I have considered writing this at the headings of so, so many documents.
The purpose of education is to impart knowledge and teach ways of thinking so your purpose is to make that process as smooth as possible. You are the subject matter expert, be confident in that and focus on imparting the information your audience needs to know.
There is a myth that the higher up the education ladder you go, the more convoluted, confusing, and flowery your writing needs to be. I would be a rich woman if I had a pound for every time someone told me ‘they are masters students, they should be able to deal with the language’.
Why? What purpose does it serve?
One possible reason may be to hide the ineptitude of the teacher, in which case I’d question why the teacher is in education and possibly suggest that they seek to change careers. Much more likely though, especially in an online context, is that it may be to try to demonstrate the competency and academic credentials of the teacher.
Consider this though, how do you speak in a face to face setting? In an asynchronous, online environment your audience can’t stop you mid flow to ask you to expand on or explain a point. Instead expect emails every time a point isn’t understood and, because they can’t hear the answer when someone else asks the question, expect multiples of the same question. The goal of asynchronous teaching is that students understand without additional input so receiving multiple emails on the same topic suggests a failing in that section which should be revised before the next cohort sees it.
A good way to write content online is to write as you speak. If you are unsure, you could even record yourself teaching and then transcribe and edit it.
A conversational tone is engaging and so will hold the interest of your audience for longer but be careful of idioms and colloquialisms. We all use them but they are not universal no matter how embedded they seem to be. Yes I have had to google alternatives to phrases and idioms that I use regularly and thought were universal, and even in my writing so far I’m sure there are still idioms, colloquialisms, and non standard grammar structures that I’ve missed. Do your best, if your audience doesn’t understand something, be sure that they will let you know.
References are still important with a conversational tone though. In fact they may be more important online as it is a much more transparent medium than lecture halls and classrooms. You can lean on those references to do some of the work for you, especially if you reference material available digitally, so you don’t clutter your pages with repeated information.
Imagine that you have been using a phrase or quote or paragraph so long that you have forgotten where it came from, so you use it and you don’t reference it but a five second google from a student will find the original source. You may not have deliberately hidden the original source but your academic credentials just took a hit. A small one, but still a hit.
No matter how long you have been teaching, though it may be more useful to those who have been teaching longer, running your content through Turnitin (or what ever your institution uses) may be beneficial. It will catch those long forgotten quotes and give the details of the original so they can be added as references to your content.
These references are how you show your credentials, the breath and depth of your reading and knowledge, without overcomplicating the language. So, while you are looking at your references, have a look at the names and dates. Are you talking about internet shopping but using a reference from 2000? Why? Are you making a point about what experts in 2000 thought internet shopping would become or have you got into a rut in terms of how you teach e-commerce?
Similarly, are you talking about the historical accuracy of the costumes in the live action remake of Mulan but are quoting Jones not Zhao? Why? Assuming they are both equally qualified to speak to the costumes, are you making a point about how the film was made for Western audiences or have you got into a rut in terms of your sources?
Another possible reason for overly complicated language is to obscure knowledge from the student, in which case I’d again question why the teacher is in education and possibly advise that they seek to change careers. Again much more likely, is that it may be to try to teach students to understand academic papers/articles.
Assuming the reasoning is to expose students to academic writing and papers, be really clear on the purpose of using complex, formal language and use concepts your audience already understands to expose them to the style of writing in a particular field. Signpost or highlight this reasoning and purpose as much as possible and walk them through it, in your writing, at least the first few times. If your audience doesn’t understand what is going on, the concept, or the language, they are going to get lost.
Any concept can be explained in at least five different levels if the intention is to impart knowledge. Wired even have series called ‘5 Levels’ but a large proportion of media — regular tv, Netflix, YouTube etc — is factual. The interest is there but the language is a big factor in maintaining both interest and learning. You’ll perhaps also notice that my paragraphs are quite short, we’ll come back to this for layout purposes but for content purposes, it is a good way to ‘chunk’ information into smaller bites as reading on screens is more taxing than reading on paper. These chunks are also more easily absorbed and integrated into existing knowledge.
A certain amount of technical language is needed but for the most part, plain English (or whatever other language) enables you and your audience to focus on the prize — understanding and retention of the concept so it can be applied at a later date.
One way to ensure more retention is to give the history and context of the concept. I talked previously about narrative as a part of structure but also as a way of anchoring or hanging information as humans are by nature creatures of story so by placing the information in a story of history and context, you help your audience to retain the information. This history and context is also a natural way of ‘decolonizing’ the curriculum and making subjects more inclusive but be wary of inclusion for inclusions’ sake.
No-one likes a ‘token [insert protected characteristic]’ and it isn’t necessarily pertinent to the workings of each concept but can be interesting side notes which can increase engagement. Examples from science and maths might include the fact that Arabic numbers were actually invented by Indians or that Pythagorus’s theorem pre-dates Pythagorus by over 1000 years. Trivia quizzes might ask what is the link between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace?
Have discussions about who and what were the subject of experiments, why, and what impact has that had on the field. For that matter have discussions about who have been applauded and exhaled for their achievements while others have been reduced to internet memes of ‘Did you know…?’.
Where it is more obviously pertinent, economics, politics, art, media, literature, psychology, sociology, history, medicine, patient-centred care, architecture, etc & etc, you should aim to use the breath and depth of your reading, exemplified in your citations and references, to include context and history for concepts. Normalising and expecting this level of history and context ensures better teaching and learning by engaging in critical thinking of the whole rather than focusing on one small aspect.
Hopefully what I have said here is clear but let’s recap in another list.
- Your audience will be focused on the concepts, not on trying to unravel the language.
- People who have the capacity to do the work but lack the background in the language used are not excluded.
- It is engaging and draws the audience in, much like a face to face conversation
- Signpost changes of subject or purpose within the content
- Be wary of idioms and colloquialisms
- Show the breath and depth of your knowledge as an academic or subject matter expert
- Allows you to keep content uncluttered by directing your audience to other sources
- Be wary of ruts. Ensure your references are up-to-date, relevant, and from appropriate authors
- Gives context to the concepts
- Shows the breath and depth of your knowledge as an academic or subject matter expert
- Demonstrates a global perspective on and within a subject or topic
- Be wary of inclusion for inclusions sake
- Be wary of who has been excluded and who you are excluding
It is not incumbent on you to do all of these things at once.
As I said in the starting point, your writing is the most static part of your teaching online but it can and should be reviewed regularly. Eventually, possibly within a year, you will have reviewed the whole of your materials and, when taking these three together, your writing will be inclusive, accessible, and impart the necessary concepts to your audience.