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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.

The New Role of the Modern Instructional Designer: Design Learning Paths

A key aspect of the role of the modern instructional designer is to shift the traditional "one size fits all" course approach to where all students consume the same content, in the same order, in a linear fashion, to an approach where content is organized in flexible and personalized "Learning Paths". 

Also read: Thriving as an Instructional Designer in a Multi-Device World

What are Learning Paths?

A learning path is a selection of modules or courses linked in a structure for students to progress and master a particular topic.

You can think of Learning Paths as the backbone of your eLearning program, guiding its direction.

A learning path is an approach to designing an eLearning course. When an eLearning program with multiple learning paths is launched, it means that there is not just one course; rather, it is a package of different possible courses made from all the modules that are available.

Why are Learning Paths Relevant Now?

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. 

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

How Learning Pathways Look Like

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.

Learning Path Main Characteristics:

  • 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.
  • They are holistic and complete; therefore, students spend more time completing a path than a separate module.
  • Finally, they are increasingly complex and personalized in order to bring the learner along from beginner to expert.

Their Main Characteristic: It's All About Learner Control

Employees have the freedom to start from any point they want along the learning path. This control over the learning process enhances people's learning abilities, as everyone starts from the section of the course that best fits their experience level and abilities.

Well-designed learning paths can then be said to be beneficial to students for multiple reasons:

  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 the 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) Leverage your Resources: Assign and Organize Modules Across Multiple Learning Paths

The magic of eLearning is that the content is inherently dynamic and flexible. You can easily incorporate modules into multiple learning paths to reach everyone who needs to learn about a specific skill or a particular concept.

For instance, a sales fundamentals lesson may be included in a learning path to onboard a new sales rep, but there is likely a learning path for intermediate and advanced sales that could benefit from a refresher lesson on the fundamentals. These lego block lessons can be flexibly and dynamically combined in different ways as many times as needed to create the ideal educational path for each team member, regardless of their job role.

With a tool like SHIFT and its reporting and development ecosystem, it is made transparent for managers to see a learner's progress on the platform and easily assign them content  based on their progress.

2) Make Connections Between Stops and Create Milestones

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.

Also, it is important to show the student periodic milestones that evidence their progress along the way and help them ensure that they are on the right track.

You can for example create weekly checklists that your your employees can follow to keep up with the suggested learning path. If you want to give your students more control, simply create a list of required modules, exercises and assessments in the learning path, and then another that includes optional modules.

3) Always Define a Clear Learning Goal

Learning Paths offer an effective way to teach skills / concepts by defining a clear path that students can follow. A learning path is generally made up of goals or objectives, where each goal represents a course / module that students must take.

For example, if you want your associates to master insurance sales, the learning path they would take might look something like this:

Insurance sales:

  • Introduction to insurance sales
  • Types of insurance
  • Advanced insurance sales techniques

Typically, this is how learning paths are created.

They have a series of courses or modules with gradual levels of difficulty, designed to guide the student step by step towards their objectives. While this type of learning path can be beneficial in helping students acquire and improve their skills, students can also choose to do it in a non-linear way, taking only a few modules based on their specific needs.

It does not matter that the learning routes are personalized for each employee or student, the key is that they must always be created with the main objective very clear.

The learning path should always ensure that students complete the training experience with a solid understanding of the subject.

In case there is a very broad or long-term learning goal, it is recommended to break it down into smaller milestones to keep employees engaged and motivated at all times along the way.

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.


Ready to Start?

The first step is to have an eLearning tool based on Artificial Intelligence (AI). This will be your secret weapon for creating personalized yet scalable learning experiences.

By using AI, you can automatically understand each of your workers and thus assign them the right path for them.

In fact, as the student begins to use the platform more, the system begins to understand the level of experience of each person in a certain topic and I recommend the following steps along the way.

For example, if one of your employees is aiming to learn web programming, an AI-supported eLearning platform would first perform a skills gap analysis to identify the current level of this skill and then provide recommendations on what the learner needs to learn. Recommendations can be a variety of content types, such as watching a video on how to use a programming tool, taking a beginner's course, joining a graphic designer group, and more.



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


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