Effective Use of Screen Real Estate in E-Learning

By Vivian Luu

Screen real estate refers to the amount of space that is available on a screen. In e-learning, it is not the available space on the computer screen that concerns us—it is the space on the slides we design and use to teach the material that we find to be most important. Creating e-learning slides, in programs such as PowerPoint or Captivate, may be simple and they may look aesthetically pleasing, but it is our effective use of space on the slides that give value to the user.
This article covers six principles you should consider in order to use screen real estate effectively.

Use white space, but not too much

White space can help a page look elegant and clean. Also known as negative space, white space is the part of the page we leave blank, such as the margins and the space between paragraphs. Used properly, white space can unclutter a page without it looking sparse. It also applies to e-learning slides. We want to teach the users everything we can, but we do not want to overwhelm them by putting too much information on one slide.

Each e-learning slide should cover only one topic. In doing so, we will not only control the white space on the slides, but also limit how much information we share at one time. We tend to use white space as borders to separate topics; these very paragraphs that you are currently reading are separated from one another using white space to help you see where one paragraph ends and where another one starts. If we focus on having only one idea per slide, we can decrease the use of white space typically reserved for separating topics. Then, you will only have to worry about line spacing, text, images, and navigation buttons.

Narrow the margins

Unlike a page that might be printed, e-learning slides are mostly viewed on a device and will not encounter the problem of information being cut off by the printer due to narrow margins. You can narrow the margins and use the few extra pixels to add more to the slides. It is a way to effectively use real estate and deliver a positive user experience.

Use graphics and figures carefully

In technical writing, graphics are meant to reinforce the text. Because of the limited real estate on e-learning slides, graphics should be small and used only to help the user understand the information. Instead of placing graphics in the middle of the slide and forcing the text to the margins, try putting the graphic in a corner or giving it its own slide after one that explains the graphic.

Use audio functions

Unlike a textbook, e-learning can use audio to enhance learning. Using the audio function to supply voice over on the slides gives the users a more personal e-learning experience. Not only will this save space for more information, but it will also be more accessible.

Place closed captioning strategically

We must also think of users who use closed captioning. Despite having limited screen real estate, e-learning slides can have closed captioning and still use space effectively. Put the closed captioning on the bottom of the screen where everyone is used to seeing it. It can also go into the narrowed margins of the slide. When the closed captioning has a solid background color, it is immediately differentiated from the slide’s main text without using up more real estate.

Use a responsive e-learning design

Different devices have different amounts of screen real estate, so e-learning designs will have to change with each type of device (for example: phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop). This is where responsive e-learning design comes in. With responsive e-learning, the slides adjust so that users have an optimal learning experience no matter what device they use.

Here are some considerations to keep in mind for devices of varying sizes and input methods:

Smart phones

  • Avoid making the user scroll or zoom in, as it would be inconvenient.
  • Use as few photos as possible, or incorporate them into the background at low opacity.
  • Replace “next” buttons with the option to tap on the screen to proceed; it will save space.
  • Use sans-serif fonts for easy reading—additionally, the size of a sans-serif font can be reduced and still maintain legibility.


  • Follow most of the considerations listed for smart phones.
  • Make the font size larger, as tablets have more real estate than smart phones.
  • Spread out the information to fill up some of the extra white space tablets have.

Laptops and desktops

  • Use arrow keys and clicks to advance through the e-learning slides, as a keyboard and mouse almost always accompany a laptop or desktop.
  • Use a larger font size to balance the available real estate on the screen.
  • Make graphics larger than they would be on a smart phone or tablet, but ensure that they reinforce the text.

Conclusion: Think like a user

To use screen real estate effectively in e-learning, we must think like a user. What do they want to see on the screen? How will they interpret the information? What aids do we anticipate them needing for a positive learning experience? How much is too much information? We must strike a balance with white space, text, and images if we are to convey the right amount of information in the best possible way. As communicators, it is our responsibility to effectively use real estate in e-learning so that the learning experience will be valuable to the users.

About the author

Vivian is a technical communication student at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology in Toronto, Canada. She is currently on a work placement as a technical writer at the IESO. Her interests in writing and the environment encouraged her to pursue an undergraduate degree in Professional Writing with a minor in Environmental Studies from York University.

New member – George Abraham

By: Kelly Smith

George Abraham
George Abraham

Whenever possible, we like to welcome new SIG members by asking them to share a bit about themselves. In this issue, we welcome George K. Abraham IV.

George is a materials scientist, technical communicator, and manager of technical services at Allied High Tech Products Inc. where he has become an industry authority on metallography. He is responsible for providing technical support, seminars, workshops, training, and demonstrations on Allied’s metallographic equipment and consumables, Zeiss’s optical microscopes, cameras, and imaging software, and Mitutoyo’s hardness and microhardness testers. He has a Bachelor of Science in materials science and engineering from Case Western Reserve University, and he previously held positions at H.C. Starck and Rhenium Alloys Inc.

George manages Allied’s applications laboratory, overseeing the development of metallographic procedures and assisting with research and development of new metallographic equipment, accessories, and consumables. He has authored numerous application notes, reports, technical bulletins, operation manuals, technical articles, papers, presentations, and webinars.

George serves on the editorial board of the journal Metallography, Microstructure, and Analysis, as secretary of the International Metallographic Society Board of Directors, and as a member of various professional committees focused on standards, education, and mentoring.

Also appreciative of the art of metallography, George has been known to get lost in microscopes exploring the beauty of materials; his favorite microstructure is nodular cast iron. George has developed and taught materials sample preparation seminars for ten years and enjoys mentoring emerging professionals in science and engineering.

Welcome, George!

If you are a new member and would like to submit a bio, please email it to newsletter@nullstcidlsig.org!

Are VARK and Other Learning Styles a Legitimate Pedagogical Theory?

By: Noah Page

The growing case against learning styles

As technical communicators, we are responsible for understanding our audience to the very best of our ability so that we can provide the most effective and accessible documentation possible. While rich media content grants us the ability to adapt our content according to our audience’s preferred method of learning, is it really best practice to categorize our audience into supposed learning styles? With this question in mind, technical communicators certainly have a stake in the evolving debate about learning styles.

While certain educational institutions place a high value on accommodating a variety of learning styles, many publications in recent years have begun to question the legitimacy of fixed learning styles. Writing for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan reported that 90% of teachers in a number of countries throughout the world believed in learning style theories. However, Khazan also detailed a growing body of evidence suggesting that learning style theories are not scientifically sound. In Scientific American, Cindi May performed a brief meta-analysis on recent studies about learning styles. May concluded that while students have clear preferences in how educational content is delivered to them, these preferences did not dictate how well they performed even if the material was not delivered in their preferred style.

The history of VARK

According to The Encyclopedia of the Mind, theories on learning styles first began to emerge in the 1950s. Since then, five major learning style frameworks have been developed:

Visual/ Auditory/ Reading/ Kinesthetic

  • Converging/Diverging
  • Serialist/Holist
  • Verbalize/Visualize
  • Field Dependent/Field Independent

Visual/Auditory/Reading/Kinesthetic (VARK) has arguably become the most prominent learning style framework. Khazan explains that VARK was devised in the early 1990s by school inspector Neil Fleming in response to his observations that different classrooms had different educational outcomes based on how the teacher presented the material.

Fleming went on to describe the four major learning styles that would come to the encompass the VARK framework. In his 1995 article “I’m different; not dumb: Modes of presentation (V.A.R.K.) in the tertiary classroom,” Fleming sketches out the basic principles behind the VARK approach, claiming that certain students were “advantaged or disadvantaged” by certain course materials as selected by instructors. Fleming goes on to define the four major learning styles based on anecdotal observations he made of students. Technical communicators will likely be interested in Fleming’s analysis of how different audiences respond to different material. However, the problem with Fleming’s article is that he provides no hard data demonstrating how learning outcomes might be different based on what type of material was presented.

In the face of these questions about VARK’s legitimacy as a scientifically grounded methodology, the official VARK website is surprisingly defensive. A page titled “Using VARK in research” argues that, “Any hypothesis that attempts to find links, especially correlation significance, between VARK and academic success will be invalid and a waste of research time and money. Academic success, is, of course, poorly defined…” Without any verifiable data to confirm or merely imply that using VARK in the classroom truly leads to better learning outcomes, why should technical communicators even bother trying to develop content that appeals to the four VARK categories?

More evidence against VARK

Many research studies conducted over the past few years have further diminished VARK as legitimate educational framework. A 2017 study by Martha Carr and Donggun An concluded that theories about learning styles such as VARK were not scientifically sound. Though learning style theories classify students’ educational preferences, they subsequently fail to build a solid empirical framework capable of explaining why and how students respond to their specific education preferences. Additionally, Carr and An argue that most learning style theories provide no reliable or consistent methods of gauging student success.

Philip Newton provides a critique similar to Carr and An’s. Newton believes that assigning students a fixed learning style is akin to confirmation bias, because once an instructor has decided that a student is a visual or auditory learner, the instructor simply can’t see that student learning in any other style. This is obviously a detrimental way of approaching education, as it vastly reduces the number of approaches the instructor can use while he or she is teaching. Newton also claims that this confirmation bias can be harmful to students as well, because students who have been labelled as auditory learners may never attempt to branch out into learning through other styles.

Approaching a mixed-style framework

It seems that VARK learning styles do not have any convincing empirical evidence to support their claims. With this in mind, how should technical communicators approach the design of educational content for platforms such as eLearning, online FAQs, or conventional procedural documentation? One possible approach would be offering a mixed learning style approach whenever possible. In a study of undergraduate nursing students, Sandra Fleming and her colleagues discovered that 53% of nursing students polled had no preferred learning style, while 35% claimed to have “dual learning” style. Additionally, Fleming et al argued that though students might have a favored learning style, they do not necessarily learn best using that style. From these conclusions, it is clear that any content technical communicators design must address a wide variety of learning styles. Because digital platforms offer a wealth of learning options, we should not pigeonhole our audience into any one learning style.

While there may be concrete patterns in how certain types of students learn, it seems there is currently no hard scientific evidence that proves what these learning styles are. Additionally, it is hard to tell if focusing on a student’s perceived learning style truly improves educational outcomes. Because VARK lacks this evidence, technical communicators clearly cannot rely on its framework to design our content. We also cannot completely dismiss learning theories, as they do offer a good point from where we can begin thinking about our multimedia content; however, we need to remain skeptical and never force our audience into one learning style.

About the author

Noah Page is a technical writing student at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology in Toronto, Canada and holds an MA in creative writing from the University of New Brunswick. Page has published or forthcoming work in Plenitude, Viator, Five2One, UNB’s Journal of Student Writing, filling Station, Existere, and The City Series: Fredericton chapbook. Page also reads submissions for The Fiddlehead literary magazine.

From the editor

By: Kelly Smith

I’m writing this about a week before Christmas, but there is no snow on the ground here in Michigan. Still, I am surrounded by the sights and sounds of the holidays, from wrapping paper and labels, to candy, nuts, and way too many cookies.

So, here! Grab a cookie and some cocoa and read on to see what our SIG has been up to these past three months and what we have in store for 2019. A lot of changes are headed our way!

In this issue

Wearing her program manager hat, Viqui Dill provides an update on recent webinars. And remember – as a SIG member, you get free admission to all our webinars! That’s a fantastic perk of being a SIG member.

InterChange 2018 happened in October in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Viqui Dill gives us a great overview of the speakers. It sounds like a wonderful conference!

Viqui Dill tells us all about the Sixth Annual Virtual Open House.  You can read the article, or watch the video where members introduced themselves and discussed why the SIG is such a valuable resource. (Also, there are cats. I’m pretty sure the internet requires you to include at least one cat per newsletter.)

Guest writer Daniel Maddox explains How to Create Objectives for instructional design. Maddox is a former classmate of mine who recently graduated with his Master’s in Technical Communication Management from Mercer University School of Engineering.

Co-manager Viqui Dill welcomes new volunteers, thanks those who have changed positions, and lists the open positions we still need to fill. Please consider joining the leadership of your IDL SIG! Viqui will be transitioning from co-manager to programs manager.

Speaking of volunteering, Lori Meyer announces a new SIG awards program that will award two volunteers for their new or ongoing contributions to our SIG. Check out her article to see how to nominate someone.

Co-manager Lori Meyer bids farewell to that role and thanks her fellow leaders for their assistance. But she’s not leaving us! I found out today that Lori plans to step into the membership manager role, so she will still be part of our SIG’s leadership team and we welcome her expertise.

In the secretary’s column, Marcia Shannon says her goodbyes as our secretary and tells us why that is the perfect role for a new volunteer. Could that person be you? Read her article to see how you can help contribute to your SIG. Marcia is not going anywhere either. When her time as secretary ends, she will be stepping into the co-manager’s role.

Student outreach coordinator, Sylvia Miller, reminds us that the SIG maintains a list of degree programs in instructional design. Want to increase your skillset? Need to find a class or program? Check out Sylvia’s article for information.

I hope you enjoy this edition of IDeaL. If you would like to write an article or book review for us, please contact me at newsletter@nullstcidlsig.org and check out our publication policy.

I hope you have a happy and relaxing holiday season. See you next year!

Volunteers update: Your SIG needs you!

by Viqui Dill, IDL SIG Co-manager

Welcome new volunteers and folks in new positions!

The STC Instructional Design and Learning Special Interest Group is proud to announce that we have a new assistant co-manager, secretary, and treasurer.

Marcia Shannon is moving from secretary to assistant co-manager for the community. Starting in January, Shannon will serve as co-manager and will be assisted by past co-managers, Lori Meyer and Viqui Dill. We are so glad she's bringing her knowledge about the SIG and taking her service to this higher level.

Madison Estabrook is joining the leadership team as our secretary, replacing Marcia Shannon. Estabrook is a graduate student at Missouri State and has been working in the profession for over a year. New to our SIG, she has been an STC student member since May 2017, Technical Editing SIG Quarterly Events Manager since August 2018, and has served as a Secretary for a Toastmasters club.

Jamye Sagan is stepping into the treasurer role, making her the official Swiss army knife of STC. Sagan was co-manager of the SIG from 2010-12, has served as our social media and surveys manager, serves as SIG liaison for the STC Community Affairs Committee, among other significant contributions. We are so glad she will continue to be on the leadership team as she fills this important need for the community.

Lori Meyer will be stepping down from her role as co-manager and taking up the role of membership manager. Meyer brings years of experience as membership manager for a number of STC communities.

Viqui Dill will also be stepping down as co-manager and assuming the programs manager role. She has been passionate about programs and has served the SIG in this role since 2015.

Many thanks to departing volunteers Sara Buchanan, Mellissa Ruryk, and Preeti Mather for their dedication and service as Membership Manager, Content Curator, and Training Evaluations Manager over the years. You will be missed and we can't thank you enough.

We need you, IDL SIG Members:

Our IDL SIG is a very special group of people within STC, consistently recognized as a fun community to belong to, as well as one that is beneficial to our careers. The old saying “you get out what you put in” is so true, but I would say you get back more than what you put in. Even the smaller volunteer tasks make our community more valuable to each of us. Invest a bit of your time and see! We have an immediate need for the following:

  • Co-manager (we need a second co-manager to support Marcia Shannon)
  • Surveys manager
  • Content curator
  • Training evaluations manager
  • Social media manager

See our complete list of volunteer opportunities on our website at http://www.stcidlsig.org/about-idl-sig/volunteer-opportunities/

Please send an email to manager@nullstcidlsig.org if you can help with any of these jobs.