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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2019 / Winter 2020)

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Developing Interactive and Nonlinear Learning Modules for Individualization

By Kuang-Chen (Kuang) Hsu, University of Notre Dame 


When developing a course, instructional module or learning experience, it is important to begin with the specification of instructional goals. They then become a reference as the basis for selecting strategies and tools that help learners achieve these pedagogical needs (Gagne, Wager, Golas, Keller, & Russell, 2005; Kruse, 2002). This backward-design process is widely considered as a practical process, but it requires a lot of practice to apply in real-world settings. This paper provides an example of how one university cooperates with faculty in unearthing  design challenges and the application of applied theory and research evidence into practice to the develop a digital module targeted to improving student learning experiences.

In the following section, we will start with a brief overview of the project and talk about how to navigate the challenges presented by current theory and research. In the process we will illustrate how the end product was created and implemented through the course design. Finally, we will include suggestions to help anyone who is interested in developing nonlinear interactive learning modules that support individualized learning.

Project Description

A professor of history submitted a proposal for support in developing instructional assets for his undergraduate course and was successful in obtaining  a grant from the university. Our support staff collaborated with the faculty to ensure that the assets were developed in alignment with pedagogical goals and was influenced by research relevant to supporting students during the learning process. 

The course focused on Western Civilization. It was designed to offers students a broad survey of the Western tradition from prehistory to the end of the medieval period. In order to help students integrate all learning materials into a coherent learning experience, the professor began making documentary-style videos as he traveled in Europe. The videos were designed to complement the content and instructional activities throughout the course. He wanted to use the real life videos to stimulate the interests of the students and to enhance their learning through the video assets he had created.

After a debriefing session with the professor, we collaborated with him in establishing an outcome oriented goal for the project. It was basically to enhance student motivation and learning performance via video and other media assets. Next, we collectively determined what would constitute acceptable evidence of prior research relative to learning, motivation and engagement applicable to his instructional goals.  The context was the instructional design and learning experiences related to the media assets he created. This process served as the basis for the evidence-based practices in the course design and content.

Individualized Learning

A common use of the videos in this course was to supplement learning topics and contextualize the moments and events in history that students were learning. When the instructor covered a topic, the students were required to watch the relevant videos on their own time. The video assets were bound to a strict schedule but allowed students to watch them at their own pace. 

The main challenge to enhancing learning through the use of the videos was not only the video quality but also the connection to the course structure in generating an engaging environment where students can gain a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. Each video needed to fulfill its instructional potential in motivating students to learn. The videos needed to be more than just appealing. They needed to be pedagogically sound.

One solution to the challenge was to create a series of learning modules composed of learning content, supplemental videos, assessment practices, and other learning activities (see Figure 1). Students would view the videos and interact with other related learning materials for deeper understanding of the content. The staff also worked with the professor in segmenting one theme into small units and allowed students to choose their own path through the resources, taking into account individual differences to give students more control of their learning. With such autonomy, students can formulate their own learning based on individual needs, and the intent was that their performance and motivation for learning would be improved accordingly (Dickinson,1995; Fazey & Fazey, 2001; Kaufman, 2003; Reeve, 2002).

Figure 1. Learning Module with Videos, Readings, and Learning Activities

The learning modules can also meet the guidelines on course content and scheduling of experiences. As previously mentioned, students were required to complete all learning experiences in the resources and not allowed to skip topics according to their preferences. The implementation of individualized learning should accommodate the requisite to cover all required materials while also providing students with options to choose their own learning paths to meet individual’s needs (Basye, 2018).

Nonlinear Learning with Scaffolding

Individualized learning is a useful theory but we need to find a feasible way to infuse this learning strategy with practices in design. Considering the need for learning autonomy, we decided to use multimedia to deliver the content. The genre of multimedia that provides freedom of navigation makes the learning process nonlinear and supports individualized learning by creating an environment where students can choose and learn the materials at their own rates (Teoh, & Neo, 2007).

However, according to the results of previous studies, some students have difficulties in navigating course content in multimedia learning environments because nonlinear learning within hypermedia programmed could lead to cognitive overload or disorientation for them during learning processes (Chen, 2002; Lawless & Brown, 1997). The disparity in students' characteristics in multimedia learning could reduce the effect of using multimedia on students’ to enhance learner outcomes.

Our approach to minimizing the different teaching/learning characteristics in multimedia instruction was to provide task scaffolding and clear interface design to guide students in the learning process. This includes an introductory video to give students an overview of the lesson and then allow them to select multiple learning topics on the main page to explore the content of a given section on the topic. Within each learning unit, besides instructional resources such as videos and readings, we also included learning activities for students to self-evaluate their learning progress. The feedback provides them guidance as to where and how to find the answers from the instructional content (see Figure 2). Through self-assessment, students can discover which part of the content they missed and need to focus their attention on that section. This scaffolding support can benefit students with different learning styles in multimedia learning environments to better navigate instructional content and then control their learning sequence.

Figure 2. Instant Feedback on Learning Activities

Interaction in Multimedia Learning 

The interactivity provided by multimedia can also engage students in nonlinear learning environments (Najjar, 1998). Such an interactive feature is considered critical in the learning environments where students must assume initiative and responsibility for their learning (Bannan-Ritland 2002; Clark & Mayer 2016; Evans, & Gibbons, 2007). Since our learning modules were designed for asynchronous learning outside of the classroom, it is important to utilize the interactive effect of multimedia learning to help students, not only develop an active relationship with the learning materials, but also remain focused while learning via the modules.

Regarding student motivation, we produced an intro topic video as a hook to catch students’ attention. Next, we provided multiple instructional resources for students to learn more about the topic. Instead of presenting all of the content at once, we divided the navigation page into two sections. When clicking on the titles, students can find the direction to access various instructional materials on the right-hand side of the page (see Figure 3). The perception of interaction by students can reduce cognitive load to free up more available cognitive capability to digest newly gained knowledge and be able to apply it to their later studies (Betrancourt, 2005).

Figure 3. Interactive Navigation Page to Reduce Cognitive Load

This multimedia module promotes individual knowledge construction and self-reflection by interacting with a series of learner-centered activities. The construction of interactivity that reduces cognitive overload assists students to process the information in a more effective way, which supports knowledge transfer and prepares students for success in their learning. 

The Implementation of Digital Module into Curriculum

To succeed with learner-centered activities, students need to set meaningful goals for completing the activity and the instructor can help monitor their progress and determine if the strategies they are using are effective and provide appropriate feedback accordingly (Brush, & Saye, 2002). Although this project deliverable was a fully digital module for asynchronous learning, integrating it into in-class activities can increase its instructional impact. Through talking about the use of this module with colleagues, the instructor could gain insights  into diagnosing students' needs and provide appropriate assistance to promote the learning performance of individual learners. 

Therefore, we partnered with the professor to design discussion questions to ask students about their learning experiences and encourage them to seek necessary help. Within this course, after weekly lectures, students were asked to share their experience with the learning module and they had a discussion in the next class to share how, what, and where they learn about the topic in the module. Such scaffolding strategies in class can support the use of this digital learning module for optimal learning by providing social interaction with peers and the instructor. 


This paper provides an example of how to articulate learning goals and follow evidence-based approaches to create an effective digital module for meeting those goals. We described a backward design approach to determine the desired outcomes and apply the findings of research to develop a multimedia module in collaboration with faculty, learning designers, and educational technologists. The module provides different paths to learning that helps students make sense of instructional resources at different rates to accommodate individual needs. The interactivity helps deliver the content in a nonlinear way and accommodates cognitive limits to creating an engaging learning environment.

From the faculty's perspective, this project creates deeper opportunities to work closely with learning designers on how to adopt evidence-based decisions to design engaging and effective learning experiences. Partnering with media staff allows faculty to produce high-quality digital content that they would not have the time/skills to make by themselves. These experiences assist faculty to increase digital literacy and awareness of important considerations when using media assets and technology to design the course.


This project was funded by the Office of the Provost at the University of Notre Dame to support Digital Learning Initiatives for Academic Year 2017- 2018. 


Bannan-Ritland, B. (2002). Computer-mediated communication, elearning, and interactivity: A review of the research. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 3(2), 161-79.

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Betrancourt, M. (2005). The animation and interactivity principles in multimedia learning. The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning, 287-296.

Brush, T. A., & Saye, J. W. (2002). A summary of research exploring hard and soft scaffolding for teachers and students using a multimedia supported learning environment. The Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 1(2), 1-12.

Chen, S. (2002). A cognitive model for non–linear learning in hypermedia programmes. British journal of educational technology, 33(4), 449-460.

Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. John Wiley & Sons.

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Reeve, J. (2002). Self-determination theory applied to educational settings.

About the Author 

Kuang-Chen (Kuang) Hsu is a Senior Learning Designer at the University of Notre Dame.  He thoroughly enjoys employing learning technologies to facilitate teaching and learning in a wide variety of pedagogical settings, including online, hybrid, and classroom environments. Throughout his graduate studies, Kuang was an instructor teaching pre-service teachers educational technologies to enrich their curriculum designs. He also collaborated with educators, scientists, and engineers at a Science and Technology Center to develop a series of multimedia instructional modules to promote science education.

Kuang has years of experience developing multimedia instruction for the needs of private industry, academia, and government. These experiences, including the development of simulation training systems, websites, online games, and 2D/3D animations, have assisted him in eliminating the theory-practice gap to develop practical strategies to support teaching and learning.

His email is  

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