How Should We Use Non-Linear vs. Linear Learning?

As corporate learning and education professionals, we tend to classify learning activities in many ways. A common classification that most of you have probably encountered somewhere is the distinction between linear and non-linear learning. However, the knowledge on the topic – especially on non-linear learning – doesn’t often go deeper. Hence, organisations – both corporates and educational – often rely heavily on linear learning. So let’s take a look what that means.

What is non-linear and linear learning?

In short, we could explain the two types in the following way:

Linear Learning is often a highly directed, controlled and program-centred approach. In a linear model, we require learners to complete and master a certain level of content before moving to the next one. Learners complete learning activities following often strict, predetermined paths with little flexibility.

Non-linear learning, on the other hand, is much more flexible in nature. Learners learn by exposure to different topics over time with a high degree of freedom. The emphasis is on self-directedness, the learner’s own interest and resources on demand.

In the context of corporates, you could draw a rough illustration: formal learning represents a linear model, where non-linear learning represents learning on the job (by doing, not through instruction).

The problem with linear learning

As most organisations and even schools still fall for linear learning, you may ask what the problem is. Well, firstly and fundamentally, the way we learn in a natural environment is very much non-linear. In the realm of languages for instance, the sequence in which we tend to learn a new language is quite different from the curriculums imposed in schools. By setting strict boundaries on what can be learnt at a given time, like we often do with a linear approach, we may be significantly limiting developmental opportunities.

Secondly, linear learning can also have a passivating effect. As learners cannot make much choices or take control of their own outcomes, you’re likely to see lower engagement. As we know from educational research, active beats passive more often than not.

How could we use non-linear learning instead?

Transitioning away from the commonly used approach may be difficult. Not because of it’s harder to execute, but just for the sheer reason of having to overcome existing mental hurdles. Here are a few things you could try.

  1. Stop building courses. Instead, design inter-linkable yet independent resources
  2. Allow access to all levels of content regardless of current progress
  3. Allow learners to take control and influence what, how and when they learn
  4. Don’t assume a requirement to study a subject before starting to solve a problem
  5. Adopt a learner-centric approach to both delivery and design

Naturally, there is no one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to learning. Linear learning may well have its place in certain areas. For instance, some research seems to indicate that a linear approach would be better in training relatively unmotivated or less interested learners when dealing with complex subjects. However, we do believe that it pays to diversify and not stick to forced linearity just for the sake of comfortability. Rather, you’re much better off identifying the best approach based on the topic and resources at hand.

Could your organisation benefit from unconventional, modern and creative approaches to learning? If you answered yes, but feel like there are a lot of things you don’t fully understand, we’d be happy to help you. Just contact us.

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