You 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:
- 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 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.
- 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.
Is nonlinear elearning good for everyone?
A small but growing body of research—though still inconclusive—shows that nonlinear 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 nonlinear 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 nonlinear 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 nonlinear 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 nonlinear 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 Nonlinear Design
Here are some ideas that will help you move toward nonlinear 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. This creates a nonlinear information flow but not a nonlinear navigation flow.
2.Access to optional advanced content
Add optional advanced content that can be accessed by interested learners. This could include research findings, regulations, 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. This 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.
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.
4. Organize nonlinear content around a common introduction
In this entirely nonlinear 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.
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 nonlinear approach, learners proceed along a path based on their answers to questions. 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.
6. Other Approaches
Other methods for designing nonlinear 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 nonlinear eLearning? Share your design ideas in the Comments section.
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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