Plain Language for Course Creators: Enhancing Clarity and Engagement

Belo Miguel Cipriani, Ed.D

Belo Miguel Cipriani, Ed.D is the Executive Director of Oleb Books.

by Belo Miguel Cipriani, Ed.D., Executive Director, Oleb Books

In the fast-paced world of online learning, clear communication is crucial for course creators. Learners often have limited time to spend on training, so when they engage with courses, the experience needs to be straightforward and easy to navigate. In this article, we explore how training materials can be revised using plain language to improve the learning experience.

Prioritizing the Learner

Imagine handing learners a training manual filled with dense, jargon-heavy text and lengthy explanations.

Training doesn’t have to feel like a struggle. In fact, successful training modules are accessible, engaging and even enjoyable. As a bonus, well-executed work-related training offers employees the opportunity to take a welcomed break from their daily routines.

Best Practice Before After
Avoid Complex/Jargon Filled Language The institution leverages a comprehensive cognitive training model with an emphasis on advanced problem-solving techniques, optimizing individual learning trajectories while fostering robust cognitive restructuring. At this learning center, educators use a training method that emphasizes problem-solving skills. They help learners improve their understanding by guiding them through different approaches to tackle challenges.
Put Info in Logical Order There is a new course offering coming this fall called Designing Accessible Outdoor Spaces. Designing Accessible Outdoor Spaces is a new course that will be offered this fall.
Use Active Voice Course enrollments must be completed by Tuesday, April 9, 2024. You must enroll in the course by Tuesday, April 9, 2024.
Use Familiar Language/Define Unusual Words Tuberculosis is an airborne contagion. Tuberculosis is an airborne contagion. Meaning this disease is easily spread through the air by coughing, sneezing and spitting.
Define Acronyms or Avoid Altogether Every year he donates two hundred dollars to the SPCA. Every year he donates two hundred dollars to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Tips to Write for Clarity and Understanding

  • Put information in logical order, with the important details first.
    • For example: “’Designing Accessible Outdoor Spaces’ is a new course that will be offered this Fall” is easier to grasp right away than, “There is a new course offering coming this Fall called ‘Designing Accessible Outdoor Spaces’.”
  • Use an active voice, with a clear “actor “in your writing. 
    • For example: “You must enroll in the course by Tuesday, April 9, 2024” is more clear than “Course enrollments must be completed by Tuesday April 9, 2024.”
  • Use language familiar to your target audience. Provide definitions for any unusual words. Avoid jargon. 
    • For example: Unusual word-contagion (disease that is easily spread). Tuberculosis is an airborne contagion. Meaning this disease is easily spread through the air by coughing, sneezing and spitting.
  • Spell out acronyms as they are introduced and occasionally throughout the text. 
    • For example: using the acronym SPCA, “Every year he donates two hundred dollars to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).”
  • Avoid metaphors. 
    • For example: “It’s raining heavily outside” can be understood better by varying levels of English comprehension versus “It’s raining cats and dogs outside.” 

The Importance of Plain Language Writing in Online Learning

In online learning, plain language writing is a powerful tool for designing practical and effective courses. Plain language helps with:

  1.  Accessibility: Not all learners have the same language proficiency or literacy skills. Using plain language ensures that educational content is accessible to a broader audience, including those with diverse backgrounds and abilities.
  2.  Clarity and Comprehension: Online learners come from different cultural, linguistic, and educational backgrounds. Plain language minimizes confusion and ensures content is easily understood by all learners, no matter their prior knowledge or experience. 
  3.  Retention: Clear, straightforward language aids in information retention. Learners who can easily understand the content are more likely to remember and apply it effectively.
  4.  Efficiency: Online learning often involves self-paced study, where learners engage with content independently. Plain language facilitates efficient learning by reducing the time needed to decipher complex language or concepts.
  5.  Engagement: Engaging learners is essential for effective online education. Plain language writing keeps learners focused on the content rather than struggling to understand the language, leading to increased engagement and motivation.
  6.  Reducing Barriers: For learners with disabilities, such as dyslexia or cognitive impairments, plain language can reduce barriers to learning by presenting information clearly in a straightforward manner.

Final Thoughts

Plain language is not just a buzzword. It’s a powerful writing approach in successful course design. By embracing clarity and simplicity, course creators can transform their learning materials and uplift the learning experience for everyone. 

You can find out more about using plain language and other accessibility topics by viewing the recording of our webinar: Unlocking Clarity: Improve Accessibility with Plain Language Fundamentals

About Belo Miguel Cipriani, Ed.D.

Belo Miguel Cipriani is a digital inclusion strategist who became passionate about making online spaces accessible after being blinded by a group of men in 2007. His books and articles on disability issues have received numerous awards and international recognition. He has guest lectured at Yale, and, in 2020, he was appointed by Governor Tim Walz to the Minnesota Council on Disability. Through his digital access consulting firm, Oleb Media, he has helped countless organizations build inclusive websites and apps. HuffPost referred to him as an “Agent of Change,” and SF Weekly named him one of the best disability advocates. Tony Coelho, the primary author and sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, called him an “important voice” in disability writing.

To stay up to date on Belo and Oleb Media’s activities, go to Oleb Media and sign up for the Oleb Media newsletter: The Digital Inclusion News

CourseArc, a content authoring and management system (CAMS) was built to support organizations as they facilitate the collaborative creation of engaging and accessible online learning. Check out our resource site to see how we can help your team. Check back to our blog and social media feeds for additional resources and case studies on how our clients are using CourseArc to move their classrooms online. 

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