A defence of the “Next” button

The “Next” button doesn’t have many friends in the e-learning community. The humble yet shiny arrow is associated with boring page turners.

Blue neon arrow pointing to the right.

Hell-bent on avoiding the “Next” button, many instructional designers will delinearise the content by creating a course homepage with a raft of topics represented by funky icons. The learner is free to explore and discover the knowledge contained therein at their convenience and – more importantly – at their discretion.

While I broadly agree with the constructivist sentiment of this approach, I can’t help but think it’s a band-aid for a much deeper issue.

Let me explain by rewinding a little…

In my previous post Informal first, I articulated a mindset that prioritises informal learning over formal training. I argued in favour of providing all the necessary learning resources to the target audience in an open, structured format. I had in mind an Informal Learning Environment which would host the bulk of the content and enable peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.

This is constructivist design. It facilitates pull learning at the convenience and discretion of the learner, and moreover it supports on-the-job learning just in time. Its primary focus is not on training, but on performance support.

Having said that, I am the first to agree that sometimes training is necessary. This is where an online course can step in.

By design, an online course is meant to transmit knowledge to the learner. By design, it’s meant to be programmatic in nature. By design, it’s meant to be ruthlessly efficient.

In other words, it’s meant to be linear.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that an online course should be stripped of all constructivist principle. On the contrary, I highly recommend that the learner be empowered to explore and discover the contents of the course as they wish, free of the yoke of forced navigation. However, it is important to note that such freedom is not mutually exclusive with linearity.

What I am suggesting is that the instructional designer who rails against the “Next” button is valiantly (but futilely?) trying to backfill a void in their organisation’s learning architecture. Because open, searchable, browsable, accessible content does not exist, he or she feels compelled to create it. But the LMS is not the place for it!

Open, searchable, browsable, accessible content should be available to the learner all the time on an open, searchable, browsable, accessible platform.

In contrast, an online course should scaffold the learning experience to achieve a pre-defined objective. It should not be played with for hours on end, and it certainly should not be used for ongoing reference.

Neon arrow through the heart.

So whenever you are consumed by the burning desire to deride the “Next” button, ask yourself whether you are assigning guilt by association.

Perhaps the true guilt lay closer to home?


7 thoughts on “A defence of the “Next” button

  1. Hey, Ryan! That’s pretty much the conclusion we came to as well. The next button is a mechanism. A couple of years back I tried an experiment. I removed the next button from the navigation template and produced a small prototype of a replacement using contextual cues and choices. This prototype was turned into a short lesson. Choices and calls to action were the substitute. This still produced a relatively linear progression. Users didn’t have a problem with it. We ended up putting in a “back” mechanism for one particular course. This course is still fielded.

    The exercise was designed to get design folks to think of ways to get participants thinking. We’ve been conditioned by these expectations that put content on a conveyer belt. We’ve interviewed users, most will not pay much attention to content, will game assessments, and will end mandated experiences as quickly as possible.

    The next button is back in the default template. Guidance for use of the template focuses on the design of activities. The next button is merely a nudge to the next floor once the current “activity floor” is completed. Still linear. Still what folks (designers and participants) are used to. It’s still a guide path.

    Even so, I do think this is a helpful exercise. Even when posed as a hypothetical, forcing the designer to “survive” with out dogmas or crutches changes perspective. It brings the question “how can I encourage thinking” back into design. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this is a common enough question.

  2. Good point, Steve.

    I suppose it depends on the level of scaffolding required. My subtext was that, as a profession, we e-learning peeps appear increasingly allergic to scaffolding despite it being the right solution in particular situations.

    Having said that, I too am supportive of encouraging the learner to think while learning. I see no benefit, for example, of an employee jumping straight to the quiz in their mandatory compliance module and bluffing their way through until they pass.

    I’m keen to try your experiment!

  3. I spoke at a conference this year – and this was a good chunk of my topic (rant ;) Whichever way you look at it, the technology – and as a part of that, the next button is the vehicle for the real learning. I think that if we are thinking too much about the next button – then maybe a little more effort might be needed for the content!!!

    I’m a huge fan of linear learning, in the right context i.e. as a means of supporting a learner from novice to expert – the freedom then comes in the amount of practice you provide the learner with. Some learners will need one example and then move on to the next example or level – while others will want a few attempts to feel confident.

    I often recommend this structure in replacement of assessment as well (when did a score become more important that a worker/learner actually being able to confidently do their job!).

    Thanks for the post Ryan – I love your blog and knowing there is a growing number of advocates out there picketing for great learning :)

  4. Thanks for the lovely comment, Nicole. It’s always good to know that others in the big wide world agree with us!

  5. Reblogged this on Connectivism Conectivismo and commented:
    The Next Button: creating a course homepage with a raft of topics represented by funky icons, the learner is free to explore and discover the knowledge contained therein at their convenience and – more importantly – at their discretion.

  6. Interesting. Found this down a rabbit hole and can see that the ideas of it have continued for you (since at least 2012!) in your post on Foundations. Do you think the message is getting out there yet?

  7. Vive la rabbit hole!

    The simple answer to your question, Neil, is no. I still think many (most?) organisations don’t build their foundations and so whenever they try to push the pendulum towards the 70 and the 20, it inevitably swings back to the 10.

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