Non-Linear eLearning Design: 6 Common Misconceptions Instructional Designers Should Know

Non-Linear eLearning Design: 6 Common Misconceptions Instructional Designers Should Know
Summary: Although the concept of non-linearity in eLearning course design may seem straightforward, misconceptions about non-linearity in instructional design are common. In this article, I’ll discuss some common misconceptions about non-linearity, as well as the fact that, in most cases, instructional designers follow a mixed approach, including both linear and non-linear elements.

Non-Linear eLearning Design Misconceptions 

Nowadays, eLearning professionals are eager to keep up-to-date with latest trends in instructional design for their eLearning courses. Most of them tend to follow the general rule-of-thumb, that the more interactive an eLearning course is and the more non-linear its instructional design is, the better. This tendency, however, has initiated some confusion to non-instructional designers who tend to identify interactivity with non-linearity. In fact, non-linearity refers to learners’ freedom of choice with respect to the order in which eLearning course items, information or activities, are presented on screen. In this article, I will take a minute to clarify some common misconceptions about these terms.

  1. Non-linear eLearning courses are more interactive than linear ones.
    It should be clear to everyone that interactivity has nothing to do with the degree of linearity of the eLearning course. A linear eLearning course may be interactive as well.  Interactivity involves learners’ interaction with the eLearning content. Linearity is related to the degree of freedom the instructional designers of the eLearning course have decided to allow learners with respect to the order they can access the various components of the eLearning course material. Therefore, from an instructional designer’s point of view, non-linearity is rather more related to the concept of free-navigation than to interactivity.
  2. Non-linear eLearning courses are always better than linear ones.
    This is another common misconception. A linear or non-linear eLearning course design has nothing to do with the quality of the eLearning course. The typical example of absolute free-navigation, that is a 100% non-linear, is browsing the Internet, where learners are free to navigate wherever they want according to their personal interests. This may sound great, but what about an eLearning course with specific learning objectives to be mastered? It’s obvious that the more informal the learning setting, the more suitable a non-linear approach is.
  3. The non-linear eLearning design can be applied to all types of eLearning courses.
    Not all subject matters are suitable for a non-linear approach. This is not an easy, black or white decision. You may think that theoretical subject matters may be more appropriate for a non-linear instructional design approach, as it makes no difference which piece of information will be presented first or second. However, even in such eLearning courses, the answer is not clear with respect to the degree of linearity instructional designers should allow. For example, in case a chronological order is involved, from an educational point of view, the learning material would be better assimilated if the eLearning content was presented following a specific sequence based on the chronological order of events. In this case, a linear eLearning course design might be more effective.
  4. The non-linear eLearning design is suitable for all audiences.
    Research has proved that the more advanced the learners are, the more motivated they tend to be to go in-depth to enrich their knowledge by following a non-linear design approach. In fact, more advanced learners usually need less guidance and control with respect to their learning, as they already have at least some basic previous knowledge on the topic and they know exactly what they are looking for. As a general rule, whenever you decide to employ a non-linear instructional design for your eLearning course, first think of your audience’s previous knowledge on the topic and whether this audience is self-motivated enough to proceed on its own. Only by taking your audience into account you can decide on whether a non-linear approach would be suitable for your eLearning course.
  5. Non-linearity means no structure from an instructional design point of view.
    All instructional designers know that this is a false impression. On the contrary, non-linear eLearning courses are very well structured, many times even better than linear eLearning courses. This is because non-linear courses are supposed to provide learners the freedom of choice with respect to the order that eLearning course options are presented, but at the same time, it is important to keep learners in the eLearning course. The only difference is that the learning objectives will not be covered in a sequential way. A non-linear course design should be carefully planned in order for learners to have the chance to navigate through all eLearning items in the order they prefer. Therefore, one of the toughest decisions the instructional designer has to make is which parts of the eLearning content would be more effective to be presented in a linear and which in a non-linear way. The sequence of the learning items needs careful planning and it’s considered to be fundamental in the instructional design of any eLearning course.
  6. Non-linearity is the same as branching.
    Another common misconception has to do with branching scenarios and non-linearity. It is true that with branching scenarios the learner is given the option to freely choose whatever scenario may feel adequate. However, this does not mean that the instructional design behind each branching option is non-linear. On the contrary, each proposed option is perfectly linear with respect to the eLearning course material presented to learners and how they are supposed to proceed in the eLearning course. In other words, learners are given the choice to follow a non-linear path by selecting each of the alternative scenarios the eLearning course provides in any order. Each selected scenario, however, leads to a perfectly structured linear sequence that has been designed to show learners a very specific what-if situation. Learning takes place, by allowing learners to judge the consequences of alternative branching scenarios for a specific problem. For this reason, branching scenarios are generally considered to be ideal for enhancing decision-making and problem-solving skills.  The instructional design behind branching scenarios normally follows a mixed approach that combines both linear and non-linear elements.

In this article I have discussed the common misconceptions about linearity in instructional design for eLearning. It is obvious that the degree of non-linearity an instructional designer should allow depends on various factors such as the nature of the subject matter and learners’ previous knowledge on the subject, among others. What you always have to keep in mind is that linearity has nothing to do with the quality of the eLearning course as both linear and non-linear elements can be interactive. Last but not least, a mixed approach is the most frequent solution that instructional designers employ in order to yield the highest possible effectiveness for their eLearning courses.

Are you  interested in learning about the benefits of linear eLearning courses? The article 7 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.