8 Tips for content enhancement
Content usability focuses on making the module content as usable as possible to all Blackboard users. Aside from the most basic ideas of content usability – spelling and good structure - there are a few content usability principles that are often ignored.
1. ‘Chunking’ content for readability/usability
Reading online is different from reading print materials. Typically web users scan the content looking for relevant words that match the information they are seeking. Most users scan the page, picking out keywords and sentences. Nielsen (2008) found that 79% of users scanned Web pages, they read only 20-28% of the words on the page.
You will want to use a technique called chunking. Chunking is nothing more than breaking your text into manageable sections. These techniques will help you to chunk your information and write visually:
- Write short sentences.
- Limit paragraphs to two-three sentences.
- Use bulleted or numbered lists.
- Use tables to make complex information easier to understand.
- Use pictures, images, diagrams, or illustrations representative of the ideas expressed in the content.
- Use headings and sub-headings.
- Use white space, the line tool or <hr> in the HTML Source mode to separate chunks of information.
All these features are available in the Blackboard Learn content editor. For detailed instructions on using the content editor please see Blackboard Help at:
To protect against losing work if an Internet connection loss or software error occurs, you may find it useful to type in an offline text editor, such as Notepad or TextEdit, and copy and paste your work into Blackboard Learn.
Alternately, before submitting or saving, you can select and copy all of the text typed in Blackboard Learn. Select the text and right-click to copy it. You may also use key combinations for copying and pasting:
Windows: Ctrl+A to select all the text, CTRL+C to copy, and CTRL+V to paste.
Mac (OSX): COMMAND+A to select all the text, COMMAND+C to copy, and COMMAND+V to paste.
2. Use consistent formatting for usability
The key to usability and readability of online module content is to use formatting consistently.
Formatting might not make the content unreadable, but it does reduce its usability - by increasing confusion. Each moment of confusion is another overhead in the time taken to digest the content. Usability is about reducing this overhead so the user doesn’t switch-off or close the browser window altogether.
At its most basic, formatting tells readers something about the nature of the content you’re presenting, and about its component parts.
If you use italics for emphasis here, and bold here, users may become confused, even subconsciously. Why are those two items - they could be headings, or titles, or images - presented differently? Are they different?
Pick a format, font-size and colour scheme and stick to it throughout the module. It may be worthwhile writing a Faculty Style Guide for Blackboard Learn.
Blackboard Learn’s content editor has a built-in Format tool that helps you consistently style Headings and text. Simply highlight the text and select the Format you want to apply from the drop-down menu.
3. Capitalising text and adding emphasis
Capitalised text is the least effective method of adding textual emphasis. The common perception amongst internet users is that YOU ARE SHOUTING! Whether you choose capital or lowercase letters has a strong effect on the readability of your text. All capitals should generally be avoided as long passages of capitalised text are less readable. Capitals should only be used for short headings.
4. Do not underline text
While Blackboard Learn’s content editor provides an underline option, try not to use it. Underline on text has a special functional meaning in web documents. To web users, underline indicates that the text is a link to another resource.
5. Careful use of italics
Avoid putting large sections of text in italics. At high screen resolutions, the readability of italicised text is much lower than plain text.
6. Use bold sparingly
Bold text gives emphasis because it contrasts in weight from the body text. Boldface text is readable on-screen, though large blocks of text set in bold lacks contrast and therefore lose effectiveness. When everything is emphasised in this manner, nothing has emphasis.
7. Use colour carefully
Make careful and sparing use of colour. Blackboard Learn has a text colour swatch of just 40 colours by default:
However, selecting the More Colours... option allows the use of almost any colour using the selectable colour palette, or entering the colour’s hex code e.g. #FF0000 for a red.
Keep in mind that those with vision difficulties such as colour blindness may have problems with certain colours. Always check that the background colour and the text colour have enough contrast so that the text remains readable to someone with vision problems.
Although contrast is particularly important for vision-impaired users, all users will benefit from greater readability.
Although the use of colour is another option for differentiating type, coloured text, like underlining, has a special functional meaning in web documents. You should avoid putting coloured text within text blocks because readers will assume that the coloured text is a hypertext link and click on it. Avoid using colours close to the default web link colours of blue and violet.
8. PDF, DOC and PowerPoint formats - When to use
PDF, Microsoft Word DOC and PowerPoint are universally accepted document formats. Your original module learning materials will most likely consist of files in one or more of these formats. Each format has its strengths and weaknesses. All three have their own accessibility features and tools. The following sections discuss their strengths and weaknesses and suggests what they should/and shouldn’t be used for.
For more information on making your PDFs, DOCs and PowerPoints accessible please see JISC Techdis’ excellent articles:https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/open-educational-resources/accessibility-considerations
You may not have any say on which format you can make available to students. It may be the case that you do not have the original source document, so will be unable to easily convert from one format to the other.
However, here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each format and some brief guidelines on using them in Blackboard Learn.
When creating a link to any document in Blackboard Learn it is considered best practice to give the user some indication of the title, file format and file size before they download it. Links can be formatted to include the file extension and file size e.g. Module Amendment Form.PDF (256kb).
Note: If you attach a file to a content item, Blackboard will automatically show this information in the link it generates.
Portable Document Format (PDF) is an open standard for document exchange. This file format, created by Adobe Systems, is used for representing documents in a manner independent of application software, hardware, and operating systems. These files are typically opened with the Adobe Reader Application (http://get.adobe.com/reader/)
Notes on using PDFs in Blackboard Learn
- While PDFs can have table of contents, bookmarks etc. creating these requires the author to correctly format and set-up the original source documents beforehand and be familiar with programs such Adobe Acrobat.
- The PDF will load inside Blackboard’s browser window but will be inside Adobe’s proprietary container with its own – additional - set of navigational controls. These extra controls may be confusing to users as well as restrict the amount of the PDF that is visible on-screen.
- The PDF will often have been formatted for paper and may require horizontal scrolling (left-to-right) and zooming in and out to view an entire page.
- PDFs are great for printing documents. Paper is superior to computer screens in many ways, and users often prefer to print documents that are too long to easily read online.
- PDF is not recognised by the W3C as a standard format.
- For online reading, PDFs should be avoided.
- If possible set the Open in a New Window option to Yes when adding a PDF to Blackboard Learn. This will open the file outside the main Blackboard window, this will minimise scrolling and give students a larger reading area.
Microsoft Office Word (DOC)
Microsoft Office Word is a word processor designed by Microsoft. It is a component of the Microsoft Office software system. It is also sold as a standalone product and included in the Microsoft Works Suite.
Notes on using DOCs in Blackboard Learn
- Like PDFs, Word DOCS can have table of contents, bookmarks etc. However these require the author to correctly format and set-up the Word documents beforehand and correctly use styles and other Word features.
- Word DOCs will not load inside Blackboard’s browser window, the user will instead be prompted to Save or Open the document and be required to read the document inside Microsoft Word. This will move them away from the browser based content and into another application. This may be confusing for Blackboard Learn users.
- Word is also great for printing documents and making editable documents available to users. Paper is superior to computer screens in many ways, and users often prefer to print documents that are too long to easily read online.
- For online reading, bulky Word Documents should be avoided.
- Large, un-optimised images can quickly add to a Word document’s file size.
- Using Word document features such as Word Art etc. can quickly “bloat” the documents file size. Be aware of this - as a user on a slow internet connection may experience long download times for large files.
Microsoft PowerPoint is a communication tool to present views and ideas effectively using diagrams, photos, clip arts, sounds, designs and animated special effects. It was developed by Microsoft. It is part of the Microsoft Office suite, and runs on Microsoft Windows and Apple's Mac OS X operating system.
Notes on using PowerPoint in Blackboard Learn
- PowerPoint files will not load inside Blackboard’s browser window, the user will instead be prompted to Save or Open the document and be required to view the presentation outside of the browser. This may be confusing for Blackboard Learn users.
- Video, transitions, images and audio all contribute to the PowerPoint file size. A PowerPoint file can very quickly become a document of many megabytes in size. We have seen some large un-optimised presentations come in at over 400MB (it should be noted that these examples contained embedded audio and video files). Be aware of the student on slow network connection trying to download such a file.
- Consider converting the PowerPoint slides into Blackboard Learn items. Blackboard presents content in serial/page-by-page format similar to PowerPoint. You can add value to the Blackboard version of this content by inserting quizzes, discussion forums and other tools between sections of the content.
- Alternatively, the Slideshare mashup tool is available in Blackboard’s content editor. The Powerpoint file is hosted on Slideshare (by default presenetations are public). The mashup tool will allow you to embed the presentation in a content item for your students to view inline. Please note, the limited space in the browser window may make the Slideshare presentation difficult to read at low screen resolutions.
- Page-to-page navigation and accessibility may be an issue for students with disabilities. See JISC Techdis’s excellent articles on creating accessible PowerPoint files: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/open-educational-resources/accessibility-considerations