The 5 Routes You Need to Know

How do you determine the best navigational route through your online course? What path should you set for your students based on their needs?


When I’m driving and need directions, Google Maps presents me with a choice of routes. It assumes that the fastest route is the most desirable, and often it is. But sometimes my objective is different. Sometimes I want the shortest mileage. Sometimes I want to avoid a toll. And other times I want to choose a street I find pleasant to drive on. The “best” route depends on what I want to accomplish.

Determining how to let students navigate through your online course is a similar decision. Sometimes you want to ensure that each student follows the same path, such as for compliance training, where all students need to be shown identical material. Other times you may want students to have a more personalized learning experience.

With the flexibility of today’s course building tools, you can choose how your students will navigate through the course content. And just as with Google Maps, the “best” route depends on what you want your students to experience.

Below I’ve outlined the 5 routes you need to know when building your online course.

The Straight Line

The Straight Line is the simplest route, where all students progress through all the material sequentially. If the students need to see chapter 1 material before being able to do chapter 2, then you want to ensure they go in that order.

This option is great when you need to build something quickly or when students don’t need choices or customization. You pick a sensible sequence through the content and set students on the path you’ve chosen.

Row of sequential topics

The Boomerang

Building on The Straight Line, there may be times you want to briefly direct a student elsewhere before returning to their previous location in the course. In The Boomerang, a student can quickly navigate to another topic and then pick up where they left off.

This is great for integrating review material. Perhaps there is terminology to brush up on or a concept that hasn’t been brought up in a while. Students can progress along, pop over to the review content, and pop right back as needed.

The Boomerang is also great for bonus content. Do you want to give students the choice to dive deeper into a particular topic? Or are there ancillary resources you want to share but that may not be of interest to all students? As with review content, the student resumes the main course content after viewing the bonus material.

Row of sequential topics with arrows to and from one topic to a review or bonus topic

The Leap

There may be times when the content in your course is structured linearly but you have some students who can skip a particular topic. I’ve dubbed this The Leap.

In this route, a student is allowed to skip material that they don’t need. Perhaps the content doesn’t apply to them, such as a company training where some of the info applies only to a certain department, or because the student has previously demonstrated mastery of a topic and doesn’t need to repeat it.

Row of sequential topics with arrow skipping over one topic

The Divergent Paths

If you want to tailor your students’ learning experiences, The Divergent Paths is the answer. In this route, you present the student with a decision. The content the student encounters next depends on their input.

For example, you could present the student with a scenario and ask them how they want to proceed. You could test a student’s knowledge and then provide customized feedback based on their response. You could ask students to rate their confidence on a topic and then show or hide resources to meet their needs.

The options for how to guide your students are limitless, and offering customized paths through your course is a powerful tool.

Row of sequential topics with choice of two versions for one topic

The Choose Your Own Adventure

Lastly, we have The Choose Your Own Adventure. As the name implies, here you present the student with a menu of options and let them select their own route. If the content doesn’t really need to be navigated through in a particular order, why not let the student explore?

While this option doesn’t work well for content that builds on itself in difficulty or that needs to be taught sequentially, it works great for discrete topics.

Cluster of non-sequential topics

How to Decide?

Now that we’ve explored a handful of options, how do you decide which ones to use? Think about your content and in what order you want to teach it. Identify which content is the main course content and whether any content is for review or bonus purposes. Determine whether any groups of students need different content than other groups. Think about what checkpoints you need as the instructor to measure progress. Reflect on how to harness the power of customized paths. Experiment with mixing and matching the routes we've discussed here. And lastly, get creative!

In other words, pick the road that works best for you!