Learner Choice in Online Course Designs

Best_Example_Choose_Your_Own_Adventure_CROPPED Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books when you were a kid? They were fun and interesting because you were in control of the character’s destiny –- would YOU get on the boat and sail to the private island or would YOU set up camp for the night? You got to choose, and, therefore, became very interested in the outcome of the story. If you were like me, you’d try one of the paths and then go back and follow all the other paths to see what happened. These books created both curiosity and commitment to the story’s outcome.

Similarly, when learners have the authority to make decisions about their learning, they become more committed to the learning process and outcomes. Providing choices to learners is an increasingly popular trend in online course design, especially in Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This idea of providing choice is grounded in the adult learning theories of Malcolm Knowles and K. Patricia Cross. Both researchers found that adults have a need to be self-directing and decide for themselves what they want to learn. They concluded that instructors should allow for as much choice as possible in decision-making during the learning experience.

So why isn’t choice built into online course designs more often? The main reason is because a course that provides choices (allows for change) seems more difficult to design and monitor. So, the question of the day is: is it worth it? Yes, because learners become more self-directed and committed to an online course when they are given choices.

How to Decide Where to Incorporate Choice?

The following categories help instructors decide where to incorporate learning choices in their online courses. I recommend that instructors target one or several of the following categories of learner choice.

Categories of Learning Choice in Online Courses
© Jessica Rebstock

  • Resource Choices: Is the learner provided with a variety of content resources so that he/she can select what is most personally meaningful?
  • Activity Choices: Is the learner provided with a variety of activities so that he/she can participate in those that are most personally meaningful?
  • Assessment Choices: Is the learner provided with opportunities to personalize assessments so that they are personally meaningful?
  • Technology Choices: Is the learner provided with a variety of technology options so he/she can select tools that align with his/her current technology skillset or preferred learning style?
Multiple Ways to Achieve Learning Goals

Enhancing Learner Motivation Through Choice

By broadly considering a course’s learning objectives, viable choices can be created for learners. During the planning process, it is essential that parameters and goals be developed around the offered choices so that learning objectives are still met. Each learning path will end when the learner has successfully met the stated learning objectives.

At the most basic level, it is important to offer learners a variety of resources from which they can choose what is most meaningful. Learners have different interests and learning styles. When they are able to select resources that are personally relevant, they will be more motivated to participate in an online course.

Next, consider allowing learners to personalize the performance assessment. A generic assessment is rarely a good measure of what the learner truly knows and how they will apply what they’ve learned. Does your assessment allow learners to apply what they have learned to their own personal and work life?

Then, review your online activities from the perspective of offering alternatives. Online courses typically offer a schedule of activities for the week. Some activities may be required and critical to course completion. Beyond these required activities, could learners be given choices on which activities they would like to participate in?
Would learners rather Path 1) create a learning object on their own or Path 2) look for relevant examples on the web?
Do learners prefer to participate in Path 1) a live meeting event or Path 2) a discussion forum throughout the week?

Lastly, think about the technology options offered in your course. Are you offering a variety of technology options? For example, discussion forums are great, but this format will become boring if it used too often or exclusively. Consider using newer web technologies that vary the format and draw learners into the activity frequently. Also, consider allowing learners to present and/or create using a variety technology tools.

Online courses present a great opportunity to offer learner choice and allow learners to choose their own path. It may be tempting to create a single path for learners – it’s easy to plan for and implement. However, the deepest, most committed learning occurs when we support learners on the path that they choose for themselves.


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