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The Rapid Rise of Learning Pathways

We have access to virtually unlimited information at our fingertips these days. Sound instructional design takes all of this information that is whizzing by in all directions and creates structure around it. This structure focuses on concepts consistent with how people learn. Traditionally, this occurred through macro learning opportunities like classes, degrees, and classroom training programs.

Advancements in technology have allowed two disruptive innovations to emerge: Microlearning and Personalized Learning. These developments are of interest to learning leaders and L&D professionals who aim to equip their employees with the most relevant information while reducing the time, and ultimately money, that is spent on workforce development. At the same time, employees are looking for ways to engage in asynchronous instruction that is tailored to their current knowledge and builds towards complete mastery.

Pause and reflect on that last sentence for a moment. The ability to have a scaled personalized experience is truly revolutionary. This personalized learning was typically only realized through instructional models such as cognitive apprenticeships (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1988) or scaffolded instruction (Pea, 2004). Software developments are now at a place where adaptive learning goes beyond branching logic. Learners can now engage with small chunks of content in a way that is customized to them. When we think about the structure of this type of learning environment, it becomes clear that there is a need for some direction and planning in order to sequence a learning experience. A key aspect of the eLearning designer’s role then, is to build this structure and avoid the "one-size-fits-all" approach.

People like to see a path toward progression. This is true regardless of the circumstance. They could be progressing in their career but it is just as likely that they want to progress in a hobby or talent. In our current educational world, learning pathways help to accomplish this progression. According to Rughinis (2013), learning pathways provide both tails and conditionality for learners. In other words, they help learners to see where they have come from and where their learning path is expected to go.

In the workforce, an ideal learning pathway focuses on the current needs of the learner, where they would like to go in their career, and what skills the company needs them to acquire now. Creating sound learning pathways requires that the eLearning designer give over some level of control to the learner. They must set goals and choose from a variety of options in order to accomplish their goals.

An eLearning designer in a learning pathway system must think of themselves as curators and connectors of knowledge.

Read more: Why do eLearners become frustrated? 

A key aspect of the eLearning designer’s role is to avoid the "one-size-fits-all" approach.

What Might a Learning Pathway Look Like? Characteristics

We can think of Learning Paths much like a road trip. The best road trips typically start with directions, but the driver must be able to adapt to changes in road conditions relative to the map. In order to do this, they rely on mile markers, exit signs, and even a compass in order to arrive at their destination.

Are there other ways to take a road trip? Sure, you might aimlessly drive around to see different things or you might be so reliant on your structured GPS that any changes in construction cause you to get lost.

A good learning pathway looks an awful lot like the first road trip. The eLearning designer will identify and make explicit the learning objectives and sequence these together in a logical order. However, the learner has the ability to control which direction they take within their journey towards professional development.

Learning pathways must have strategic opportunities to build in prior knowledge, reflection, and application prompts. Without these, the learner is likely completing micro modules to learn the content but would be unable to connect the content to the bigger reason of why they are completing those modules. A learning pathway creates an environment to integrate these design features.

Learning pathways are intended to be flexible, multidisciplinary, and increasingly personalized. When there is a need for more than 1 or 2 micro modules, learning pathways are necessary. They pull together all of the relevant information into a longer learning experience.

  • These roadmaps are flexible because each employee engaging in professional development can choose their own path.
  • They are multidisciplinary because our jobs are multidisciplinary and people need to be able to show competency in more than one area.
  • Finally, they are increasingly complex and personlized in order to bring the learner along from beginner to expert.

It's all About Learner Control

Well-designed learning pathways do a few things for learners:

  1. They give the learner a place in which to track progress made toward learning goals.
  2. They move the learner toward identified learning objectives.
  3. They provide a sense of empowerment for the learner. Rather than being given a standard course, learners can choose their learning goals, have flexibility to adapt goals if necessary, and earn recognition along the way.

Read more: Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Self-Directed Learning at the Workplace

How to Start Creating Learning Pathways

As an eLearning designer in charge of creating learning pathways, there are a few best practice suggestions to take into consideration:

1) Make Connections Between Stops

The learner is going to be immersed in learning at a granular level. The connections between different activities are not apparent. The eLearning designer needs to look at all of the stops on the learning journey and make connections between them for the learner.

2) Create Scalable Modules

In order to create scalable modules, the eLearning designer must start in a system that is inherently scalable. Choose wisely and focus on systems that allow for a flexible curriculum that can be assembled in different ways.

3) Provide Strategic Prompts

A well-designed learning pathway does two things. It requires learners to activate prior knowledge and to reflect on their initial experience after they have completed a certain module. The eLearning designer needs to build in prompts that focus on the learner and force them to think in a way that applies what has just been learned to future situations.

4) Create a Visual Representation of Learning

Just like mile markers represent a way of marking the way to the destination, a learning pathway needs posts to keep learners focused and on target. This helps them see the progress they have made and what still needs to be done in order to complete a pathway.


The Future of Learning Pathways

There are several technology trends that are going to impact future learning pathways. Artificial intelligence will definitely have implications for the types of questions that can be asked and how answers are evaluated. Question types are currently limited in asynchronous, self-guided instruction. This will change when artificial intelligence is included in learning pathways. Personalized learning is impacting how people expect their educational experience and how CLOs view quality eLearning design. This type of learning is shown to save time and ultimately money by delivering content at the learner’s current level. It allows for ‘mass customization’ of learning.



Andriotis, N. (2017). How will adopting an adaptive learning strategy help your business? Efront. Retrieved from

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1988). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing, and mathematics. Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children, 8(1), 2-10. doi: 10.5840/thinking19888129

Pea, R. D., (2004). The social and technological dimensions of scaffolding and related theoretical concepts for learning, education, and human activity. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(3), 423-451. doi: 10.1207/s15327809jls1303_6

Rughinis, R. (2013). Talkative objects in need of interpretation. re-thinking digital badges in education. In CHI EA ’13 Extended abstracts on human factors in computer systems, 2099-2018. doi: 10.1145/2468356.2468729


Karla Gutierrez

Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT. ES:Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT.

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