supports readability. Sizes in the 12-16 point range are most common, and nothing smaller than 10 point font should be considered online. Additionally, text alignment is important. While you may be tempted to center text on a page, it can be difficult to track. Therefore, keep all blocks of text left-centered, only centering headings for maximum readability.


Cognitive Load

As you are designing digital content you should always be aware of cognitive load. Cognitive load is the effort being used by the working memory. While we want students to wrestle with information, too much material can be overload. Research conducted by Nelson Cowan (2010) determined that young adults can process about 3 to 5 items at once, beyond that our retention drops significantly. What this means is that as we design instruction we must ensure we are moving information from our students’ working memory to their long-term memory before moving on.


Before, we mentioned that digital content needs to be easy to navigate, and we often associate simple navigation by reducing the number of clicks a student has to make. The problem with this is that it often leads teachers to putting as much information as possible on a single page or document--and while this is done with good intentions--the reality is that oftentimes students can not process it all. For example, when designing content it is helpful to consider what is absolutely necessary and what is optional for learning. Consider keeping a folder or document available with additional information that a student can explore independently or be directed to for remediation. Additionally, chunking information can be critical for student retention as well. If we design a lesson with intuitive navigation between learning objectives, we can break up content in this same way. As a general rule, twenty short digital lessons or learning objectives with simple navigation is better than 5 long ones.


Reflection can also help students with cognitive load barriers. When students have time to reflect, it can push their learning from short-term to long-term, freeing up space in their working memory. In addition, reflection can be a great opportunity for students to look away from their screens. We know a certain amount of fatigue comes from starting at a screen, in fact eye fatigue can begin after as little as 20 minutes of screen time, so having students reflect by jotting some notes on a piece of paper can help their eyes and weariness. Somewhat unrelated, but a bonus of reflection is that it can help to combat academic dishonesty. For example, although it may be easy to copy someone else's words or answers from the internet, it is a lot more difficult to reflect on a writing or science process that you did not complete. Therefore, these reflections help provide teachers with feedback for relearning opportunities before a summative assessment.


Multimedia in your E-Learning Design

One strategy you might consider when designing digital media is to design using only multimedia (images, infographics, video, audio, embedded content, etc.) first, and then go back and add the text at the end. Typically, when we design content, we design from the top down, typing everything out as we go. However, when we do this it creates redundancy and our visual media makes less sense. In addition, saving the text until after our visual media is complete, forces us to be more intentional about choosing media that serves a purpose. When we start with text for example, we often choose an image to break up space on the page--however, when we choose intentional media first we are thinking more about instructional purpose. Lastly, designing with multimedia first helps us design with the way people read and interact online. If the lesson objective for a particular unit or lesson is not sustained reading, we can get rid of all the unnecessary text that contributes to cognitive load. It also eliminates text that students are likely to skim anyway without some deep reading strategy accompanying it.


In the next podcast and blog we’ll continue taking a deeper look into designing accessible digital content. For more great information on creating digital content, check out The Perfect Blend: A Practical Guide to Designing Student-Centered Learning Experiences by Michele Eaton.


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