Jakob Nielsen’s Alert Box has a good selection of information on reading online.
It gives research:
People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word. (Update: a newer study found that users read email newsletters even more abruptly than they read websites.)
and it tells how to take advantage of the research:
As a result, Web pages have to employ scannable text, using
highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
meaningful sub-headings (not “clever” ones)
one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
half the word count (or less) than conventional writing
We found that credibility is important for Web users, since it is unclear who is behind information on the Web and whether a page can be trusted. Credibility can be increased by high-quality graphics, good writing, and use of outbound hypertext links.
The Chronicle of Higher Ed has an article referring to Jakob Nielsen’s work.
The author isn’t too happy with reading online and what it has meant for our students.
Fast scanning doesn’t foster flexible minds that can adapt to all kinds of texts, and it doesn’t translate into academic reading. If it did, then in a 2006 Chronicle survey of college professors, fully 41 percent wouldn’t have labeled students “not well prepared” in reading (48 percent rated them “somewhat well prepared”). We would not find that the percentage of college graduates who reached “proficiency” literacy in 1992 was 40 percent, while in 2003 only 31 percent scored “proficient.” We would see reading scores inching upward, instead of seeing, for instance, that the percentage of high-school students who reached proficiency dropped from 40 percent to 35 percent from 1992 to 2005.
And we wouldn’t see even the better students struggling with “slow reading” tasks. In an “Introduction to Poetry” class awhile back, when I asked students to memorize 20 lines of verse and recite them to the others at the next meeting, a voice blurted, “Why?” The student wasn’t being impudent or sullen. She just didn’t see any purpose or value in the task. Canny and quick, she judged the plodding process of recording others’ words a primitive exercise. Besides, if you can call up the verse any time with a click, why remember it? Last year when I required students in a literature survey course to obtain obituaries of famous writers without using the Internet, they stared in confusion. Checking a reference book, asking a librarian, and finding a microfiche didn’t occur to them. So many free deliveries through the screen had sapped that initiative.
This is to say that advocates of e-learning in higher education pursue a risky policy, striving to unite liberal-arts learning with the very devices of acceleration that hinder it. Professors think they can help students adjust to using tools in a more sophisticated way than scattershot e-reading, but it’s a lopsided battle.