Does giving learners more control of the way they navigate through an elearning program help them or hurt them?
Before I tell you what the research says, challenge yourself with this one-item quiz question:
How did you do? I ask because I want to give you maximum control of this learning experience.
Or maybe, I just like telling a joke. SMILE.
A recent meta-analysis (a scientific study that looks at many other scientific studies) found NO benefit for learner control. And contrary to what we were told by Malcolm Knowles and all those who tried to sell us on the adult-learner-knows-best baloney, the meta-analysis showed slightly more of a tendency for learner control to be beneficial for kids, NOT adults (but still a virtually non-existent benefit).
Our job then as elearning designers is NOT to give up control to our learners, but to design a learning experience that uses proven research-based techniques to guide learners through an effective repertoire of learning experiences. Certainly, the research finding shouldn't be construed to mean that we should never give learners control, but it does mean that as an over-riding design principle, it's a bad idea.
Interestingly, the meta-analysis broke down elearning into its methodological parts, and found no benefit to learner control in any of the components.
"The current study, in keeping with the previous meta-analysis (Niemiec et al., 1996), found near zero effects for all components of instruction (pacing, time, sequence, practice, review). Thus, there does not seem to be an advantage to giving the learner control over any particular instructional component." (p. 404)
Of course, with research as with most things in life, some circumspection should be in order. My first worry is that research on elearning tends to be done on very short learning programs where learner motivation doesn't really come into play. Who can't keep attentive for 15 minutes, maintaining their motivation? Some learner control might help in longer learning programs where it might support motivation to engage the learning. Also, we wouldn't want to throw out the idea of learner control completely. There may be some specific opportunities where it is worthwhile.
The Research Reviewed
Karich, A. C., Burns, M. K., & Maki, K. E. (2014). Updated meta-analysis of learner control within educational technology. Review of Educational Research, 84(3), 392-410.
If you're developing learning or developing your learning team, don't forget to seek out trusted research-to-practice experts to help you.