8 Tips To Design Effective Non-Linear eLearning Courses

8 Tips To Design Effective Non-Linear eLearning Courses
Summary: Nowadays, more and more eLearning professionals in their effort to keep up-to-date with latest trends in instructional design for eLearning, try to employ a non-linear instructional design approach for their eLearning courses. In this article, I’ll give you some tips, from an instructional designer’s point of view, on how to design effective non-linear eLearning courses, as well as I will discuss when is appropriate for eLearning Professionals to employ non-linear eLearning course structures.

How To Design Effective Non-Linear eLearning Courses

In my previous article 6 common misconceptions about non-linear eLearning courses, I have discussed that the concept of linearity cannot be identified with interactivity, as both linear and non-linear instructional designs may lead to highly interactive eLearning courses. Non-linearity is referring to learners’ freedom of choice with respect to the sequence that eLearning course items, information or activities, are presented on screen and has nothing to do with learners’ interaction with the course. In this article, I’ll try to further enrich the topic of linearity by giving you some practical tips to take into consideration when designing non-linear eLearning courses, where the eLearning material can be presented in no pre-determined order.

  1. Provide learners with user-friendly navigation tools.
    Perhaps the most important determinant in the decision of an instructional designer to opt for a non-linear eLearning course design, is the general navigation options and buttons the eLearning course provides. This is a crucial aspect related to the degree of linearity instructional designers for eLearning must allow, in order for learners not to get lost in the eLearning course and to always have in front of them navigational options and buttons that will bring them back to the initial page of the eLearning course in order for them to take a different path.
  2. Provide learners with a course overview.
    Another challenge with non-linearity in terms of the order the eLearning content is presented on screen, is that it may not be clear for all learners how the new concepts they access are interrelated. A proposed solution to this issue is to provide a general overview for the eLearning course that will function as a course map in order to show learners their exact location within the eLearning content. In addition, the course overview could provide learners with information of what they have learned so far, what is still to be covered and even the percentage of the learning material yet to be covered until course completion. The course overview is an extremely useful tool you can equip your learners with, as it gives them the “big picture”, that is, a broader perspective of the eLearning course. This is absolutely necessary, as learners under a non-linear course design approach, do not follow the eLearning content in a specific order, fact that increases the chances that important course material to be left out or specific learning objectives not to be covered.
  3. Find out about your target audience’s previous level of knowledge.
    It has been proven that a non-linear design structure is more appropriate for learners who have some previous knowledge of the eLearning course material. Therefore, a non-linear instructional design approach is considered to be more effective with more advanced users rather than with novices. This can be explained due to the fact that the more previous knowledge on the subject matter learners have, the more self-disciplined and more motivated they are to stay with the eLearning course, as they know exactly what this course is about and what type of “knowledge gap” they need to fill in. Therefore, from an instructional designer’s point of view, the more advanced the target audience of the eLearning course, the more non-linear the eLearning course structure may be.
  4. Check the eLearning course prerequisites.
    It’s a good practice to use a non-linear eLearning course design approach only for eLearning courses that have either common prerequisites or no prerequisites at all. In other words, employ non-linearity when the order according to which the eLearning content, information or activities, will be presented is of no importance. It’s a good idea to group concepts that have the same prerequisites together. Whenever it makes no difference, in terms of the cognitive processes involved, whether a particular piece of information will be presented first or second, give learners freedom of choice by opting in favor of a non-linear instructional design for the specific part of the eLearning course.   For example, once the concept of formulas of an Excel spreadsheet has been mastered, it makes no difference if the learner will be presented with the SUM, the AVERAGE or any other formula first.
  5. Employ a non-linear design for activities of the same level of difficulty.
    Always keep in mind that all alternatives should be of the same level of difficulty, otherwise, this may confuse learners. As a general rule-of-thumb, easier concepts should be presented first and gradually ascent to more complicated ones. The same is true for exercises and other eLearning course assignments. I always recommend a general-to-specific approach, more in accordance with a deductive cognitive approach of learning. Once you classify the eLearning material with respect to the level of difficulty and you structure it in a linear, that is, in a hierarchical way, you may offer your learners non-linear options for each level of hierarchy, following a mixed-linearity instructional design approach.
  6. Use a common introduction before allowing users to follow non-linear paths.
    After grouping concepts together in terms of the level of difficulty, it is a good practice to offer common introductions before allowing for non-linearity to take place, that is, before allowing learners to access the eLearning material in any order based on their personal needs and/or preferences. This will provide learners with a thorough understanding of the context that this new piece of information they study can be applied, no matter what the path they take is. Common introductions may also remind learners some of the prerequisite knowledge they need in order to better understand the presented concepts.
  7. Provide Assessment to ensure that all Learning Objectives of the eLearning course have been mastered.
    One of the biggest problems with free navigation is that due to the fact that users wander around from topic to topic, you can never be sure that all learning objectives of the eLearning course have been covered and that learners have actually learned what they were supposed to learn. This can be solved by making sure that the eLearning course provides learners with proper assessments at the end of each module that cover each one of the learning objectives. It is also important to design assessment in a way that provides learners with corrective feedback that further explains to them why a given answer may be correct or incorrect. Make sure that this feedback gives them at the same time tips on which concepts to revise, as well as links to eLearning content that has not been mastered yet, and most probably has never been accessed.
  8. Design additional information as optional eLearning content that can only opened in a new window.
    There is no doubt that learners who prefer a non-linear eLearning course design are self-motivated learners who need less guidance. They may be busy professionals who know exactly why they are taking a particular course. Most of the times they are looking for ways to easily access a particular piece of information they seek or they may simply want to go in depth into a particular topic. As an instructional designer, you must foresee these possible needs of your learners and enrich the eLearning course with additional information. It is a good practice to offer this extra information as optional eLearning material that can be accessed in a non-linear way, as not all learners may choose to access this material. In addition, all links to this optional material should open in a new window, in order to minimize the risk of learners getting lost in the eLearning course, as once out, it’s very difficult to go back to the exact point they have left it, especially when SCORM files are involved.

These tips are just some of the best practices eLearning professionals may employ when they need to make decisions upon the degree of linearity of their eLearning course. Take these points into account in order to design memorable and highly effective non-linear eLearning experiences.

Also interested in learning about the benefits of linear eLearning courses? The article 5 Tips to create linear eLearning courses offers useful tips and a guide on how to design linear eLearning courses that offer memorable and highly effective eLearning content.