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Beyond the Spell-Checker: The Content Editors’ Role in the Student Experience

image of a red pen correcting grammar errors

It’s ten to eleven on a Wednesday night, and student Sandy finally has a moment to work on her online course. It’s been a long, exhausting day. The kids are in bed and Sandy is determined to tackle an assignment before it’s time to call it a night. She logs in to the learning management system (LMS) and locates this week’s assignment. Reading the prompt, Sandy frowns.

“Write a short essay about ethical issues in the case. Your paper should be three to four pages in length. Be sure to use speaker notes in your presentation.”

She’s confused. No specific case has been provided, and she has no clue which case the prompt is referring to. And what’s this about a presentation? There’s a note to find more information in the Essay Assignment Rubric, but when she clicks on the link, a document called “Short Paper Guidelines” opens instead. Is it the right document? As she digs deeper, she runs into more inconsistencies: The directions in the document conflict with the module prompt! The document says she should actually be writing a paper of four to five pages investigating three ethical concepts. There’s no mention of a presentation, and there’s still no sign of this mystery case.

Sandy is starting to get really frustrated. She pulls up the course syllabus to find out how many points this assignment is worth, but when she tries to find this information, she doesn’t see any assignment category named “Essay Assignment” or “Short Paper.” There’s a “Written Paper” — could that be it? Her impression of the online school is plummeting right alongside her patience.

This is an extreme example, but it is a scenario that can happen at institutions with no content editing. Most of the time, these issues don’t stem from sloppy writing or a nonchalant attitude toward the learner experience. But writers are human: They make typos and other errors, and they are pulled in different directions by competing priorities and areas of expertise. Additionally, writers are close to their work, and the closer you are to the material, the harder it is to spot problem areas.

That’s where content editors come in at the College of Online and Continuing Education. Their primary goal is to ensure that the content is correct, consistent and utterly unambiguous. The editors read the content from the perspective of the student and the instructor and address anything that would hinder the learning process, whether it’s grammatical mistakes, contradictory instructions or simple typos.

Why go through so much time, effort and resources? Is a typo or an inconsistently hyphenated term so bad in the grand scheme of things? In fact, while those things are certainly part of a content editor’s domain, there’s much more to it — all with the goal of helping Sandy and her peers finish their assignments with zero frustration.

Plain and Simple

The core of assignment clarity is simple language that the student can understand. Note that what’s clear to a student in one discipline might not be clear to a student in another — this is about knowing your audience and tailoring your language to suit their needs, not about attempting to force a one-size-fits-all solution. But a solid foundation for writers to build upon is the idea of plain language, which “your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it,” as defined by the Plain Language Action and Information Network.

This concept becomes all the more important in an asynchronous online learning environment, where the instructional content may compete with a number of distractions for the student’s attention and where confusion regarding assignment directions can result in significant delays in completion, as Bennett, Marsh and Killen state in their 2007 Handbook of Online Education.

“Clearly written communications  . . .  improve the learning efficiency by removing doubt, confusion, or questions that detract from the learning task.  . . . [Learners] will spend less time trying to decipher or interpret the message or instructions and more time engaged in the lesson activity,” according to Lawrence C. Ragan in Principles of Effective Online Teaching: #6 Think Before You Write.

It’s important to emphasize that it is not the content editor’s task to force an author’s language into some predetermined mold. Content editors strive to preserve the author’s unique voice and steer clear of making edits just because they prefer another phrasing. Instead, each edit serves dual ends: improving the student experience while honoring the author’s intent. Ensuring clarity rarely necessitates a rewrite; instead, an editor seeks to carefully carve out, surgeon-style, points of confusion and ambiguity.

The difference between clarity and confusion can sometimes boil down to something as simple as a single comma, as in the recent class-action lawsuit involving overtime pay for Oakhurst Dairy truck drivers (read more at Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute). Simple, clear writing benefits every reader, but it’s also an important component in ensuring that our courses are accessible: “Unclear or confusing writing is an accessibility barrier to all readers, but can be especially difficult for people with reading disorders or cognitive disabilities,” explains WebAIM, a site specializing in web accessibility. Ragan states that clear and concise language also assists learners of varying linguistic backgrounds “by removing barriers of understanding local or contextualized language.”

In other words, helping students understand course content by providing clear language is part of universal design, which supports our mission of expanding access to education. To read more about how a community of federal employees is leveraging plain language, see Federal Plain Language Guidelines.

You’ve Got Style: Keeping It Consistent

The styling of words represents the subtler side of a content editor’s work. In this context, style involves decisions like what terms to capitalize or hyphenate, when to spell out a number instead of using a numeral, and whether to use the serial comma. Why does it matter if we ask students to take a midterm as opposed to a mid-term or if we discuss events in the nineteenth century rather than the 19th century? The goal here is not necessarily clarity, as described in the previous section. Instead, thoughtful styling — captured within an editorial style guide — supports the creation of consistent, polished copy, which in turn enhances the institution’s image by improving the learner experience. While not all readers will ever notice inconsistent styling, those who do will inevitably perceive the writing as “sloppy,” warns Sue Khodarahmi in her Communication World article “You’re Stylin’ Now.”

Who decides how organizations style their writing? Many organizations follow an existing style guide, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, or they may base their style guides on existing works and customize the guidelines to fit their needs. Style guides can also be created from scratch. COCE Course Production’s customized editorial style guide is based on Chicago, while citation style is determined by the course discipline. In her article for the European Association for International Education, Megan Brenn-White writes, “Editorial style guides are important for any institution, as inconsistency (not to mention errors!) can imply a lack of professionalism or quality.” In addition, editorial style guides save time, as they eliminate the need for each content editor to make stylistic decisions on a case-by-case basis, over and over again.

Consistency, as a best practice, extends to assignment directions as well. As poor Sandy learned, it’s important to keep assignment and document naming consistent to avoid confusion. In other words, while a “short paper,” a “written assignment” and a “written paper” may all be legitimate options, we need to pick one per assignment category and stick to it throughout the course — without exceptions. Beyond assignment naming, inconsistencies can also arise in areas such as textbook titles or author names, chapter readings, module or course titles, and assignment point values. A content editor is on the lookout for these issues and more.

Another key element of consistency is found within the learning environment, which for asynchronous online courses is the LMS. Consistency in user interface design has numerous benefits: It eliminates the need for students to keep relearning a shifting environment, reduces the potential for confusion and helps generate positive user experiences, according to Maria De La Riva in her article “The Importance of Consistency in UI Design.”

A content editor’s role in supporting the structure of the learning environment involves maintaining templates and ensuring correct formatting. The purpose of these templates is to provide a vehicle for customized course content in a consistent format both within a course and between courses. When custom content is presented in the same visual format per course element (like a syllabus or a rubric), it helps the student focus on the content, not on the presentation, of these essential documents. Additionally, adhering to formatting best practices within each template ensures that the content is readable with a screen reader. The goal is not to force a cookie-cutter experience, but to ensure a seamless, polished learning environment.

Typo? Negative

Fixing typos is probably what comes to mind when most people think of content editing. But a content editor is not merely a glorified spell-checker. For instance, Microsoft Word’s spell-checker functionality will easily catch typos that produce a nonword, which is “a string that is not a real word,” as defined by Ray Panko from the University of Hawaii. Microsoft Word is much less likely, however, to catch typos that create a different, but incorrect, word. And these are precisely the kinds of errors that humans have trouble catching, Panko’s research showed.

For example, the difference between identity and identify or definitely and defiantly can be deceptively subtle in running text. Catching errors is even harder for people reading their own writing: “When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey.  . . . The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads,” said University of Sheffield psychologist Tom Stafford in the Wired article “What’s Up With That: Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos.” A content editor approaches course content with a fresh pair of eyes, which helps uncover any lingering typos and grammatical errors.

While typos may seem like a small thing, polished copy matters. According to a survey conducted by software company Acrolinx, “74% of respondents are conscious of the quality of spelling and grammar on company websites. Of them, 59% indicated that bad grammar and careless spelling would prevent them from making a purchase from a website.” To provide a quality experience for our students, our course content must be free from distracting typos and grammatical errors.

What’s Next?

Content editors do much to increase the quality of our courses, but there remains potential for more. For instance, while content editors currently rely on their experience and training to uncover confusing language, student input could be used to gain a better understanding of the kind of voice and format that works for students in assignment directions and other course content. Survey and ticket feedback is helpful, but it may not specify exactly what language in the course was confusing. In addition, content editors could be leveraged in the drafting stages of course content. This increased collaboration between author and editor could substantially help authors create the best version of their content for students and instructors.

Quality increases when we view content creation as a collaborative effort that encompasses the author, content editor and audience — that is, students and instructors. By harnessing author expertise, editorial insight and student preferences in the creation of written materials, we generate instructional content that will be more likely to fulfill its purpose and provide the student with a positive experience.

Envision a completely different experience for Sandy. She sits at her computer that Wednesday night and logs in to her course. The intuitive navigation leads her to her assignment, and the clearly written prompt and supporting materials leave no question as to what she should be doing. She may not notice the polish of the language and the seamless consistency of the materials — things are as they should be. But with each click and interaction, Sandy is building her experience. Content editors play their part in making that experience a positive one.

Academically Speaking

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