What hyperlinking did for text and Prezi has done for slide presentations is dramatic: Making it easy to create and present eLearning content in nonlinear formats enables instructional designers to create engaging and easily personalized eLearning.

Just as “choose your own ending” books make reading an adventure for kids, hyperlinks offer readers the opportunity to delve deeper into areas of an article and select which content to access and in what order. Nonlinear eLearning navigation might deepen learner engagement by expanding learners’ options.

When to use linear navigation

Typically, linear presentations of information include text, slide presentations or lectures, and videos, though all of these media also have nonlinear implementations. Linear navigation offers IDs a lot of control over how content is used, which makes it easy to deliver information in a logical sequence. This is ideal for introducing a complex topic to an audience of learners who have little or no foundation in the topic.

When an instructor—or instructional designer—must ensure that specific content is covered, requiring linear navigation might be ideal. And if some course content references material contained in other course sections, a linear presentation might be easier for learners to follow. It’s also easier for an instructor to present—and rehearse—linear content.

But for much eLearning, especially asynchronous modules, nonlinear content navigation may offer significant benefits.

Where nonlinear eLearning content shines

Some areas where nonlinear navigation is advantageous to both learners and IDs include:

  • Linear navigation can limit the amount and type of interactivity offered to—or required of—learners. It’s possible to build in pauses where learners are asked to respond to questions or other prompts, but, even if a large question pool ensures variety in what’s asked, everyone then progresses through the same material in the same order. Nonlinear navigation might use questions and other user inputs as jumping-off points: Those who miss a question can get a review; those who show they’ve mastered a section can jump forward. Similarly, branching scenarios aid learners in exploring various potential outcomes in a learning simulation.
  • Nonlinear eLearning navigation offers learners more control over which content they access. Rather than leading all learners through the same sections in the same order, nonlinear content allows learners to skip or test out of sections covering material they know. Since learners won’t be forced to endure repetitive or too-basic content, they are likely to engage more deeply in the newer or more challenging material they choose to access.
  • Presenting content in a nonlinear format allows for personalized learning experiences by making it easy for content creators to include content on all levels, from basic introductory material to deeply detailed material geared to experts or specialists. Learners can learn as much or as little as they need—they can head directly to the answer of a pressing question, study a process, or dive into detailed supplemental materials to develop deep expertise.
  • Nonlinear eLearning content requires active learner participation, demanding that they decide which content to access and when. It also allows learners to control their pace, even backing up if they need to. These features could improve their understanding and retention of the material by allowing repetition and ensuring that learners fully understand a section before moving on.

Instructional designers do not, of course, have to choose only one option; multiple techniques and approaches increase eLearning personalization. Content can be presented in a linear sequence, but the navigation can allow learners to skip sections if they know the material. Or a large body of content can be broken into sections that learners can take in any order, while the content within each section is presented in a logical progression.

The proliferation of options for offering eLearning content in nonlinear formats means that IDs and eLearning developers can more easily meet the needs of a varied learner audience with personalized eLearning.