We all intuitively think in a linear fashion because the brain can only really focus on one thing at a time, then another, and another. Therefore, even when we think we are jumping around in our thoughts, we are still thinking one thing after another. Perhaps as a result of this, many of us also write in a linear fashion. Therefore, it is not surprising that many instructional designers create course content linearly; it is difficult to think of a course or a story any other way.. However, when people use newer technologies, they tend to be very non-linear, be it surfing the web, using mobile devices or (especially) performance support systems. You never know where learners are coming from when they land on your web page—or your module. You also don’t know how much they already know. So, how do you to anticipate all of this when creating content, and, ideally, create content that addresses multiple learner types who arrive there from any place without any pre-existing knowledge?
When the web first went commercial (.com), I teamed up online magazine web producers with instructional designers and together they were able to create very interactive, instructionally sound, non-linear content. However, that was in the 90s, the stone age of interactive technology. In today’s world, we need to run as lean as we can. So let me share some of the techniques that worked for me when teaching how to design non-linear content; which, remember, is totally counterintuitive to what many instructional designers have been doing for years.
Ask your instructional designers to create a storyboard with modules that are truly context independent (in other words, that can be accessed from any path with any existing knowledge and will still make sense). Tell them to try to create the smallest possible modules; think online magazine publishing: one article is usually one page. Once they come back with their storyboards, pull out a module from the middle and see if it makes sense out of context. Does it indicate where you can go to “backtrack” and catch up? What would happen if a learner would go into just this piece of content without the benefit of the previous content? Then, think about modifying the content in a way that makes it easy for anyone with links to go backwards in the content for explanation (if needed), and links to get more deep/advanced. This is commonly referred to as a layered design—once again, very non-linear. You will not know who the learner is when you design; she may be the target audience or a manager of the target audience or an assistant. No matter who the learner is, the content should make sense, and guide the learner to other content where they can catch up or explore further.