The Rapid Elearning Blog

A while back we looked at unlocking the player navigation to make better elearning courses.  It’s worth revisiting because it’s still one of the questions I’m most frequently asked.  There are various reasons that we give for locking navigation.  The two most common are that some sort of regulation requires it or we want to make sure that the learner doesn’t skip through the course.

As far as a regulation that requires locking the navigation, I’m not really convinced that’s entirely true.  While it is true that there are a lot of regulations that cover training, I haven’t ever actually seen a regulation that says “in order for your employees to be trained, it is required that the navigation in your elearning courses be locked.”  If anything there should be a regulation to protect employees who might get hurt falling asleep while viewing an elearning course like that.

Another rationale behind locking navigation is that “it’s the only way to ensure that the learner gets all of the information.”  On the surface that makes sense because so many of our learning experiences are based on information being dumped in our laps.  We see it in almost every learning environment.

As far as the regulatory stuff, I decided to take things into my own hands.  I wrote a letter to President Obama asking for his intervention.  This is the type of change we need.  

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - letter to the President

I’ll let you know if I hear anything.  In the mean time, what can be done about this navigation issue?

There are some of you who are stuck.  It doesn’t matter what you say or want to do, you will be forced to lock your course navigation because that’s what your client demands.  There are even some of you who think I’m a boob and that there’s nothing wrong with locking navigation.  That’s fine.  I probably am a boob. 🙂  For those of you who want out of the course navigation dilemma, here are a few ideas.

Think of your course as two parts.  One part of the course is about information that the learner needs.  The other is about assessing the learner’s ability to process that information.  The key is to focus less on delivery of information and more on collecting evidence of the learner’s understanding.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - two parts to a course

Focus on understanding.  If the goal is to put a course online so that at the end of the year you can produce a report of people who’ve taken elearning courses, then locking the course makes sense.  You need that report to measure your success.

However, if you want to produce results, then locking the player is probably not the best solution.  I recommend focusing on the learner’s understanding of the content rather than whether or not they’ve been exposed to information.  You’ll build more effective elearning courses.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - great training report

Unlock access to information.  Think of your course content like a supermarket.  The shelves are filled with all sorts of items.  Give the learners a shopping list (performance expectations) and let them do the shopping.

If you send them to the store and they come back in 10 minutes (because they already knew where everything was located) or an hour later (because they needed to orient themselves) it makes no difference.  You’re not assessing them on how they shopped.  You’re assessing them on buying the right products on the list.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - give the shopper some freedom

Let the learners prove what they understand.  Whether the learner looks at a screen or not is irrelevant.  What’s relevant is that they know the information well enough to demonstrate understanding.

If they already know it, why force them to look at screen-after-screen of useless information.  If they don’t already know it, you can direct them to the place in the course where they will get the information they need. 

This is valuable because a more traditional elearning course treats each learner the same.  While an experienced learner might get too much information, you run the risk that a new learner doesn’t get enough or the right information.

Don’t make your course linear.  Learning is a complex process.  It requires more than just presentation of information.  By using a linear approach you hinder your options and possibly make the course less effective. Keep in mind that changing how you present the information doesn’t mean that you offer less or water down your course content. 

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - a typical linear course

I usually recommend placing the learner in a situation where they need to make decisions relevant to what you want the course to accomplish.  For example, if you’re teaching a new manager on sick day policies, don’t present five screens of policy information.  Instead, put the manager in a situation where he has to make a decision.  The decision shows his understanding of the policy and you’ll be able to give him the right level of feedback. 

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - which is the best approach for your course

This is more engaging and true to how the learner will use the information.  It also lets you assess the learner and direct them to the information they need.  Thus the course is a little different for each learner.

This doesn’t need to be a complex design process with elaborate scenarios.  It could be simple problem solving questions that guide them through the information.  Here’s an approach that’s worked for me in the past.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - example screen

  • Managers don’t come to work and read policy manuals.  They do their jobs and then something happens where they have to make decisions. So instead of an information dump, place the learner in a situation to make decisions. 
  • I break the content into multiple tiers of information.  There’s a link to the company policy, a place to watch the linear course, and a personal contact.
  • The policy is the source content.  This is a great way to show the learners how to find the information if they need it after the course.  Many times the course content is readily available in other formats online.
  • The presentation is the original course content broken into smaller chunks.  I always add this to satisfy the clients need to have all of the information available.
  • The HR contact is a way to provide policy information specific to the current question.  I’ve used the Engage FAQ interactions for this type of link.  If you want, you can even create a quick web cam video to ma
    ke it seem more real, as if you’re really talking to a person.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - three tiers of information

With this approach, the learner gets information from all angles.  They can click on the source content, they can watch a “traditional” elearning presentation, or they can ask for help to make the right decisions.  Even if they skipped all of the help links, you can still provide additional content in the feedback.  So they’d never miss critical pieces of information.

In addition, you are already assessing the learner’s level of understanding throughout the course.  By the time they get to the end, you probably don’t need to create a formal quiz.  That could save you some production time.

This type of approach can work in all sorts of settings from corporate training to academic subjects.  For example, in a civics class where I teach how legislation is passed, I create a course where they try to pass some legislation.  They’d encounter lobbyists, angry voters, and have to negotiate with the opposing party.  Through that process they’d get the same information I might normally present as some static slides or in a lecture.

As you can see, by reworking how you present your information you can create a more engaging learning process.  You’re not getting rid of critical information; you just offer it to the learners in a different way.   This type of structure lets you free up the course navigation and give more control to the learners.  It also helps you meet people at their current level of understanding.  This is especially helpful for new learners that might need more than what your original course was offering.

On the regulatory stuff, if I hear back from President Obama, I’ll let you know. 

I look forward to your thoughts.  If you agree or disagree, please share your comments by clicking on the comments link.


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32 responses to “Does President Obama Support Locking Your E-Learning Course Navigation?”

I am a firm believer in self-directed learning and always allow full user navigation. It is in line with adult learning concepts and your users will appreciate it. The learners knows what their learning needs are and will visit what they need to learn. I trust them on this. Plus, my courses are often used as refresher courses long after the user has first completed the course, so user navigation allows them to go directly to the content they want to “brush up on.”

Tom, thank you for advocating the “unlocking” of e-learning!


Another great post revisiting this important question. I am in the process of building a Leadership Development Program for first time supervisors and managers. We structured our courses along the lines that you outlined above. We began the course with a problem and provided links to the helpful content. Users had the option to review the content or not. An informal survey of the participants elicited a very positive response for unlocking the navigation. Interestingly enough – 100% of the users reviewed the information anyway.

Keep up the great posts!


Although I would agree with not making a course linear, I think you are missing one of the most important reasons for locking the course and that is content sequencing. Some instructional designers take time designing the content so the learner reviews what they need to know first and then the learner can successfully complete the rest of the content. You can’t ask a learner to fix a flat tire if they first need to learn what a jack is or what a lug nut looks like. Adult learning theorists might say let the learner go back in the course to find those answers as they are going through the replacing tire process; but, when you are told that your audience has limited time to complete the training you must consider forcing them through the training to make sure it all gets covered.

Hi Tom,

Thanks as always for the keen contributions. At the Learning Technologies Conference in London last week, Dr. Itel Dror shared his research revealing that the linear method is still the best method for ensuring knowledge retention. So, while we may all like the idea of giving our adult learners preference, research actually disproves that it reinforces learning. Rather, it can lead to information overload. Seems to me a well instructed e-learning course needs to pay attention to skill building and presenting information in chunks that can be easily digested and put into practice. The linear method can certainly allow for opt outs, but in general, the architecture needs to support the true aim: knowledge acquisition and then application. Otherwise, all that we are creating is a bunch of useless information for someone to run through without context.

In a nut shell, I’m all for giving navigational control within a higher level of order that we as instructional designers of e-learning need to pay attention to ensure learners can access the right information, at the right time, in the right space/place.

And, ditto – keep up the great posts. Let us know if you hear back from the President.


February 3rd, 2009

Hi Tom
In the “Exact and Natural Sciences School” of the “Universidad de Buenos Aires” in most Physics and Math courses, nobody kept track of students attendance. It was the other way around: student attendance was the best way to evaluate and assess a professor. Good ones had their classroom full all year and others, that taught in less interesting ways, had empty classrooms about 3-4 weeks after stating the semester.

So, I think that locked navigations can be a way of hiding poor courses. If the course is good, people will take the time to go through it step by step and won’t miss a single bit.

As for Todds comment about sequencing, I think he has a good point. If that is the case in one of my courses, I would add a note at the begining with that recommendation.

And I completely support separating the learning phase from the evaluation phase, even when they come in the same presentation. In my experience, this is the best way to assess people.


This concept of unlocking the navigation in my training modules has unlocked my brain to all kinds of possibilities for truly creative learning scenarios. I have to make my course interesting enough that the learner will want to find out if there are any more tidbits of learning to be found. Otherwise, they may as well just get through the boring thing and move onto something that is not a waste of their time. Learning is exciting, and our courses should support that excitement, and let the learner learn in their own learning style, pace, and direction!

Thanks, Tom!

Oh how you make me giggle! It is like you are hanging out in our AliveTek office like a fly on the wall!

The only problem I see with your advice is that it is sooooo much easier to lock down the navigation than it is to get SME’s to write good assessment items or get them to agree to/allow someone else to design the assessment.

The ROI formula is simple….
20 hours of SME/ID time writing decent assessment items vs.
hundreds of hours of learners bored to tears.

Keep it coming, Tom. And if you hear from President Obama, please post the reply.

I once presented our management team with a simple choice. Attend the Home Depot presentation on “how to build a deck”, or take this series of weekend courses. I included workshops on recognizing different kinds of wood by their colour and grain, one on nails where you actually got to make your own nail, one that had a chemical engineer as a guest speaker to talk about stains and sealers etc.

Of course they all picked the Home Depot session! This was in the day when I was writing sessions for the classroom and they wanted all kinds of junk in the courses. I made my point!

Again, the technology changes, but the issues don’t.

To people concerned about maintaining a sequence in an unlocked course: You can easily show the appropriate sequence in the menu. You don’t need to force the learner through that sequence, and you can provide catch-up information during an activity.

For example, a course about basic car repair might have a menu that looks like this:

1. Meet your car tools
2. Change a tire
3. [whatever]

Learners who don’t know anything about jacks or wrenches will likely choose section 1, “Meet your car tools.”

Learners who already know (or think they know) these basics will click on the next item, “Change a tire.” If during that activity they discover they don’t know what a jack is, they can click a link that brings them to that info in section 1 or displays the info in a pop-up during the activity.

So rather than forcing learners with varying backgrounds through the same sequence, you can make the recommended sequence super clear in your menu, and then give learners the freedom to skip what they already know.

Your activities and assessments can make sure that learners really know the stuff they skipped.

Tom, how did you present the lobbyists, angry voters, and have to negotiate with the opposing party? I’m teaching a Human Resource class next semester and would like to use your concept.

For example, in a civics class where I teach how legislation is passed, I create a course where they try to pass some legislation. They’d encounter lobbyists, angry voters, and have to negotiate with the opposing party. Through that process they’d get the same information I might normally present as some static slides or in a lecture.

Your post did not indicate what kind of learners Dr. Dror’s research studied but from your post I’m guessing they were beginners not familiar with the material. Yes, research shows that they need more hand-holding but that does not automatically mean locking down the training. (The problem with research like Dr. Dror’s is that, by design, it does not account for the frighteningly high number of real-world elearners who never finish the trainings!) I think Ruben is spot on that locking navigation hides poor design.

As Cathy and Tom indicate, you can have both sequencing and learner control. Here’s one more trick: go ahead and build in skipping options but always make sequential the default.

Sequencing is not the only issue. Pacing is also important, as is support info. Giving them options in how much practice they require gives learners control over pacing without sacrificing sequencing. Then have the support info always available, as Tom showed, if they get stuck. (Kinda like real life which just keeps happening out of sequence!)


February 3rd, 2009

I agree completely. We are making blended courses… the learning completes the online e-learning (which includes decision making) and then we in a class room environment present case studies in which the participants need to make decisions (which are hopefully based on the e-learning information) they have just viewed. Thanks wroking away on your own the blogs really help…

I really appreciate the tips! Thank you. In the future, you might want to reconsider making light of torture. While I do indeed have a sense of humor, I found your joke distasteful.

When I first read the title of your email – I was appalled that you would use such a provocative headline to gain our attention. This is the same tactic tabloid media uses to pull in readers- so I was stunned to see that it was you – an article I always look forward to reading.

I read your article in full – seeing that you intended to humorous. Although, the article was great- I can not get past the title and did not find it humorous at all. I am certain I am not alone as many would not make the time to even respond to such a poorly titled email.

Your references to torture, suggesting President Obama is supporting the subversion of elearning and, according to you, he should focus on something as frivolous as an easily correctable ID issue during the worst economic crisis of our time is insensitive at best. Many of your readers are in the process of laying off their valued team members, taking paycuts, losing bonuses, taking furloughs, etc. and are extremely sensitive to where President Obama’s efforts are being placed.

Your readers appreciate the sound advice you provide the quality of best practices you share – some of us will find your choice of title offensive – even though I dont think, or hope, you meant it to be.

Hi Tom, I agree with your point of view and I am trying to get my employer to do the same, but I struggle to incorporate this way of working into courses that involve systems training when a delegate needs to learn how to use a new system. Any ideas?

Keep up the great work.

February 4th, 2009

I usually love to get your articles, but I must say this one I found really upsetting. Why should we bring the federal government into such an issue as this? Aren’t their vague regulatory training directions enough to drive us mad? I agree that this is NOT the time for government intervention on some like this! The economy, people losing their jobs due to frivolous and wasteful spending, and not to mention ethical issues in Congress should take priority.

One would think that if we built better courses, people would want to sit through all of the information instead of debating the issue of government intervention in the process/procedure of instructional design.

I say please PLEASE return to writing articles that help us build better courses instead.

Love the post. You raise some good issues.

Glad I found this blog. We’re using this newsletter article in our next team meeting. I am sure it will be a healthy debate.

There are regulations that specific topics that must be covered as well as time on training (California’s AB-1825 Sexual Harrasment requirement). I believe that specific industries and jjobs also have very specific legaly mandated training requirements and specificaitons (bloodborn pathogens, hazardous materials hanlding, etc.)

Also, in some industries, auditors and inspectors may ask, “How come Trainee A recieved different training from Trainee B?” Quality Assurance managers may assess that the “risks” associated with individals self-selecting aspects of a trianing outwiegh the adult learning and instructional design principles and research findings…!

iI would echo Margret, that there is research that indicates highly structured instruction has better demonstrated outcomes efor specific audiences and content.

regarding the title; it was in-line with content and made complete sense to me.

I’ve read research to the effect that elearning is more effective if there is a navigation system that allows the learner to explore at their own pace (Carnegie Mellon University use to have a free research paper which I have somewhere). So locking restricts the freedom of the learner and contributes to them getting bored and frustrated and tuning out or leaving the course.

I can’t see compliance officers bothered by the course structure. Design to me is about designing for the purpose of having knowledge, skills etc. That is only determined by the quiz results of the elearning course, not whether every screen has progressed fully.

So locking proves nothing to me.

FWIW I thought the letter was humourous. None of us are immune so to see some lightness was kind of refreshing because the news is just too depressing. As a facilitator of learning it shows how difficult it is to please everyone with humour, especially irony. I’ve had my fair share of lead balloons over the years.


I was also in Itiel Dror’s session at the Learning Technologies conference last week.

I’m afraid you can’t extrapolate his results to say that linear learning methods are better. His tests used a series of content objects that had no relationship between them. And then he tested to see what was retained after a few weeks.

It makes sense, in that situation, that a linear structure worked – not because it put the content objects in a particular, more memorable, order – but because it took away distracting elements so they only had to focus on what they saw on the screen at one time.

In real life we are dealing with related content objects, that don’t necessarily have a linear relationship. We must give learners the ability to jump forwards and backwards.

In particular, it infuriates me when I come across “elearning” that requires me to work through dozens of pages before I get to the nugget of information I really need!

February 6th, 2009

I too support the linear androidgogy. Courses must lock the uncleansed sheep into the wash cycle or they will not be cleansed when they emerge from the rituals that I so carefully designed. For, in the end, it is not about ‘the learner’ it is about me.

And while I do not subscribe to this emotion that many refer to as humor, or emotions at all for that matter. I find that I can be the center of attention once again by stepping up to defend those who were upset or disappointed by your use of ‘humor’. These poor sheep must be respected dear sir. No amount of joviality or humor will break their spirit made of tears and tissue.

Those responses are pretty funny. I hope they aren’t serious. The greedy and the worry warts are ruining the economy. Stop it.. both of y’all types just stop it and we’ll be fine.

On topic… This is a pretty common problem. We are wrestling with this very issue and we’ve made some headway towards clarity. The arguments for respecting both the users time and intelligence (assuming you have taken the time to get to know both of these factors) are pretty compelling. SME centric courses can be pretty evil in both regards.

Fast food measurement isn’t really capturing what you really want anyway… Organizational change. How do you measure organizational change when all you care about is how someone scored on a question deck of useless trivia (knowledge) printed out in a spreadsheet. Many times what you really care about is how the learner VALUES something which contributes to the ORGANIZATION’s performance. The current prevailing views about how training is supposed to work flies in the face of so much logic it’s astounding if you peel off all the crap that it’s wrapped in.

Good thoughts on design and navigation, Tom. Good thinking on the appeal to the president. Leave it to one Community Organizer to turn to another for help on the topic!

I’m new to this blog and find it so refreshing. Great article and dialog in the comments. Course navigation/architecture is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. As we can see here, there are many considerations to make. Thanks again for the thoughtful insight.

I agree with many of the points made about adult learning theory and self-directed learning. Let me add feedback/communication into the mix. With proper assessment and feedback, the learner can be directed to the page they skipped over in a sequence, or re-introduced to the basics as a refresher. Side not: A self-directed course can also communicate a sense of confidence management has in the skills and knowledge of the learner which can increase motivation.

Good discussion. Dr. Dror’s presentation sounds interesting. However, I find that a lot of these research studies don’t always relate to real world application. Testing how people remember simple pieces of information is not the same as trying to integrate more complex information in an elearning course with some sort of performance improvement.

I did find an interesting article (PDF link) by Dr. Dror, that is relevant to the discussion here.

Ultimately, you have to do what is going to work best for your project and sometimes the learner and learning isn’t the primary objective.

Regarding Tom using Obama as a flipant way of getting our attention…MEOW! Go ahead and stress yourself out look forward to the future like your leader is and accept the good and bad that comes with it, even if it means reading Tom’s bad jokes (Sorry Tom had to do it!)

Good article – we let users navigate back to slides using the left hand side as a topic or module title to review the information then we turn off the navigation once we test if it’s compliance. If it’s something more light hearted like an overview, we leave the navigation on.

April 12th, 2009

Dear teacher Tom
Iam very interesting the topic of locking e-learning course,it showed me so important things about the course and Iinterested to participate my views about the discussions,the great article is the way we processed the new tecnologies of e learning my view the president barack obama will increase to focuss social education, technology and science , he will not close or lock the e learning, the president has a fresh mind that will support all community development issues

abdirisaaq sh ali ahmed
e-learning course student

May 19th, 2009

Tom, I agree that locking the navigation can frustrate the learner and ultimately detract from the learning experience. And from my experience you are correct that compliance regulations do not literally require IDs to lock elearning courses.

What they do require is that learners spend a certain amount of time taking the training (as in California AB-1825, as Jim mentioned above). While we can (and do) derogatorily refer to this as merely “seat time” and cry that the regulations should be changed, this is the situation that we are faced with today.

So my question is (for Tom and all of you), other than locking the navigation so that the user is forced to spend a certain amount of time on each page, how would you ensure that a course met the seat time requirements?

[…] Does President Obama Support Locking Your E-Learning Course Navigation? […]

I don’t think anyone should be forced to sit through anything. Prove to me you can master the knowledge and skills and you’re done.

I design courses for automotive technicians. The most effective and well received courses consist of three major components.

Theory of Operation (structured)
Diagnostic Scenarios (very popular)
Multiple Choice exam (not popular)

Because the audience varies from tech school grads to Master Technicians, we allow free reign through the courseware, mainly to ensure that Master Techs don’t waste their time.

Most experienced techs skip the Theory of Operation content completely and challenge the scenarios and tests.

Inexperienced techs may try to challenge but often fail. They can challenge again. We never lock the course. But this may not be the best use of their time.

Does anyone translate this approach to a workshop? Having a station with info/lecutre/trainer presentation, the HR video at another station and the policy manual at another.

Learners have workbooks and are directed to complete the challenge/scenario using the resources in the room.

Comments? Questions?