Flow-control in eLearning. From here to where?

A critical piece in efficiency of an eLearning lesson or an eLearning course is the flow control. Do you let your learners choose their own path to learning- potentially missing out on key information in the process? Or do you dictate the steps- sacrificing flexibility for the visibility of the learning path?

As we design learning solutions for adults, it is critical to think of adult learning psychology during design. All pedagogical theorems indicate that the more freedom a learner thinks she has, the more motivated and self-paced she becomes. Dictating the flow of lessons – or of learning elements, is a sure shot way to kill that motivation.

I once saw a training comprises 14 key modules – that could strictly be taken in that particular order. It is difficult to envision a rational reason to create such closed pathways for adult learners. People who are responsible for their own learning and growth need to feel so. As learning designers, we must assume, that the learner WANTS to do well, and our job is to enable him to achieve that desired result. The general theory of human motivation developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, for example, focuses on self-determined behaviors of the learner stemming from internal motivation.

On the contrary, video games are a good example of strict flow control- you cannot access a higher level unless you master a lower one. However, within that particular level, a player has all flexibility to explore various areas as per the game’s design. So while the player has enough independence to choose his own learning path, he is also motivated to unlock the new areas by performing better.

8 Questions eLearning Professionals Need To Answer Before Choosing The Structure Of Their eLearning Course

A lot of thought needs to go to how you want to structure your eLearning course. Before you decide on one approach over another, consider these points:

  1. Does the information makes sense only sequentially
    Sometimes some information needs to be approached linearly. This is especially true in academic settings, or in longer corporate eLearning courses, where each next lesson build on the previous. If that is true, this is a no-brainer – you need to implement criteria and conditions to dictate the lesson flow so your learner is not lost.
  2. Do different modules cover different aspects and are unrelated
    Is there a reason why I must learn about earthquakes first, and magnets later? What is the relation between HR policies versus best telephone etiquettes module? If your lessons are independent of each other, then give the reins of control to your learner, and let them decide the order. Make sure you implement some sort of check-mark or bookmark system for them to keep track of lessons taken.
  3. Will any learning get lost if approached non-linearly
    Sometimes though the lessons do not seem to be directly related, yet depend on each other in subtler ways. So if you need a prior knowledge of object oriented design before a discussion of Java Classes, you ensure to define the pre-requisites as such.
  4. Would later assessments assume prior knowledge provided in earlier topics
    I have seen this issue first hand in a company where the fluid lesson structure worked well until the assessments that assumed linear knowledge. If your lesson structure is fluid, ensure that the questions/quizzes are creatively crafted to address that.
  5. Do the modules vary in relative importance
    Some need to be revised and retained better than others? If some of your lessons are more important than others, then you might want to give users the flexibility of coming back to those lessons over and over again.
  6. Can you suggest a flow instead of forcing it?
    Especially with longer eLearning courses, for example in language instruction, the way modules are arranged in itself is sufficient for learners to get the hint. This way, you address both sorts of audience – one who craves the structure, and the other who needs the freedom.
  7. Would your learners differ in their prior knowledge
    Nothing kills the eagerness to learn than to go through a module on something one is already a master on. If I know my additions, move me to multiplication If I know conversational Spanish, take me to next level of the language. Time and enthusiasm is critical, more so with adult learners. They need to feel that you respect their time and abilities. A “prior knowledge” quiz with customized suggestions on what lessons to take might be a good start.
  8. Is there a way to blend independence with some flow control to get the best of both worlds?
    Quizzes, as I suggested in previous point, can be used creatively to suggest individualized routes of learning to each learner. Another way is to borrow from video games, and allow full flexibility within one level, and strict level ups based on skill demonstration.

Which approach works for your learners? This is a question that needs some pondering over when designing a learning environment.

1st published at eLearning Industry: http://elearningindustry.com/flow-control-in-elearning