I'm building a simple course platform that uses content like articles and videos as the building blocks of the course. You have to learn the content in a chronological order to make sure you understand all the steps (understand A before doing B).

I'm looking for reasons to make the course structure open or closed. What helps my users best?

Open course structure
You can browse all steps of the course content freely, although you need still need to understand step A before you can effectively learn step B.

Examples: Khan Academy, iTunes U, Udemy.

Closed course structure
You have to complete your current step in the course before you can continue to the next step. You might see how many steps you have ahead of you, but you cannot access the content yet.

Examples: Duolingo, Babbel, more?

Duolingo vs Codecademy structure example:

Reasons for Open structures

  • Better overview of the overall course.
  • Advanced users can start at the appropriate difficulty level.
  • Users may skip parts they find uninteresting.

Reasons for Closed structures

  • Users are not overwhelmed by too much information.
  • Users can't skip parts they need in order to understand the course.
  • Unlocking new content may increase motivation and curiosity.
  • 2
    Is it possible to allow a hybrid? Eg 'core' and 'optional' modules? This likely fits most course structures, guaranteeing that the main important stuff and the basics are covered, with choices over the peripheral content
    – Jon Story
    Feb 2, 2015 at 18:42
  • What does the user need to do to "pass the lesson"? what's the necessary action? Feb 2, 2015 at 21:40
  • To me, the main advantage of online coursework is that, if I choose to do so, I can follow it in a non-linear fashion.
    – DA01
    May 4, 2015 at 2:46

4 Answers 4


Working on something similar, we have found through analytics that an open course is primarily completed chronologically. If you tell a user they can't do something a certain way they will be discouraged. But if you allow them freedom they will by habit follow the same model that a set of rules would have imposed. Also, if content is created in a way so that it references previous steps you will help guide the user in how to consume it best.


It looks like you answered your own question. I would add one little thing: forcing students to consume the first classes is appropriate to subjects like math, where definitions are the base of the course. Since you wrote that your courses are made of building blocks, then you should use a closed structure.

Can't you gather some statistics about real users taking real courses?


A learning management system (LMS)or the course platform as you mentioned should be capable of handling these type of learning structure.

A course is made up of learning units, can be called as lessons, and courses can be made linear or non-linear while they are authored. Means, student has access to randomly go through it, based on students expertise levels or go in linear way, one by one.

But the LMS has one more feature of creating a Learning Path or Learning Plan which is nothing but the collection of courses grouped under one program. And the student must take the courses in linear way. The programs may have expiry date and score weightage.

Having said all these, it really depends on following:

  • Purpose of course - If the courses are for professionals who want to keep up to the pace of development in their domain can use the courses to refresh their knowledge
  • Expertise of students - If the students taking up the courses are categorized as beginners, advanced and experts then the courses can be open or closed structures.

It really depends on the context as both have their merits and de-merits as you have pointed out and as said rightly by @DA01 too.

The learning Management system or the course platform must support both the ways of learning to take place successfully.

  • Unless you're referring to just the platform (which is not the question), 'both ways' = open. Aug 3, 2015 at 11:12

An "open" course becomes self-regulating based on the learner's ability, but may be weak in assessing results.

With iTunes U, Udemy, etc - yes you CAN skip ahead to lesson 20, but if you don't understand it the natural response is to backtrack to earlier lessons to fill in what you missed. The result is that novice learners follow a sequential learning path anyway, while advanced or curious "big picture" learners may explore more freely.

This meets the criteria of "understand A before doing B," but places the burden on the student rather than the system. There may be quizzes & assignments, but often no grades or validation. If valid assessment results are important to you, then a fully open system may not be ideal.

A fully "closed" course can become more about compliance and tracking requirements than learning or motivation. Possibly self-defeating.

What comes to mind w/an enforced sequential course is awful mandatory workplace training. Can't bypass the bad Flash animations & cheesy videos, can't avoid quizzes, and can't work at your own pace even if you already possess the knowledge. This approach assumes everyone is a novice, which is frustrating, and limits the content w/o regard for learner skill or preferences.

For the user this often leads to boredom and checking the boxes as quickly as possible to get it over with. For organizations the goal becomes more to have a record of "training" people on whatever they were just force-fed. Learning is secondary to compliance w/the rules.

Semi-closed option allows for "unlocking" & exploration while maintaining assessments to validate results.

Duolingo, your example of a "closed" course, isn't fully "closed". Yes, future content is locked, but there's always an option to test out of modules by passing a skills test. Future modules only remain locked until you pass the assessment, whether you've reviewed the lesson content or not. Similar to the "open" model, this allows learners to skip ahead to an appropriate level if they have prior knowledge, while leaving all the unlocked content available for review as necessary.

This also meets the criteria of "understand A before doing B," but adds a system-driven assessment that both validates learning and augments the "gamified" unlocking/motivational aspect. This also meets the "paper-trail" requirements of a closed system w/o treating every user like a clueless n00b.

This approach is only "closed" up to the level of prior knowledge, so it allows for working at your own pace & exploring the content. Course developers can still require that all assessments be passed for completion, but the order and speed is up to the learner. If valid assessments are important to you, then this semi-closed pre-test/skills assessment model may be the best of both worlds.

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