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Microlearning in Microcosm

Bob Little 

May 20, 2016

In late 2014, the internationally-known US-based L&D analyst Bersin by Deloitte published an infographic that indicated that today’s workers and “modern learners” have a mere one percent of their working week to devote to professional learning and development. Assuming a 40-hour working week, that equates to 24 minutes each week or 4.8 minutes per day when they can focus on learning.

Thus began a fashion within L&D to produce learning materials that cater for these precious 4.8 minutes per day. It was, however, only the modern manifestation of a well-developed trend.

Originally, there was the “training program.” This then split into a number of “training courses.” The advent of e-learning brought the concept of “granularity,” with all courses dividing, ultimately, into a series of short “learning objects.” The aim was to deliver just enough L&D, just in time, and at a pace, place and time to suit the learner.

The proliferation of mobile learning devices, coupled with the growth in bandwidth, has fuelled this trend – as have various studies revealing that the attention spans of today’s worker, especially “millennials,” are measured in relatively few seconds (compared with relatively few minutes in the alleged “good old days”).

The result of developing increasingly “concentrated” pieces of learning is known as microlearning. Since microlearning is particularly facilitated by online learning technologies, it is most readily associated with the world of e-learning, rather than classroom-delivered L&D materials.

The term “micro” is a relative – not absolute – term. Microlearning experiences take place when learners interact with microcontent – either formally, via e-learning, or informally, via any type of social media. The term can be applied to the time needed to “solve a learning task.” It could refer to a number of linked, short learning experiences, rather than one learning event. It could also refer to how learners learn – informally – in short “bursts” of learning activity.

So, microlearning is an imprecise term that can refer to learning in terms of time; amount of content; a part of a curriculum; form (such as learning objects), and/or media used. Regardless of whether it’s used informally or as part of a structured learning experience, microlearning’s key characteristics are that it’s granular and brief, and can be delivered in a variety of ways.

Connie Malamed, the US-based instructional design specialist, acknowledges that microlearning “seems to be an ideal instructional approach for many situations because information changes quickly, people find it difficult to keep up with things, resources are freely available online, and newer technologies support it.”

In her view, among microlearning’s key benefits are that it’s budget-friendly and it produces results, fast – enabling busy workers to quickly close a knowledge or skill gap.

On the other hand, she says, “There’s insufficient research to know whether microlearning is an effective strategy for reaching long-term learning goals. Moreover, microlearning interventions could end up as content fragments that aren’t tied together.

“We can’t be certain that learners will synthesize content from microlearning well enough to construct appropriate mental models. And if a microlearning solution includes a wide variety of formats, some learners could have problems switching between them.

“Most likely, many weaknesses in the approach can be fixed by sound instructional design practices, such as providing overviews, recursive content, and ensuring there’s sufficient content integration.”

Christopher Pappas, the founder and CEO of the Delaware-based E-Learning Industry Network, believes that, “Microlearning may be the perfect addition to your online training program, as it offers the ability to provide supplemental online activities and resources to corporate learners. But, before integrating microlearning into an online training strategy, it’s wise to explore the advantages and disadvantages that are par for the online training course.”

Pappas argues that microlearning:

  • Improves knowledge retention – because the brain can more easily process small pieces of information.
  • Is ideal for mobile learning – because learners can engage with it whenever they have spare time, rather than having to devote a block of time to attending a formal online training course.
  • Rapidly fills performance gaps – by focusing on one key task, skill or concept at a time, allowing learners to target specific areas of improvement without having to sit through a lengthy online training session.
  • Is more cost-efficient – being condensed and concise, it won’t require as much design or development time as longer programs.
  • Boosts corporate learner motivation – by fulfilling the human need for instant gratification.

However, he also admits that microlearning:

  • Isn’t suitable for complex tasks or skills.
  • Can become fragmented. He says, “Ideally, you must ensure that every module or activity within your online training course is connected in some way, but still provides your employees with the information they need to know. Each piece of microlearning content must be its own separate online training unit.”
  • May not help with long-term performance goals. He says, “Microlearning can be part of a larger online training strategy, but it shouldn’t be your primary online training method. This is because it doesn’t, typically, allow for long-term goal achievement.

“It may help employees to collect all of the individual skills or pieces of information they need to eventually reach their objectives but a single online training module can’t achieve this independently of the others. For this reason, microlearning is more effective for ‘moment of need’ online training and other more specific learning objectives, such as mastering a simple task or discovering key bits of information.”

As with any tool in the L&D armory, microlearning isn’t going to be the ideal solution to all your L&D needs. Yet it can offer a number of benefits for organizations that want to rapidly reduce performance and skills gaps, without having to take a large chunk out of their L&D budget.

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