Wonderful Chaos: Nonlinear Learning on the Web (Part I)

Filed Under (e-learning, instructional design, pachyderm) by Jeff Hino on 22-06-2009 and tagged , ,

When I was a kid, the whole world was one giant “Learn-O-Rama.” For the most part (outside of the standard classroom), I picked what interested me and learned my way through it. It was a nonlinear process, much like a bloodhound follows its nose to sniff out new information.

Nonlinear learning suggests that how we work our way through information can itself contain information, and frame our learning. “It’s the road not the destination,” said Jared Bendis, a multimedia developer who works and teaches in the area of nonlinear multimedia storytelling at Case Western. This may seem like a new concept to many: the idea that the learner chooses the sequence in which they learn new material.

But the idea on nonlinear learning isn’t new. It’s been discussed in the literature for some time. It’s only in the past few years that tools have emerged to take advantage of a nonlinear approach and put it within reach of educators, not just programmers (remember Macromedia Director and Toolbook? Yikes.) One tool we’ve discussed here before is Pachyderm, a multimedia web-based authoring program that creates highly interactive flash presentations without having to be an Adobe Flash programmer. (See Chris’s Pachyderm post.)
Fractal Blues
Most online learning remains linear with learner choices limited to “next-page-previous-page.” What nonlinear learning offers is a model based on self-organization of ideas by the learner where, as Eleanor Duckworth points out in The Having of Wonderful Ideas, “the individual has done the work of putting [ideas] together for himself or herself, and they give rise to new ways to put them together.”

“Learning often takes jumps throwing new light on and affecting much that has been learned before,” says Dr. Uri Merry of the Institute of Organizational Consultation. “In learning sometimes a small input can have enormous reverberations. We learn with disorderly jumps between whole and parts, parts and whole.” (Nonlinear learning LO14329.) When you combine this nonlinearity with the power of these disorderly jumps in learning, you arrive at a place of wonderful chaos. The kind of chaos that made learning so effective and compelling to us as kids.

A nonlinear approach is not for every learner; there is evidence that learning styles can predispose a learner toward or against it. And some material is intrinsically linear, as in step-by-step procedural knowledge. But the potential for a nonlinear approach to impact e-learning is too good to pass up as another tool to add to the mix. It all boils down to the potential for nonlinear multimedia storytelling. But that’s a story we’ll take up at another time.

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3 Comments Already, Leave Yours Too

Arny Pickholtz on 24 February, 2010 at 11:56 am #

I’m ready to look at the IPad as a reasonable instrument for the delivery of non-linear learning. Do you have thoughts and references?


hote on 17 March, 2010 at 4:59 pm #

Agree with MR Jared Bendis: It’s the road not the destination. As long as you go you will arrive somewhere maybe completely far away from the place you meant to go but still somewhere

Ostello on 20 November, 2011 at 5:45 am #

“Learning often takes jumps throwing new light on and affecting much that has been learned before” I think this is a perfect description of my life!

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