The challenge for instructional designers has always been how to come close to the quality of instructor-led training, which is responsive, personalized learning crafted on the fly by the instructor. The traditional Next button and sophisticated branching structures do not come close to the flexibility and personalization that classroom trainers can provide. Today, there is a rapidly growing interest in adaptive learning that dynamically customizes content based on the learner’s actions.

Using an adaptive approach, the designer can closely simulate the instructor-led experience while maintaining all of the advantages of web-based asynchronous training. Adaptive courses respond to the user and deliver a personalized learning experience similar to that found in the classroom. In an adaptive course, the learners quickly realize they have some control of the learning experience and select the way they learn best. The very act of making choices is cognitively engaging, improves comprehension, and maximizes attention span.

Choosing adaptive learning for complex topics

Some learning situations may not benefit from an adaptive approach. This occurs when there is a fixed, linear process that must be followed, such as learning how to log in to the company intranet or mix a chemical formula. On the other hand, when learning objectives involve various interrelated systems or when there are many ways to approach the goal, a linear approach may not be effective and may even be misleading.

Cognitive flexibility theory suggests that oversimplifying complexity can lead to a false understanding. For instance, if one attempts to learn automobile engine repair by studying individual systems sequentially (combustion, cooling, electrical, etc.), one might miss the big picture of how these systems interact synergistically. Encouraging the learner to explore multiple systems in a non-linear manner introduces subtle relationships early in the learning process.

A clear indication that an adaptive design would be helpful is finding mixed results during the training analysis phase. Very often, learning audiences encompass mixed skill levels and varied cultural backgrounds. In these situations, building a course that is responsive to these differences would deliver learning that is appropriate to each user.

In more complex situations, the learning goal might be to prepare users for unexpected or new situations, as is the case with ethics or diversity training. Applying an adaptive design, learners could interact with a variety of scenarios and ultimately construct their own understanding of important issues.

Put learners in control for a truly adaptive learning experience

The popular approach to adaptive learning uses artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze user actions, build robust data sets, and then apply complex algorithms to deliver personalized content. This requires a proprietary platform, putting adaptive learning beyond the scope of independent designers and small development teams. However, is this what is happening in our classrooms? Do teachers analyze and track how each student is responding? A great deal of personalized instruction in the classroom is initiated by students asking questions or signaling in nonverbal ways that a change in instruction is needed. The hallmark of a good instructor is the ability to recognize subtle cues and respond with alternative content or different delivery methods.

Fortunately, designers can use what I call learner intelligence (LI) instead of AI to create adaptive learning experiences. The foundational principle behind LI is that learners will always choose the appropriate content or delivery method that meets their just-in-time need. Fast-forwarding through a training video to get to the meaningful parts is an example of LI at work. Allowing users to choose the way they learn best is both intuitive and productive. Giving learners the flexibility to direct their learning path creates a rewarding learning environment that is both motivating and perfectly suited to modern learners who want to be in control of how they learn.

A course becomes increasingly responsive by adding more choices on more pages. A highly adaptive course has navigation options that remain constant on many pages. The net effect is that the user always has the choice to change the mode of learning and proceed in a nonlinear fashion. This is very different from branching, which occasionally offers the user a choice, followed by a linear series of content pages based on their selection.

The key to adaptive design is smart navigation

Designing an adaptive course involves navigation offering alternate but related content. This navigation would repeat across many pages. For example, a bathroom design course might feature five components (fixtures, vanity, tile, mirror, and lights), each having five pages of content. In addition, each page has a navigation menu to view the page from four different styles: modern, spa, traditional, and vintage. How would you build such a course that does not bring the user back to a table of contents and does not force the user to start from the beginning?

Hardcoding navigational links for 100 pages is not practical, and for larger courses it becomes prohibitive. The solution, what I call smart navigation, dynamically detects and links to the correct page. With Articulate Storyline, smart navigation uses layers. The styled content for each component is placed on a separate layer. The navigation menu then shows only one layer while keeping others hidden. The designer creates a single styles navigation for the layers that is copied to all pages, requiring only four links instead of 100.

A table shows five columns of component content and four rows of styles navigation.

The forward and back buttons move the user horizontally through the course (see illustration). The user can then switch styles while staying in the same course position. For example, from Page 3 in Fixtures, the user can switch to any other style to view Page 3 content in the chosen style. The smart navigation automatically brings up related content regardless of where the user is in the course. In Lectora, content is organized in sections rather than layers. A custom JavaScript is used to get the same result. (Readers who would like to receive templates for Storyline or Lectora may contact the author at

Just how adaptive is this course? This small course designed in this way provides well over a billion (425) different paths through the content! Users can view the content from one style or any combination of styles they find most meaningful. 

Add adaptive design to your toolkit

Adaptive learning no longer needs to be mysterious, complicated, or expensive. Approaching adaptive learning from a learning intelligence perspective eliminates the dependency on costly third-party platforms. Smart navigation is used to add dynamic page linking to quickly create courses that respond to the user’s real-time needs. Adaptive course design is an asset to instructional designers, who can integrate it into traditional courses as needed. In a future article, I will explore techniques for meeting with subject matter experts to develop the layered content needed for adaptive courses.