Ideas For Designing Non-linear eLearning

nonlinear-elearningYou probably agree that most eLearning courses are designed in a linear format. That is, users of these courses must complete one section prior to continuing to the next.

In linear approaches, the sequence of learning events is determined by the instructional designer rather than the learner.

The Linear Course Tradition

Linear courses are the convention in eLearning for a variety of reasons:

  1. Knowledge often builds on itself and many subjects and skills are more easily learned in a predetermined, logical sequence.
  2. Instructional design methodologies tend to force a linear approach. Once designers develop this habit, it takes a greater awareness to break free from this mindset.
  3. Many rapid development authoring tools promote linear designs. The default NEXT and PREVIOUS buttons encourage a linear mindset so that it takes an experienced designer to provide an alternative.

What’s Wrong with Linear

Although sequential style eLearning may be appropriate in some cases, there are several problems with using a linear approach for all audiences and all content.

  1. The linear approach removes control from learners, some of whom prefer to explore or discover things in an order that is meaningful to them. When instruction is relevant to a learner’s goal, research shows that learner control is beneficial to learning (DeRouin 2004).
  2. Linear eLearning does not take into account the expertise level of the learner. It assumes all learners should go down the same road, not accounting for differences in knowledge and experience.
  3. Linear style eLearning lacks the motivational boost that comes from determining one’s own learning path.
  4. Linear eLearning does not take advantage of the hyper-linking and networked features of web technologies.

Is non-linear elearning good for everyone?

A small but growing body of research—though still inconclusive—shows that non-linear eLearning is beneficial for some learners and others have difficulty with the lack of structure. One study with “near significant” results found that highly self-regulating learners (those that guide and monitor their own learning) tend to learn well in non-linear environments where they are in control of how they organize information, making the learning more individualized. In fact, these learners do not benefit as much from a linear approach.

The study suggests that medium self-regulating learners (fewer strategies for guiding and monitoring their own learning) do poorly in a non-linear environment due to the lack of structure and too many choices (McManus 2000). Keep in mind that these results are not conclusive.

The study also suggests that using advance organizers in a highly non-linear environment can provide needed structure for some learners. Another study suggests adding guidance for those learners who are overwhelmed by too much choice. Do this by providing statements, such as the next best topic to visit. This can provide structure to those who need it (Chen, 2002).

I would venture to guess that learners who have some knowledge related to the topic at hand would be more comfortable in a highly non-linear environment than those with no previous knowledge or skills. Also, I wonder if the structure of the traditional classroom that informs how we learn has a negative effect on one’s ability to handle learning freedom.

Approaches to Non-linear Design

Here are some ideas that will help you move toward non-linear design, from optional elements to a completely non-sequential design. I am including any approach that provides learners with an individualized path, such as  optional information and exercises to control over their learning path. You don’t need to create a mega-branching scenario to provide a richer and more varied experience.

1. Quick access to definitions and background content.

Most audience groups include some people who don’t have the prerequisite knowledge needed for a course. One way to meet their needs is to display definitions in a small pop-up window that can be accessed by rolling over a term in bold or colored text or by clicking the term.

Providing definitions in context makes more sense than asking learners to leave their place to look up a word in a glossary. You can also place formulas and similar just-in-time information in small pop-ups. You can argue that this does not make a design non-linear. Please state your argument in the Comments section below.

nonlinear-glossary-term

Small Glossary Pop-up

2.Access to optional advanced content

Add optional advanced content that can be accessed by interested learners. This could include research findings, resources, diagrams or any information that goes beyond meeting the objectives. Then provide links or buttons to access the content.

How can you know what to include? During your audience interviews, find out what would be of interest to the audience. Also, use the extraneous information provided by your subject matter expert (and I know there is some). This is a good way to streamline a learning experience and to satisfy the SME who wants to include everything.

Stylistically, I like to use a lightbox, which displays content in a large window overlaid on a dark background to block out the rest of the screen. The lightbox design indicates that this information is extra and is not part of the prescribed learning path. It’s easy to create a lightbox with Articulate Storyline or to fake one in PowerPoint.

non-linear-lightbox

Lightbox Window

3. Provide learner choice for parallel content

When you perform a content or instructional analysis, you may find that some of the content is hierarchical and some is parallel. The parallel content refers to knowledge or tasks that have a common prerequisite and can be presented in any order. In these cases, group the foundation content into a logical linear sequence and organize the parallel content so that learners have a choice of how to proceed. Your course flow might look something like this.

nonlinear-parallel-content

Organize content into linear and parallel

 

4. Organize non-linear content around a common introduction

In this entirely non-linear approach, there is one central introduction to a topic and the remainder of the content can be understood when viewed in any order. This can work with content that is completely parallel and has no prerequisites, such as how to fill out new employee forms or descriptions of various products. Once you begin to search for parallel content, you might be surprised at how many opportunities there are to allow learners to choose their own path. In addition, you can make the learning experience deeper by providing relevant links to related web pages and discussion forums.

nonlinear

Possible structure of a nonlinear course

 

5. Create a branching story for impact

If you have the budget and the will, an interactive story with multiple paths is a powerful way to simulate real-world conditions. In this non-linear approach, learners proceed along a path that’s determined by the responses they make. For example, in an emergency medical training course, a patient’s condition would improve or worsen depending on the interventions selected by the learner. This is a complex type of course to design because of the multiple paths—every response and all the options must be mapped out carefully. The more choices, the more detail you have to manage. One way to simplify the design is to make the paths converge after a few responses.

For more on branching scenarios, see Cathy Moore’s article, When do you need a branching scenario? There are lots of examples in the article and in the comments section. Also see this article that describes the process of designing a branching story by the Ethos Consultancy.

non-linear-story-branching
Story with multiple paths dependent on learner responses

6. Other Approaches

Other methods for designing non-linear eLearning that you may want to consider include Thiagi’s Four Door Model and creating a game-based learning environment. Also see my kind-of-a-review of Karl Kapp’s book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.

What structures do you use to create non-linear eLearning? Share your design ideas in the Comments section.

References:

Chen, Sherry (2002). A cognitive model for non–linear learning in hypermedia programmes. British Journal of Educational Technology, Volume 33, Issue 4, pages 449–460, September 2002

DeRouin, Renee E et. al., (2004). Optimizing e-learning: research-based guidelines for learner-controlled training. Human Resource Management, Summer/Fall 2004, Vol. 43, Nos. 2 & 3, Pp. 147–162.

Mcmanus, T.F (2000), Individualizing Instruction in a Web-Based Hypermedia Learning Environment: Nonlinearity, Advance Organizers, and Self-Regulated Learners. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 11(2), 219-251.


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Comments

  1. says

    Great article Connie. Do you recall off the top of your head if McManus defined “medium self-regulating learners” vs. “high self-regulating learners”? I’m wondering how I would determine that and how one classifies themselves depending on how much they know about a subject. You said you “ventured to guess that learners who have some knowledge related to the topic at hand would be more comfortable in a highly non-linear environment than those with no previous knowledge or skills.” I think I’d venture the same guess but wondered what the research says.

    [Reply]

    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Yes, Janet, McManus did differentiate between “medium” and “high.” I revised the article to explain it better. Here’s what he says. “Self-regulated learners actively control the interactions between themselves, their learning, and their environment. (Bandura, 1986; Schunk, 1991; Zimmerman, 1989). High self-regulating learners monitor and guide their own learning; low self-regulating learners are more motivationally and metacognitively passive in their reception of instruction.” So you can imagine that “medium self-regulating learners” fall somewhere in between these poles. According to the study, participants were given a Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire and divided into low, medium and high.

    As to people with knowledge of a domain being more comfortable in a non-linear environment, I was inferring from what I’ve read about discovery learning. Without being able to point to a specific study, my general impression from reading the research is that discovery learning is typically more effective with people who have some knowledge of a subject. Thanks for asking good questions :-)
    Connie

    [Reply]

  2. Jason S says

    I have built several eLearning in Captivate which simulate computer systems my learners will use to assist our customers. These have been well received as they allow for the learner to have hands on experience in a controlled enviroment. The branching on these can be a nightmare and the resulting files are pretty large but I think the benefit is worth the effort.

    [Reply]

    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Hi Jason,
    Congratulations on going through the nightmare of branching so that you can make a more effective product!
    Best,
    Connie

    [Reply]

  3. Steve Puls says

    This is a great article. It made me wonder about the learning preferences of the designer, and how it influences (prejudices?) the work created. I have used pieces of Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT training in my work, and have found that the vast majority of teachers/trainers I instruct are “type 2″ learners, whom tend to prefer sequential checklists, and “To-Do” notes. In six years of working with teachers/trainers, I never had an audience where the majority of the participants were something other than Type 2 learners. However, most of the time, our clients are not trainers, and their learning needs and preferences may be much different than our instructional preferences.

    [Reply]

    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Hi Steve,
    Good points. I do think quite a few people prefer sequential, particularly because they’ve been through at least 16 years of sequential learning. So some of these small ways to make things non-linear or individualized, such as optional content, or choosing which case study to start with, can be a gentle approach for the linear-type of mind. Fun area to explore!
    Connie

    [Reply]

  4. says

    Great post – and right in line with the direction we are taking at 2Time Labs. In our niche, time-based productivity, people have lots of problems but don’t see them as related to time management. They lack the knowledge needed to make the connection, so they continue along doing what they have already done. Here’s an example – a prototype – of what we created for one symptom – “I have too much stuff falling through the cracks.” http://www.2time-sys.com/2TimeBlog/ProblemSolver/ProblemSolver2.swf

    Also, I have discovered that the body of work around expert systems and decision support systems is quite compatible. The difference is that the purpose is to coach or teach, and to illuminate a problem from different angles so that the learner can approach it from their angle of greatest need or interest.

    Also, in my niche, people pick up a book or take a program with practices they are already using, and knowledge they already have, but the linear approach treats each person as if they are clueless newbies who are starting from scratch. This fits absolutely no-one’s profile. In a tradition book or program, people with a specific need are forced to sit through the 95% of the content that doesn’t apply to them, in order to get to the 5%. It’s no wonder that people stop reading the book, or start playing Angry Birds in the program instead… LOL Feedback welcome!

    [Reply]

  5. says

    Thanks for the explanation and tips on non-linear design! Without being aware of this concept, I have implemented non-linear design. I recently created a module for chemical hazardous waste disposal training using Articulate. There were many acronyms, abbreviations, and terms. For these, I created a static glossary page with definitions. However, it intuitively made sense to me to also provide a reiteration of these definitions in context to the subject matter. How cumbersome it would be to constantly have to search through a static glossary page every time you forgot a definition!

    What about adaptive type software, would that be an example of non-linear design? For instance, a program that adapts to a user’s strengths and weakness. As a user progresses through a series of problems or concepts (which itself may be sequential), successful attempts at application would create more advanced scenarios and failures would provide feedback and new opportunities to try similar concepts again until mastery. I’ve noticed this type of software is a popular self-study model. It seems both individualized and sequential at the same time.

    [Reply]

    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Hi Gary,
    Good to hear from you. I love the adaptive concept … eLearning software that learns just like adaptive tests. Okay authoring tool producers. Have at it!
    Connie

    [Reply]

Trackbacks

  1. […] The Linear Course TraditionLinear courses are the convention in eLearning for a variety of reasons:Knowledge often builds on itself and many subjects and skills are more easily learned in a predetermined, logical sequence.Instructional design methodologies tend to force a linear approach. Once designers develop this habit, it takes a greater awareness to break free from this mindset.Many rapid development authoring tools promote linear designs. The default NEXT and PREVIOUS buttons encourage a linear mindset so that it takes an experienced designer to provide an alternative.What’s Wrong with LinearAlthough sequential style eLearning may be appropriate in some cases, there are several problems with using a linear approach for all audiences and all content.The linear approach removes control from learners, some of whom prefer to explore or discover things in an order that is meaningful to them. When instruction is relevant to a learner’s goal, research shows that learner control is beneficial to learning (DeRouin 2004).Linear eLearning does not take into account the expertise level of the learner. It assumes all learners should go down the same road, not accounting for differences in knowledge and experience.Linear style eLearning lacks the motivational boost that comes from determining one’s own learning path.Linear eLearning does not take advantage of the hyper-linking and networked features of web technologies.  […]

  2. […] The Linear Course TraditionLinear courses are the convention in eLearning for a variety of reasons:Knowledge often builds on itself and many subjects and skills are more easily learned in a predetermined, logical sequence.Instructional design methodologies tend to force a linear approach. Once designers develop this habit, it takes a greater awareness to break free from this mindset.Many rapid development authoring tools promote linear designs. The default NEXT and PREVIOUS buttons encourage a linear mindset so that it takes an experienced designer to provide an alternative.What’s Wrong with LinearAlthough sequential style eLearning may be appropriate in some cases, there are several problems with using a linear approach for all audiences and all content.The linear approach removes control from learners, some of whom prefer to explore or discover things in an order that is meaningful to them. When instruction is relevant to a learner’s goal, research shows that learner control is beneficial to learning (DeRouin 2004).Linear eLearning does not take into account the expertise level of the learner. It assumes all learners should go down the same road, not accounting for differences in knowledge and experience.Linear style eLearning lacks the motivational boost that comes from determining one’s own learning path.Linear eLearning does not take advantage of the hyper-linking and networked features of web technologies.  […]

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