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Research Update: analyzing course text in online learning environments

Posted on Aug 29, 2013

The Challenge

As online learning becomes an increasingly popular instructional delivery method, it follows that online courses should be designed to meet the needs of a range of potential learners.  In order to make improvements or recommendations, it is important to know to what degree linguistic text in online courses is constructed to give students with disabilities or who struggle to comprehend text for any reason, the best possible chance of reading and comprehending online course material. While it can be surmised that linguistic text will be highly variable from course to course, it was important to know how the textual content of the courses in online courses compared in key features of text construction. To this end, a study of the linguistic features that make text more readable (cohesion) was conducted using text from three online learning environments. The text in English/language arts (ELA) was of particular interest because it is a required class in the American educational system with content that is widely tested and has a wide variety of types of texts involved in it.


Research Question(s)

The specific research question was “Is the ELA content comparable in terms of the five main measures of cohesion (narrativity, syntactic simplicity, word concreteness, referential cohesion, and deep cohesion)?”


Study Basics

In order to answer our question about the comparability of ELA content in three online learning environments:

  • Courses were identified for comparison
  • Identified courses were mapped for course content
  • Mapped courses were sampled using randomization techniques
  • Sampled text was extracted from the courses
  • Extracted text was analyzed using coh metrix (
  • Analyzed text was subjected to five separate ANOVAs (one ANOVA for each of the five characteristics compared)
  • Results of the ANOVA were gathered and reported



The results of the five ANOVAs revealed several interesting findings:

  • The ELA courses in the three learning environments were widely variable in the five characteristics tested
  • None of the learning environments had an ELA course that was a clear “winner”; each had linguistic limitations and affordances
  • Each of the ELA courses had aspects of cohesion that needed to be improved to provide optimal advantage to students with disabilities
  • The texts in the courses that were most cohesive for students with disabilities were often loaded with guiding words such as “after,” “therefore,” “in order that,” and so forth. These connecting words are not as important for advanced readers.
  • This study has the potential to open conversations about how to provide students access to multiple texts with multiple degrees of cohesion to ensure that all learners have opportunities to read text that is optimal for them.



Diana Greer

Mary Rice

Don Deshler

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