pegs on a line

How to use linearity in online learning

Linearity is often criticised as being at odds with learner-centred experiences. However, the creation and interrogation of lines and trajectories is also a fundamental component of how people learn. So how can we harness linear learning opportunities in a learner-centred way?

Linear teaching tends to come under scrutiny when it unnecessarily defines and restricts learning experiences to one common pathway. The main criticism being that learners are all different and benefit from flexibility and choice in their learning journeys. A prescribed linear order and scheduled pace assigned to a programme of learning can have a number of logistical and pedagogical benefits. For example, our Learning Design Foundation course curriculum is loosely organised around the ADDIE process of design and development. The idea is not to prescribe that model as a standard, but it should help learners to group and organise knowledge into a memorable and subject-relevant structure. However, it is the lines that people draw for themselves that capture and harness spontaneous and undiscovered learning opportunities, where personalised meanings can be made.

Lines are often used to represent a logical or cognitive order. They can also be introduced to create connections – a popular technique used by memory athletes. For example, in order to memorise the order of a shuffled deck of cards, a memory competitor assigns personas to each card so that they may be linked together to form a more memorable “story”. Storytelling is an extremely powerful and particularly human learning device. So, whatever the intention, it’s unsurprising that learning experiences are made up of many lines: physical and conceptual, straight, winding, intersecting, and branching. 

We can teach through lines in so many ways, as lines can describe the pathway, topic, communication method, and/or the learning environment itself. We can also exploit the potential of lines as learning aids by highlighting their features and enabling learners to engage with them more intuitively.

Activity lines to explore

Look for lines in your course and materials at different levels. Here are some different line types to explore, with example question prompts:

  • The programme or course structure e.g. the order of topics and activities. What are the pros and cons of learning in this order? Does the order reinforce ways of understanding, or potentially limit learning opportunities?
  • Lines that define a concept or process e.g. a regulated process or scientific model. Is there a narrative that might lend itself to a story? What happens if the line is disrupted?
  • Lines that tell a story/history e.g. a timeline. What does the official line not tell us? How are notable events selected and what happens between them? How would different characters/perspectives draw the line differently?
  • Lines used for planning e.g. a roadmap. What is and isn’t included? Can timescales be aligned with other plans?
  • Lines used to measure e.g. benchmarks and standards. Who defined the measurements and could they be defined differently? How does the measurement connect with real-life outcomes and human stories?
  • Pathways and decision-making e.g. problem solving. Can the learner explore and learn from multiple paths? How is the right path determined? 

Learning design strategy

The following examples should give you some ideas as to what type of learning intervention would be most appropriate to your learners’ needs. Remember that making content more interesting does not necessarily make it more engaging, or pedagogically effective. Ideally, you want to present and reinforce or challenge concepts in different ways. So, visit and revisit important points through different media, i.e. a video walkthrough, followed by an interactive diagram, then a practice activity.

Course-level lines 

Whether you are designing an activity, a module, or a whole programme of learning, there will be lines underpinning learning pathways. Unfortunately, these are often determined by administrative strategies e.g. when a learning management system is used as a repository of materials, or by content templates, based on aesthetics and efficiency. Ideally, learning journeys should be informed by instructional or learning experience design principles.

Where lots of courses and learning materials need to be produced, a sense of consistency and some level of efficiency is important. And so, some larger course providers will develop templates or common “recipes”, informed by instructional design theory, but generic enough to apply to a variety of projects. This can be effective, but a critical perspective and regular review is important to ensure learning is not commodified or overly-processed by corporate systems.

As a learning designer, I like to be able to map out a learning journey, to see its lines, how they converge, diverge, and what patterns emerge (rhyming not intended!). Many learning theories lend themselves to an order or pattern. In the example below, I have selected at random and sketched out two well-known models: Fink’s Castle Top diagram and Keller’s ARCS model of motivation. I have then imagined how the models might be combined to create a new type of learning journey. 

sketches of learning design ideas

Fink, L. Dee. (2003) Creating Significant Learning Experiences, An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Keller, J. M. (2009). Motivational design for learning and performance: The ARCS model approach. Springer Science & Business Media.

Next, I can imagine ways to map digital activities and learning materials along the lines, or in and around the shapes created. This can later be used to define a navigational structure within a learning management system, so that the template created effectively facilitates course delivery.

If you are looking to develop a distinctive pedagogy (teaching approach) for your course, try exploring your own model combinations. It’s great to experiment and try out new models, if your context supports this. However, it is important to document your design process and develop a clear rationale for a different approach.

Topic-level lines

Linearity is particularly interesting to explore at a topic level. Some learning objectives might direct you to use linearity to aid memory and reinforce concepts. On the other hand, advanced learning objectives might inspire a critical interrogation of lines, or exploration of new ones. The question is, who draws the lines? The educator or the learner? Or, are some lines entrenched in a subject or as a professional tradition? Are some lines sacred but others worth challenging?

Let’s start with the basics: how to use lines to present information. If you want learners to grasp a linear concept, such as a process, you can certainly do more than present them with a diagram and description. There are a few ways that you may be able to enhance static content without fancy software or developer skills. And, depending on your learners’ skill levels and availability of technology, you could also flip this activity and ask learners to author their own content. This can be an opportunity to develop digital literacy, creativity, and problem solving skills.

Interactive presentations

At the most basic level, you can use PowerPoint or Impress to create an interactive presentation, then export it to PDF. 

To do this:

  • create a navigation system using smart shapes for your line and buttons;
  • create each stage or point on the line as a content slide; then,
  • assign slide hyperlinks to the buttons so the user can jump between slides. 

This example document is a basic demo, but you or your learners could create very different and imaginative outputs. If you want to create something more sophisticated, you can use this activity for storyboarding. PowerPoint storyboards like this can be imported into many SCORM authoring tools like Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate, and Lectora for editing.

Interactive roadmap

Moving on to something slightly more challenging. Here is a demo of an interactive roadmap concept built using Articulate Storyline:

Interactive timeline

If you want to create a visually appealing timeline, without having to create the links and buttons, try H5P. You can create H5P objects for free, either through a free account on the H5p.org site, or by using the H5P plugin via Moodle, WordPress or other compatible platform. Either way should allow you to embed the objects you create in a blog or webpage.

This is a demo example created using the timeline tool:

More examples

There are so many ways to explore or exploit linearity in learning activities. There are potential use cases for every age, ability, level and sector of learning context.

Here are some examples to demonstrate the potential variety of learning experience and content that could be created:

  • Create a project or company roadmap.
  • Build a CV or professional portfolio around an interactive timeline.
  • Design or explore a user journey or customer experience.
  • Describe a process e.g. scientific – conception to birth, energy production; legal – conveyancing; business – project management, quality assurance; financial – applying for funding, tax calculation and returns; industry – manufacturing process, safety procedure.
  • Subject-related timeline e.g. famous figures, political and artistic movements, historical narrative e.g. World War I.
  • Stories e.g. events and themes in a book or play, account of a day trip, a film critique.
  • A plan or account of a journey.
  • Breakdown of a piece of music.
  • Professional or academic development plan.
  • Combined lines e.g. the history of the London Underground told through a journey along each line.

Remember that many of these examples may be interpreted as activities for individuals and groups of learners, as well as creative ways for educators to present content.

Also, many of these activities can be used as types of formative and summative assessment e.g. organise items in a correct sequence, produce a written assignment in the form of a timeline, or organise project documentation as a line-based artefact.

Choosing technology

Authoring tools for creating line-based content

There are lots of digital tools that can be used to create interactive and dynamic line-based digital content. Some of these are specialist and versatile authoring tools, while others are designed specifically for creating timelines and similar objects. It is worth exploring the potential of the tools you already use, as tools like Microsoft Office applications are constantly evolving to offer new features.

Here is a small selection of the types of software that may be used to generate different linear learning objects and experiences. Once you have decided on the type of learning experience you want to create, you can conduct a more targeted internet search. For example, if you know you want to create a timeline, then you will find lists of timeline creation tools through a quick search. If you like a particular tool, but want to see other, similar options, search for “tools like [insert name of tool you like, e.g. Visme]”, which should bring up plenty of suggestions.

  • Microsoft Office – PowerPoint graphics, Excel charts.
  • Office Timeline – extension/integration for MS Office to create new outputs.
  • Google docs – Generate graphics and charts, project management templates in Google sheets can also be used.
  • Sutori – create presentations and timelines.
  • Adobe Spark – free and premium templates for timelines and other presentations.
  • Visme – create various presentations and infographics.

When selecting external tools to use internally, always check that you do so in accordance with organisational policies including accessibility and data protection.

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Pedagogy

Pedagogy is generally defined as the art, science and craft of teaching. The first pedagogues were Greek slaves who were responsible for caring for and instructing their masters’ children. In fact, the Greek origin of the word means ‘to lead the child’.

So, pedagogy may also be considered to be about nurture and pastoral care, as well as teaching. Despite the reference to children, the term is used fairly comfortably in adult education contexts. However, andragogy, which translates as ‘to lead the man’, may be used to refer specifically to the teaching of adults.

A number of related and derivative terms may be used to define particular fields of pedagogical interest, including digital pedagogycritical pedagogy, and heutagogy.