Producing usable content for course websites

Chunking and Interrelating Content elements

Course websites include a large body of educational information organized into many fragments that are interrelated to one another. These include: educational tools such as syllabi, readings, lecture notes/audios/videos, multimedia material, student annotations/comments on instructor-provided material; administrative tools such as announcement sections, on-line exams, student access control mechanisms; and communicative tools such as a class newsgroup, an email listserv, etc. The design of the website should guide the users in their traversal of these different fragments without leading to cognitive overload. Through transparent navigational tools, the course website designer must mark the boundaries between different clumps of content, while providing easy ways of traversing between different content areas. An easily accessible website content indexing system, a menu bar indicating different components, or a site map are different ways of indicating backgrounded content elements to the user.

Foregrounding/Backgrounding Content Elements

The course website user usually needs a small fraction of information at any time. It is important to foreground relevant and current functionalities such as announcements, recent lecture materials, weekly assignments without undermining continuity and interrelatedness with the backgrounded material. The design elements should take into account the continuity of highlighted material by ensuring appropriate cross referencing to older but interrelated material through linking and archiving.

It is also important to show the inter-relationships of the pieces of content on a certain course web site to that of older and related courses on the same subject. But this should be done without overwhelming the current user of the course website with backgrounded elements, or rendering the site totally unnavigable. The administrators of the content (in most cases, the instructors themselves) should bear the responsibility of marking off the most relevant old material for the purposes of the current course.

Style guidelines for producing collaborative content

The content of a course website is usually an outcome of contributions by multiple users. In order to maintain consistency in the "look and feel" across different contributions, a style guide could be prepared. Such a guide could include design factors such as page layout, font type, desired length of documents, writing styles, etc.

Adopting writing styles for the WWW

As Jakob Nielsen documents (, in order to generate well-designed content for the web, one should:

  • Be succinct: write no more than 50% of the text you would have used in a hardcopy publication
  • Write for scannability: don't require users to read long continuous blocks of text
  • Use hypertext to split up long information into multiple pages

But such a style is appropriate only for some types of textual content that could be easily reduced down to a bunch of bullet points. Scannable text might discourage students to think beyond the listed points, even just for the purpose of interrelating them to one another. Thus, some documents could be posted on the web just for being printed out as opposed to being read from screens.


Aylin Kuntay (Look and Feel Group) 4-15-98

SIMS 290-3: Web Page Development