Linear vs Non-linear Learning and the Future of Work
When it comes to learning new skills at work and following employee training programs, every type of student is different. Some people prefer linear learning, others non-linear learning. Some excel by listening to a teacher in the classroom and absorbing the information from A to Z, others thrive by a learning process that doesn’t necessarily follow a fixed, pre-programmed path but is dynamic, interactive, and intuitive. As we are propelled into the future of work, the need for agile and efficient learning strategies is rising. So when we look at linear vs non-linear learning, what is the most effective approach?
- What is linear learning?
- Linear learning examples
- What is non-linear learning?
- Non-linear learning examples
- Linear vs non-linear learning
1. What is linear learning?
Linear education simply means that the course material is divided into a number of steps – chapters, modules, videos – that are offered in a fixed order. Lesson two follows after lesson one, while the level of difficulty or complexity gradually increases as you progress. Just like in school, when linear learning at work is applied, we see a classic teacher/student approach: the teacher gives explicit instructions and pushes the content, while the student makes an effort to absorb it all. The way a new skill is acquired or upgraded is by memorizing what is ‘correct’, exercising, and by repetition. The perception is that by following the same, linear route, everyone attending the training program will have the same knowledge at the same point in time.
2. Linear learning examples
Imagine you work at an oil platform. In such a safety-critical environment, applying the linear learning method is arguably the best way to go. When working with complex machinery and chemicals, you need to know exactly which steps to follow in a hazardous situation: you have to fully understand that your actions are all a matter of cause and effect. It’s no use to learn how to extinguish a fire when you’ve never learned how to avoid causing a fire in the first place. Sure, you can share your creative ideas about reducing safety risks at work, but in an environment where strict rules and regulations apply, the intuitive, non-linear learning method is probably not the smartest approach. There are a number of examples in history that show that things can go terribly wrong when people are taught to follow different paths, based on their personal preferences and creativity to solve a problem.
Advantages of linear learning
- Linear learning provides students with a clear direction
- Linear learning is structured and organized
- Linear learning is a ‘safe’ route, especially in working environments where strict rules apply and people need to make educated decisions
- The impact of linear learning is quite easy to measure (exams, multiple choice, assessments, etc)
Disadvantages of linear learning
- Linear learning hardly takes the individual needs, talents, and interests of students into consideration
- Linear learning does not offer any room for creativity and initiative
- Linear learning assumes that all students will progress in an orderly and sequential fashion, from one level to the next
3. What is non-linear learning?
In contrast to the linear learning route, there is the adaptive or non-linear learning method. Here, there is no fixed, pre-programmed path or schedule that is the same for everyone. Students follow different paths and approaches, based on their personal preferences, talents, and skill level. It embraces the idea of a growth mindset, where people are stimulated to try new things, are convinced that they can learn to do anything they want and that their efforts and attitude determine their abilities.
With the non-linear learning approach, content is no longer ‘pushed’ by the teacher without any consideration of what students are interested in doing or knowing (the linear way). Rather, students are enabled to ‘pull’ information that is relevant to them at any given time. Instead of finishing a book or module from A to Z, progress is determined on the basis of the results or experiences with a previous task, lesson, or assignment. It’s a method that is conceptual, creative, and thought-provoking, including dialoguing with peers, experimentation, and processing knowledge without the need for traditional power relations, such as that between teacher and pupil. Flipping the classroom – in which learners study content privately and use facilitated sessions to connect theory to practice – is the first step toward this approach.
In our view, structured learning, with strong personalization for what you need and where you stand in terms of skill level, will lead to effective and efficient, non-linear learning.
Jelle Tromp, Chief Learning Officer at Lepaya
4. Non-linear learning examples
Let’s take a look at the way we learn a new language. This is typically a process that takes place in a non-linear fashion. Say you’ve been on holiday to Spain a couple of times and you would love to be able to express yourself in Spanish. One of the first steps here is that you’ll probably buy an online course or a textbook, but instead of cramming the basic grammar rules, you’re more likely to first flip through the chapters or modules where you’ll learn basic idioms that can be applied in daily life: while going to a restaurant or the supermarket. You start learning the pronunciation by mimicking local people, singing along with a hit on the radio, watching a Spanish soap opera, experimenting, and making mistakes. Every now and then you’ll return to your textbook, to actually find out more about the technical part, like conjugating verbs.
What you choose to learn also depends on the situation. Are you actually moving to Spain because you got offered a job at a local firm? Then you might want to invest in corporate language training. Just going there for the holidays? Picking up the more informal, conversational Spanish will get you much further. In other words, non-linear learning doesn’t have a clear beginning and end but rather is an ongoing process: dynamic, always emerging, intuitive, and fit for personal purpose.
Advantages of non-linear learning
- Non-linear learning creates a flexible, open, and playful environment
- Non-linear learning stimulates a growth mindset
- Non-linear learning allows you to pick out interesting topics first, then take a deep dive into the subject (or vice versa) – whatever fits your purpose
- Non-linear learning is an efficient method for increasing adaptable and agile knowledge
- Non-linear learning allows students to share experiences, give feedback and discuss their learnings – a proven way of making information stick more quickly
Disadvantages of non-linear learning
- Non-linear learning lacks a clear order or sequence, which some people find chaotic or unstructured
- Non-linear learning means getting stuck every now and then, and nothing deteriorates learning enthusiasm more than a lack of progress. Much more than in linear learning, facilitators have to keep spirits up
5. Linear vs non-linear learning
We, humans, tend to look at the world in terms of cause and effect: A happens because of B and B happens because of C. We apply causality to every part of our life because it lets us navigate the complex world around us more easily. The downside to causality is that some processes just don’t fit the mold. Those processes are non-linear by nature. They don’t follow a linear path from A through B to C.
As we are propelled into the future of work, linear learning is increasingly challenged as a teaching strategy. We are facing huge changes in the job market: the gig economy (short-term contracts and freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs) is rising, companies are facing high employee turnover rates and the number of vacancies in the Netherlands hit an all-time high this year. Due to rapid global and technological developments, new business models evolve at lightning speed, requiring a different look at leadership styles and skill sets because the way we cooperate, communicate and develop ourselves at work is transforming. Agility, flexibility, and digitalization have become the norm, and the need for a more diverse and inclusive workforce is high.
60% of the global workforce believes that few people will have stable, long-term employment in the future.
PwC Workforce of the Future global survey
With all that in mind, it’s safe to say that linear learning at work lacks the agility and flexibility to deliver new skill sets fast and efficiently enough to keep pace with all these changes. As our careers develop in a non-linear way, we also need non-linear learning strategies at work. However, this does not imply the upskilling process to be chaotic and random: even non-linear methods can take place in a structured, programmatic way.
At Lepaya, we don’t necessarily believe in a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ way. That’s why we use different learning methods to help professionals pick up a new skill, also depending on the career phase they’re in (from starter to first-time leader). The need is high, and time is short, so we try to be as effective and efficient as possible in how we upskill people by applying a clear and structured approach: Learn-Practice-Apply, with a series of smaller steps within each of those. This may sound like a linear learning process, but it isn’t. All learners are different and therefore have different needs. The magic word, therefore, is personalization. We focus on two perspectives:
- What is needed for the employee, right now? We make sure we offer the skills that are most practical and can be applied tomorrow. How often did we attend training that was great, but hard to apply directly? Exactly. That’s why we don’t do scrap learning.
- Where is the employee now on this skill? Is there a good understanding already, and does someone just need facilitated practice? Or is there currently unawareness of the richness of the skill in general? To be efficient, we cater to these needs and create feedback loops, as deeper awareness sometimes leads to new needs.
Every type of learner is different and has different expectations about their training experience. Learning can take many forms. There is no right or wrong way. But as Socrates once said: “one thing has remained constant throughout the course of time, all learners want to enjoy themselves, and all learners want freedom throughout the learning process.” Having a structured but personal, dynamic approach keeps people engaged. It plays a major role in retention and getting your business ready for a changing world.
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