A great Twitter conversation recently got me thinking about non-linear instructional design. Now, of course, we often look at instructional design itself as a non-linear process, but that is not what I am referring to here. Most of the instruction we see in formal education is almost always designed as a linear road-map to be followed in exact order from beginning to end. And for some topics, this is great – I don’t want engineers skipping steps when designing solid bridges. But in many other topics, there aren’t really ultimate steps that have to be taught in a certain order as much as there is really just a preferred order that many in the field lean towards that becomes a default “sequence” for all learners. Which, unfortunately, leads to very little room for improvisation, flexibility, emergence, etc. A lot of this can be attributed to our formal education systems that often encourage behaviorism and pedagogy over connectivism and heutagogy. Too many times the education system looks at “planning” as a linear week by week script.

We often end up with two problems in this kind of system. One is that people come up with an outline that they stick with even if the course isn’t flowing that way. And when the course isn’t flowing well, instructors get bored or distracted and they put off planning specifics until the last minute. They tell learners that they are improvising, but learners can often tell the difference between lack of planning and planned improvisation.

The other problem is that instructors do plan well, but then think of something better at the last minute and change plans. Which usually ends up being a great lesson, but also means they wasted a lot of time on a plan that wasn’t used and might not ever get used.

However, designing a course in a non-linear manner can allow for courses to be well-planned as well as being emergent, flexible, and student-centered.

The first step is to actually make space in your course plan for flexibility, rabbit trails, new ideas, and extended time on more interesting ideas. What I mean by this is cut back on the number of weeks of content overall. If you have a 15 week course, only create 10 weeks of content. Just flat-out force space into the schedule and leave it there.

The second step is to stop looking at your topic in a linear fashion. Make a list of ten topics you want to cover, but don’t number the list. Intentionally shuffle that list. Think of it more as a jigsaw puzzle, with each piece being a topic / week. Once all of the pieces are together, then you have a full picture of the topic of your course.

The idea would be that you would sit down and talk with your class to socially negotiate an order to go through the topics. As a course, you could come up with the order that your learners want to go through. Or even more advanced – don’t even have a pre-defined list, but take time each week to figure out where to go next week.

Finally, you need to do the instructional design. I know that seems weird to say that right after I just said let the learner choose the topics, but you as the instructor still need to be prepared for what ever topic could be chosen next. You can still create something akin to an assignment bank that you choose from depending on what topic is being covered that week. In fact, you would probably need to design a large ranges of fairly open-ended activities that could fit in with a wide-range of topics within your field. Instead of a jigsaw puzzle, you are really looking at your class like a Lego project or play-dough sculpture that is being built by several people at once. You have several specific pieces (activities) that you add at certain moments when the learners choose to pull out certain other pieces (topic).

Another way to a look at this idea is like this. Most courses are already designed in pieces, but these pieces are part of a specific path that has one way in and one way out. They generally look like this:


One way in, one way out – linear in design. Which works well in many situations, but not in others. To accomplish non-linear instructional design, the pieces of the course have to take on different structures:



edugeek-journal-avatarA play-dough design would be a more malleable design where the different pieces have the ability to shape into different directions and even blend with other pieces. The Lego design would be made of smaller more defined pieces that connect easily with other pieces to form changing designs and pathways as the learners define the path. There is really not a major distinction between the two – just different ways of looking at the design theory. If you look at the different assignments in the ds106 assignment bank, you can see hundreds of activities that are designed in either Lego or Play Dough fashion to connect with or plug in to any part of the ds106 course.

(header image credit: Dima V, obtained from freeimages.com)

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

2 thoughts on “Non-Linear Instructional Design

  1. Play doh and legos are exactly the way i talk about how education should be! Did u read my mind? I will blog a response soon. I was going to reflect on how i as a teacher “design ” for emergence (like assignment bank and leaving space for unplanned stuff and negotiating order etc) but my problem is how to help someone ELSE whom i am supporting to do that? I do understand when i am working w someone like that but committees that approve courses do not. So we end up creating useless syllabi w schedules that we never follow. I am cool with it for myself (i just consider the syllabus as “one possible scenario to depart from”) but other faculty find it a waste of time (understandably).
    Also: what about faculty who aren’t normally comfortable w Emergence and yet their courses don’t flow well. How do we help them embrace emergence? It takes a lot of confidence and flexibility and personality i think. And if ur their instructional designer…lots of working together.
    I just realized that yday i advised someone to do JUST that coz their course “needed” it, multiple possible paths w openness to change which activities how to contextualize them and which order to go. I will blog more details. Thanks!

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