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Embracing non-linearity in an online course

Embracing non-linear learning for your online course

Course non-linearity seems like an exciting choice for an instructor looking to create an innovative online course - but what are the benefits and drawbacks?

In a game of chess, there are many ways to capture the opponent’s king. This keeps the game interesting. We cannot pre-determine the choices that a player can make and the outcome of every game. Non-linearity in a learning context is very similar. A learner might take one of many paths through an online course to an eventual conclusion. There are many ways to make this possible, with particular regard to:

  • the learner’s skill level
  • the learner’s approach to solving the course’s challenges
  • the order in which the learner tackles the course’s challenges
  • the challenges which the learner opts in to

The more non-linearity that an instructor can create, the more unique each learner’s experience will be. The instructor can also leverage other non-linear components to make the experience far greater than the sum of its parts.

Now, we can argue that the abovementioned statements seem somewhat idealistic. Non-linearity is a bit like the philosopher’s stone: everybody talks about it, everybody wants it, but no one has found it yet.

What is the difference between a non-linear and interactive linear course?

In a previous post, we looked at interactive linear courses. At this point, it is worth making the distinction between non-linear and interactive linear courses clear.

With the former (interactive linear courses), the instructor only gives the learner the illusion of choice. These choices form part of a larger script. The course needs to have branch points, where the teaching material diverges in response to learner input. When the course reaches a branch point, its underlying core mechanics must determine which branches of the course the player can follow.

With the latter (non-linear courses), the instructor is attempting to mimic how the real-world works. The learner does something, which causes a minor direct reaction. This reaction triggers a chain reaction that can have effects in many places. It resembles a butterfly effect. But it can only work if there is no leading character. This is because everybody is the leading character in their own learning experience. Each learning experience influences the next. The result is a complex web that links all individual learning experiences.

Non-linearity in cohort-based courses

Cohort-based courses involve students that navigate an entire curriculum together. Unlike traditional self-paced courses, there’s built-in support, accountability, and relationship building that keeps learners from giving up when things get tough. Cohorts have a specific start and end date, so learners can be more intentional about the commitment required, reducing drop-outs. They also offer clear outcomes for learners, as opposed to passive consumption of pre-recorded content.

It’s easy to aspire towards such non-linearity in a cohort-based course, in which there are ample opportunities for interventions like:

  • short segments wherein learners can ask instructors questions
  • facilitated discussions wherein learners can reflect and debate ideas
  • worked examples wherein learners work through a problem together

An instructor can enhance the non-linearity of their interventions by considering how the learning experience can offer:

  • selection
  • optionality
  • multiple outcomes


We can define “selection” as the ability for a learner to pick which challenges they want to overcome.

Say that between point A and B in an online course lies a series of three activities, X, Y and Z, which are non-order dependent. This means that the learner can complete these activities in any order they wish.

With a linear online course, if the learner completes activity X but finds activity Y difficult, then they might not be able carry on any further.

Giving the learner scope to complete either activity X, Y, or Z decreases the chance of them becoming stuck. After completing a particular activity, the learner can go back at a later stage and complete the remaining set. This could be for fun, or because completing the remaining activities improves their chances later on.


We can define “optionality” as the ability for a learner to pick the order in which they work through the online course.

Giving the learner scope to choose which activity to complete allows them to put aside a hard task and go work on another one for a while.

After completing the second task, the learner may return to the hard task, refreshed and revitalised, and have a better chance of solving it.

Multiple Outcomes

We can define “multiple outcomes” as the likelihood of an online course offering many solutions to a single problem. As a result, an activity has several ways for the learner to overcome it.

The above allows the learner to have several paths to get from point A (being presented with the challenge) to point B (solving the challenge).

Should I embrace non-linear learning in my online course?

Non-linearity is great for providing the learner with enough reason to revisit an online course. In doing so, learners can steer away from the activities they succeeded at last time and instead take on the course’s other branches.

It’s important to stress that good design is at the heart of a non-linear course. Non-linearity is not about having the learner work aimlessly through the content. If a course is non-linear to a point where the learner has no idea what they need to do, or how they might go about it, then the non-linearity may have gone too far.

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Kim, C., 2010. Designing for Learning: Multiplayer Digital Game Learning Environments. UC Berkeley. Retrieved from

Sciutteri, M., 2018. Interactive Storytelling: Non-Linear Storytelling. [online] Envato Tuts+. Available at:—cms-31299 [Accessed 8 January 2021].