If you are familiar with principles of graphic design, you know that white or negative space, is an important component of visual problem solving. White space refers to the blank areas around and between the images and text on the screen or page.
In his book Design Elements, Timothy Samara states, “Space calls attention to content, separates it from unrelated content around it, and gives the eyes a resting place.”
The eLearning White Space
Learning has its own version of white space. It refers to the space instructional designers can offer the audience during a learning experience. It is the mental pause; the purposeful omission; the resting place that provides the time and space to use natural cognitive strategies to absorb and reflect.
This can be difficult to provide in an eLearning environment. We don’t typically think of eLearning as a place to linger. It’s not often that you hear someone say, “I think I’ll light some candles, steep some chamomile tea, and relax with an eLearning course.”
Why Learners Need White Space
By providing the mental space to learn, we give them a psychic chance to breathe. Perhaps white space will allow a learner to fully recall prior knowledge into working memory so she can best understand the information at hand. Perhaps it will give a learner room to mull over an idea, elaborate on it, and add personal meaning to the information, promoting successful encoding and retrieval.
Although white space for learning has an almost ethereal quality, it can probably be expressed through the concepts of pacing, quantity and screen design.
In online learning, the pacing of information presentation can have an effect on its white space. Regardless of whether the content is presented or discovered, the pace should provide time to assimilate new information into existing knowledge structures, which constitutes what we call learning. We don’t want to throw information out there to see what sticks. Rather, we want the learning to progress at a steady pace and to develop a rhythm. Even though the pace will vary for experts and novices, everyone needs space to learn. They need time and opportunity to think things through and to relate instruction to their own world. This will promote successful encoding into long-term memory and effective retrieval of this information.
Quantity Of Information
We can also be mindful of the quantity of information we include. We don’t need to present all the prerequisite information in one eLearning course. Let the learners take a prerequisite course instead. Nor do we need to throw in every extraneous fact that the SME wants to include. As learning specialists, sometimes we need to turn off the SME spigot (politely, that is). When we rid a course of extraneous information, we are saying to the audience, “Here’s what’s really important. Just focus on this and you’ll learn what you really need to know.” I picture working memory as a small room. Don’t clutter it with irrelevant facts.
It’s almost too obvious to put screen design in this list. Yet just think about the importance of a clear and spacious screen design with, well, lots of white space. It has a calming effect on the viewer. It allows the learner to focus. It promotes clarity rather than confusion. This can be difficult to achieve, considering the way screens tend to shrink during design. But try.
Our eLearning course designs should make sense in the context of our learners’ everyday experience; they are often busy, overwhelmed and overloaded with information.
See Less is More for a related article.
How do you add white space to your online courses?