in Instructional design

Linear vs Non-linear learning design

There has been already a lot said about linear and non-linear design of e-learning materials and about advantages of one over the other.  Each approach is good for some reason. In this post I’m going to present the difference between linear and non-linear design and at the end  non-linear approach in connection with cognitive theory will be presented in more detail..

Most e-learning materials are linear, where learners are forced to follow the learning path determined by the instructional designer. Sometimes it is nice to allow a learner to choose his own learning path regarding his prior knowledge, experience or interest. By that learners become more interactive and engaged. we could achieve This with non-linear design. But also non-linear approach is not good for all learners, especially for those who need a high level of guidance. So the best way would be to use a non-linear approach with optional guidance for those who need it.

Linear design

Ronald Robberecht in his paper Interacitve Nonlinear Learning Environments describes two types of linear design:

1. Two – dimensional linear design

This type is very similar to printed textbook. The instructional designer determines the flow of information from the start to the end. This means that if the learner clicks, for example, on the page 5, there is no connection between other randomly opened pages. He must follow the predetermined learning path to obtain the  whole message.

Picture 1: An example of two-dimensional linear design

Picture 1: An example of two-dimensional linear design

2. Three-dimensional linear design

This design may have some non-linear elements, because every page may include some additional information like definitions, comments using hyperlinks or pop-ups. But learners still have to follow the same learning path from the start till  the end.

Picture 2: An example of three-dimensional learning model

Picture 2: An example of three-dimensional learning model

Non-linear design

In non-linear design every single learning path is determined by the learner. The responsibility for mastering the topic is passed to the learner. Learners can take any entry point and move wherever they like. That means that the topic can be understood in any order. So learning is completely self-directed by the learner.

Picture 3: An example of non-linear design

Picture 3: An example of non-linear design

Such design requires preparing content in a form of small information units instead of sequential pages. One possible way for non-linear design is Learning Map (Picture 3). In Learning Map one node represents one information unit. Every information unit consists of:

  • Clear headline with key words to clearly explain the main idea.
  • Short summary or explanation for the learners  to get an overview of each unit in a discrete chunk. It also helps learner to focus to the most important part of the content.
  • Attached more detailed information source, which can be hidden until it is needed. Thus you avoid clutter and provide fast, easy access to your resources which is an essential way to handle information overload.  For handling information overload it is also important that attached contents are prepared in an easy to digest format. According to Mayer and Moreno (2003) there are different principles to reduce cognitive load. Their research shows that audio narratives reinforced with visual elements significantly increase learning rates and knowledge retention. So create short, bite-sized information that are supported with visual, audio elements instead of plain text.
Picture 3: An example of information unit - node

Picture 3: An example of information unit – node

As you can see all information units in a Learning Map are connected in a coherent and meaningful whole by  using branches. This kind of design where all information is accessible right away enables every learner (novice or advanced) to choose his own path and pace of learning but still maintains learner’s focus on the main topic. What about learners who need guidance? Learning Map includes option for guidance through the topic for those who need it.

Learning Map is suitable for narrower topics – less branched Learning Map or for broader topics – more branched Learning Map. The deeper we want to present the topic, more sub-nodes we will use. You can find more about the design process of the Learning Map here.

Advantages of non-linear design using a structure of a Learning Map:

1. Learning Map enables you to organize many bites of information in a more memorable form. Once learners have learned the topic using Learning Map, they will only need the key words on the Learning Map to recall it.

2. By using a Learning Map, which only takes up a page, your learners maintain  track and know exactly where they are in sense of course content. They can easily see the connection between pieces of information which help them understand the topic in a glance.

3. Color which is the main component of Learning Map stimulates, engages, attracts your learners and increases their ability to remember. It gives them faster access to the information. You can find more about using colors in Learning Map here.

4. The unique, colorful and creative design of Learning Map replaces linear tables and pages of content.

5. Presenting the topic from elementary (short explanation inside the node) to more complex way (attached information source) prevents learners to get too much information at once, resulting in poor remembering.

What about you? What do you thing about this kind of a non-linear design? What kind of non-linear design do you use?


  • Profesor Barros

    I would love to see a “Learning Map” of this post