Not long ago, a colleague introduced me to the Sphero, a computerized ball that exposes kids to simple programming via a series of apps on the iPad. Intrigued by the concept, I purchased the gadget and shared it with my kids. When I tried to teach them how to use it, they quickly made it clear that they weren’t interested in a lecture-style tutorial. Rather, they wanted to dig right in and use the Sphero to understand how it worked.

Here’s the great part: While they all figured it out, they each learned via their own personalized method.

One of them started by clicking buttons on the app to see how the Sphero would react. Another started reading the manual. The third would occasionally ask for my help and instruction (score one for Dad!), and number four observed his siblings’ behavior and listened to their commentary. While each child followed a unique route, they can all now operate the toy competently. It wasn’t a one-size-fits-all approach; rather, they each acquired the knowledge they needed in a way that worked for them. They poked, prodded, explored, reflected, and explored some more. They all reached the finish line. And through it all, they were engaged.

As I watched the process unfold, I couldn’t help but notice parallels with e-learning design. In particular, it got me thinking about linear and nonlinear courses for personalized learning.

About Linear and Nonlinear Courses

Let’s face it, the quickest way to deliver content to learners is via a simple linear course that “pushes” information to the learner in a sequential manner. Courses like this are relatively easy to create and mimic an old-school lecture format. And, in some instances, regulations and compliance requirements dictate that we must create linear courses.  

On the downside, due to the passive nature of linear courses, learners are often unengaged. A lack of freedom and choice in a linear course can put learners on autopilot, which means they don’t make the effort to reflect on and react to the content. Learners cannot personalize their experience based on what they’re learning.

This is where the nonlinear course format comes into play. A nonlinear course lets learners craft their experience individually by making choices that alter the type of content that is delivered on screen. This approach often leads to a much higher level of engagement.

Nonlinear courses can take many forms and can consist of endless concepts, but here are some of my favorite ideas:

Assess Learners Early

In many e-learning courses, competency is measured by an assessment that follows the course. However, what if a learner already knows the material in the course? Barring compliance requirements, why waste valuable company time forcing a learner to sit through a course when they’ve already mastered the content?

Instead, give learners a pre-test to determine whether they already know the material. If they do, then they’ve just saved an hour of time; if not, they then proceed to take the course. You could situate this as a challenge for learners, priming those who don’t pass for what lies ahead and giving them a sense for the areas they need to pay extra attention to during the course.

Free the Navigation, Let Them Explore.

While the Next button has its allure, I love courses that present learners with an objective and then ask them to explore the environment to seek the information they need. Instead of “pushing” information to learners, these courses let learners “pull” the information. This puts learners in control of gathering information in a way that works for them.

Also, learners may not need all of the information you’re offering to reach the objective. Perhaps they already have some knowledge of the subject matter and just need a few more pieces of intel. This approach helps that learner reach the objective faster, as compared to a peer who is brand-new to the topic. For a great primer on this topic, I highly recommend this blog post by Articulate’s Tom Kuhlmann.

Give Them Options

Another way to personalize the course for learners is to give them a variety of routes to learn the material. Let’s take a simple performance support module. Oftentimes, organizations will build an entire e-learning module when a simple PDF will do the trick. Well, why not offer learners a choice of which way they’d like to experience the material? “If you’d like to read, simply print this PDF. If you’d like to listen, watch this module and we’ll walk you through the material.” Providing simple choices can be a powerful way to engage learners!

These ideas echo what I encountered with my kids as they learned to operate their new toy. They each had the freedom to seek the information they needed in their own way: some required more information, others less; some wanted to read, others explore. But through it all, they chose the path that worked best for them. So the next time you’re building a course, be aware of the many different ways people learn and create an experience that they will enjoy exploring.

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Mindy Smoak

Thanks for sharing and I agree. I am doing a course right now on various topics in intermediate receipting and invoicing in our software and was struggling to find ways to create engagement. I decided I would demonstrate the key things that must be done to ensure the finances are right, and give the learner an option to explore certain areas more through further explanation during the demo. For example, if they want more explanation of some of the areas of a receipt with a credit. The at the end of the demo giving the learner the choice to practice in a simulated environment, complete a review/assessment or watch the demo again. Part of me as an ID knows that practice will reinforce the best. However, with the potential variety of experiences of my audience and learning preferences it is ... Expand

Jordan Defty