Navigation Design in Digital Learning

From a design perspective, the digital learning field has been evolving quite a lot in recent years. Whereas we used to rely on highly linear e-learning experiences, we have since understood that we might need other types of delivery too. When designing learning, navigation is an integral part of the final experience: do we want learners to be able to explore freely? Or do we want them to stick to the “path” that we’ve designed? Naturally, there are various benefits and downfalls for any approach you choose, so let’s examine them in more detail. Here are three different navigation design approaches for digital learning, and their potential impact.

Locked navigation: structured, linear paths

First, locked navigation is still probably the prevalent and previously dominant approach in e-learning. What locked navigations means is that learners have to proceed through the learning experience in a pre-defined order. Proceeding to the next step may require playing all the content in the module, completing assessment or performing other tasks. The predominant logic of locked navigation design is that there’s a pre-defined path and each learner should go through it all.

Benefits

  • If you’re using narrative in the learning experience, learners get the whole story.
  • The experience is highly consistent among all learners
  • The user experience and flow is smooth: learners don’t have to worry about where to go next

Pitfalls

  • Forces learners to go through everything, which often results in a more one-size-fits-all experience than something personalised.
  • Doesn’t address learner needs and context very well, e.g. some might only need parts of the information, which is now locked down.

Unlocked navigation design: free-flow discovery

Opposite to locked navigation, unlocked design entails more free-flowing learning experiences. Whereas learners were previously on a pre-structured path, here they’re able to choose where to go, based on their immediate needs and preference. In general, there is some narrative or linear sequence to the learning experience, and navigation aids to guide the learner, but the final “journey” is highly dependent on the individual.

Benefits

  • Individuals can pick and choose what to learn and when, which personalises the experience ever so slightly
  • They can direct their efforts as they see fit. E.g. skip topics they already know, while putting more time into the new things.
  • The experience is less likely to feel forced and “pushy”

Pitfalls

  • Without adequate cues or nudges, the learners might miss or skip some important things.
  • Narrative structures don’t work with a “free-flow” design approach
  • Learners have to self-regulate their own learning; are they capable of doing that?

Adaptive learning navigation design

Finally, a third alternative, enabled by technology, is adaptive learning design. What it means is that the choice and curation responsibility of the learners is eliminated. Instead, through careful and meticulous design and content mapping, each learner is directed onto a journey based on their previous performance. For instance, a learner scoring low for a particular topic might be given reinforcement on it, whereas a more advanced learner might be allowed to skip the module altogether. The idea is to deliver highly personalised learning and eliminate the burden of choice.

Benefits

  • The learning experience is personal and tailor-made to each individual
  • Continuous assessment of learning, skills and engagement to direct learners further
  • Each play-through can be different, and learners don’t have to worry about finding the right things

Pitfalls

  • Designing adaptive learning content requires an extensive amount of work initially
  • AI algorithms powering up the “adaptive” require training, however the process is possible to do without AI

Final words

Overall, it’s good to see that learning and development is utilising more varied navigation design practices. Just like with any design, the goal should be to find the right fit for the given situation. Therefore, it’s really important to spend time on these approaches in the design phase. If you’d like to explore possibilities with different navigation design strategies for your digital learning, don’t hesitate to drop us a note. We’d be happy to help.

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