IWBs: Reflections on Visibility and Readability

This week I have been giving a great deal of thought to some upcoming staff meetings I will be leading about use of the Interactive Whiteboard and designing for learning. While watching Joe Dale's video, I was reminded of some of the issues around readability while using the Interactive Whiteboard with students. His use of Yellow backgrounds with Large Blue Fonts, reminded me of the suggested importance of high contrast, colour combinations and font choice when creating digital resources for use in the classrooom. as opposed to paper based tools. As we move from paper to screen it is easy to think that the process will be a direct transition, but designing for readability within digital environments can present new challenges.

Many my colleagues use Comic Sans as a preferred font, probably because it looks fun and child friendly, but their are other more practical reasons and benefits for using this and other sans serif fonts, eg arial and verdana, when creating digital material. Sans Serif fonts tend to be more rounded, widely spaced and lack the little flicks that Serif fonts such as Times New Roman have. Some usability studies and reference sources have suggested that in digital environments, these latter font types (serif fonts) can cause difficulties for some readers as they can can lead the eye while scanning. Since discovering this, I have made a concious decision in presentation tools such as websites, powerpoints and IWB Notebooks of my own design, to use sans serif fonts.

Colour choice between fonts and backgrounds, are also an important issue to consider when creating your own digital content. Red on green or green on red as an example wreaks havoc with my eyes, described as busy by colleagues I worked with on my degree course, text presented in this way was described as "dancing," "jumping" and "dizzying" by them as we tried to focus on the apparently moving text, if uncomfortable for us consider also what effect this would have on for example a student who exhibited red green colourblindness.

Several articles I have encountered about dyslexia, also suggest that the choice of font size and colour, background colour and column width may effect student ability to engage with the texts we present, not only on screen but also while publishing for paper based activities. On Screen high contrast texts are useful in overcoming some of these barriers, but it is suggested that black on white may not be the best medium, and that a slightly off white background, would be preferable to support onscreen work. For more information on this latter area visit the British Dyslexia Association's website, who offer a useful style guide, not only for on screen text development but also print materials. The site itself is also great for demonstrating some of the ICT based tools available for supporting dyslexic students, including text readers, and includes tools in its design for customising page views which are style sheet enabled. Yellow on Blue or blue on yellow are are often suggested for use in developing IWB resources, I have to say that I don't always use these, but in putting together files and resources I do think about how these texts might be received by my students, consider the fonts I am using and the colour combinations and how these might effect readability. I also try to establish with my students before we begin whether or not they can see clearly, and if neccesary (which is often an issue related to how whiteboards and projectors have been sited in a room) adjust light conditions on the screen through closing blinds, or turning off lights accordingly.

Fonts and backgrounds may not be the only factors to consider when creating resources for use with students. Consistency in style of presentation may also contribute to accessibility and readability issues. This is an important issue to consider for those of us who work with children as emergent readers, this will apply when reviewing and planning which websites we will use, how we will lay out a support sheet, and when it comes to presenting material for shared reading, I have become increasingly aware in planning and making resources of the need to maintain a consistency in style throughout particular documents, and not to mix fonts, colours etc too widely, unless the style change is neccesary for a particular purpose. Eg in making hide and reveals, or highlighting a particular learning outcome. What we need to be careful of however is limiting font use to a single standard house style, for everything we make and use, but being aware of the issues and how they might effect our presentation or reader engagement. It is not I feel useful or indeed desirable to limit the fonts we use, as we do not want children to believe that all written texts, use letters or sound pictures of the same size and shape, which is likely to introduce readability issues all of its own later.

In the smartboard toolbox, there is also a very useful tool for all students, called the magnifier. This tool acts like a magnifying glass and when opened, can be dragged over sections of a page, revealing in another window on screen a digitally enlarged version of what is inside the "lens." I have found this particularly useful in highlighting sections of text on internet pages, and enabling the students to see for example web site addresses, without the need to copy them to a notebook and enlarge them.

These are only a few of the issues, and relate to ideas I will be considering as a with colleagues as a starting point when considering notebook design for students. If you would like to explore usability and readability more widely then a few useful starting points might be.
The British Dyslexia Association
Jakob Nielsen's usable information technology
and the US Department of Health and Human Services Usability Web Sites

I was also interested to read an article By Anthony Evans on Web Page Reading a few weeks ago, where he had begun to explore how readers engage with web based texts.

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