Writing online – tips for teachers and learners

Learning and teaching online, especially when using learning community approaches, places an emphasis on writing. This may involve writing in discussion forums, wikis, blogs, or more specialised tools such as the Moodle database. I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of read-write activities for learning.

But writing online can be a nightmare for teachers and students who are familiar with the web as an information resource but are new to creating content online. There are a number of pitfalls: what is a relatively simple task when using desktop software can be very problematic when using an online editor such as those found in blogs, wikis or LMS software. But most problems can be avoided by using a few simple techniques:

  1. Never paste from a Word document. You can end up with garbage text like that shown in the illustration, or other formatting problems that are not easy to fix. If your text is in Word, copy and paste it into a text editor first (such as Notepad in Windows or TextEdit in OSX), then copy and paste that into the online editor. All the formatting will be lost, but you’ll have a clean copy without problematic formatting.
  2. Never press the ‘Submit’ button without a backup. While you were writing, the LMS may have logged you out, or your network connection or session may have been lost. You can spend a long time composing a thoughtful reflective response to a forum posting, or composing an informative web page, then lose your work when you submit. A simple strategy is to select and copy all the text before you click submit. That way, if your work is not submitted, you can paste into another editor and try again. And if what you have written is really worth keeping, consider saving it as a text file to your hard disk – just in case!
  3. Don’t worry about formatting – at least at first. Most of the WYSIWYG editors built into LMS or CMS software are idiosyncratic at best, so get your thoughts onto the screen and leave putting in the bulleted lists etc to last. If you’re used to writing using desktop software, lower your expectations – your formatting options are much diminished using most online editors. And if you’re reluctant to give up a lot of text formatting, you’ll also find it helpful to know how to use a few formatting tags – HTML or wiki markup – for those occasions when the editor gets confused and you just need to make a few changes to the source code.

Teachers and learners can get really frustrated and turned off the use of LMS and other online software if they lose work or can’t format it they way they want. We need to predict that these sorts of problems will occur and inform teachers and learners how to avoid them beforehand.

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