Choose your own adventure… er… learning path

There’s a lot to be said that’s positive about our declining economy. (Yeah, it’s an odd beginning. But hang in there with me.) In the publishing industry, for example, we’re having to be a lot more careful about what products we release. We’re also having to be more efficient in our products; people want more for less.

As part of that, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about non-book products. O’Reilly has offered books through Safari for a long time, and there’s certainly the O’Reilly School of Technology. But what about folks that want traditional book topics, like JavaScript or PHP & MySQL, in a non-book form? These people don’t necessarily want or need course credits, but they expect more than a PDF-style view of a book.

When you start to think about effective learning in an online medium, one the very first concerns you’ve got to deal with is sequencing. Web users don’t live in a page-by-page world. John Lewis calls this the “disclosure sequence” in a recent post on learning paths:

In our view, the most important aspect of the design of a training course is the “disclosure sequence”: the sequence in which the topics of the subject are disclosed to the learner. This is the central issue on which all other aspects of the course design depend.

If John and his colleagues are right, there are two critical realizations here:

  1. Order matters, but web users are not comfortable with linearity. People on the Web tend to skip around, looking for just the piece of information they want.
  2. Again, though, order matters! Just because web users may want more freedom doesn’t necessitate that as learning experience designers, we have to give those users complete freedom.

So how do you split the difference? Can learning really be broken down into small enough segments that web users feel they have sufficient control (I want to jump to “closures” in “Ruby”), while still allowing teachers and educators an ability to guide a learner through that smaller segment (You need to learn about Ruby’s handling of memory, then move on to closure syntax, and then examine the pattern in play within a closure)?

One key aspect to solving this problem (or at least approaching it intelligently) is to reorganize in terms of concrete, functional goals, rather than lexical or technical topics. John Lewis again has useful observations on what you can achieve when grouping things according to functionality:

In general, a more effective guide to designing a disclosure sequence is to choose a path through the goals which the learner already has, beginning with those which can be achieved simply and progressing to those which are more complex to achieve. It is evidently not always easy to find these; but if such a path can be found, then the requirement to motivate learners along the way tends to be easier because they are achieving parts of the objective along the way, while building on what they already know.

So here’s my question; it’s a two-parter.

  1. If/when you’re learning online, do you expect complete control? Do you expect the ability to move anywhere within a course and/or topic, even to specific steps within a process? Or are you satisfied with topical/functional control, and then are willing to follow a process within that subset?
  2. Does all this seem silly to you, and you think learning online is really just a fancy term for a good Google search?