Microlearning, Macroresults: A Primer

Posted by Michele Israel on Dec 5, 2017 8:00:00 AM
Michele Israel

47200126_s.jpgThink about how you best learn. If you're anything like me—always on a tight schedule, short attention span, prefer pictures to words—small chunks of information in one sitting are about all you can manage.

Microlearning is clearly what we need! It's not a new method (don't forget the primeval flashcard), but technology has changed its presentation, delivery, and use. And made it more USEFUL because of its accessibility.

And, most important, it instantly captivates learners—learners just like us.

Exactly What Is Microlearning?

According Carla Torgerson, microlearning is the use of short pieces of learning content—about three to five minutes' worth—to solidify a concept or skill.

This totally makes sense to me! Because now I realize that the Delish.com videos that have me hooked actually TEACH me how to prepare simple meals in just over a minute! These bite size (yes, a pun!), digestible (yep, another pun!) cooking lessons grab me instantly. And, I can watch these recipe clips on my laptop, tablet, or phone, so I can learn just about anywhere.

The brevity and immediacy of microlearning is what people seem to love. They can learn and/or reinforce skills and knowledge outside of formal learning formats.

The strategy is trending, says instructional designer Ellen Burns-Johnson, "Because it's a reaction to how consumers have come to interact with Web content." Meaning, microlearning basically mirrors what people gravitate to digitally:

• Brief but substantial and manageable information
• Easy to access/do "on the go"
• Focus on a single skill or topic
• A multi-platform learning opportunity

And the Benefits?

Couple the attractive elements of microlearning with its impact on learners, and the benefits are obvious:

  • For users—learner autonomy, sustained alertness and interest, continuous digital updates, immediate results and quick achievements as skills and knowledge are reinforced and honed.
  • For developers—a tool that suits a fast-paced culture, budget-friendly development-wise, and can be presented via mediums like videos, podcasts, virtual book chapters, blog posts, and infographics.

The overall beauty of microlearning, says seasoned corporate instructional designer Pierre Olivier, is its mobility and flexibility. For example, employees can use their apps during the workday to learn while on a coffee break, at the daily morning meeting before a shop opens, and even at the sales counter, between customers.

Doing It the "Right" Way

In her article, "Is Microlearning the Solution You Need?," Connie Malamed notes that the method is best used for reinforcing concepts or practices that are part of a larger learning program. For example, it can help people to:

  • Learn languages or topics that require repetition
  • Learn a software application
  • Absorb and practice business processes and procedures
  • Interact with case studies
  • Practice micro skills that build into larger skills
  • Apply best practices

Olivier advises that even though mini-lessons are typically part of a long-form training, they should also stand alone. For instance, staff are in a formal class learning how to ring up a transaction, each step in the process can become a single micro-session that reviews and reinforces just one action.

Sharon Boller, in her article, "Is Microlearning a Myth?," says it is important to find the right balance between "more robust learning solutions" and microlearning, because sometimes, the shortened method might not be the right tool for certain content. It might not be useful when:

  • Building depth of knowledge or skill is required, not just raising awareness. (This involves more formal learning and regular practice and feedback to build expertise over time.)
  • Novices have to develop fluency on a particular topic or skill set in a short period of time. It's not practical (and probably impossible) for short learning segments alone to lead learners to mastery. (Imagine, Boller remarks, "trying to learn instructional design in five minutes!")
  • There are long-term retention needs that a "one-and-done" solution can't support, but are appropriate for repetition review, or reinforcement only.

Microlearning is most beneficial, Olivier says, with thoughtful design that distills a topic down to its core. Visuals really help on this front. "A good picture or a good diagram is worth 10 minutes of words used to convey information,” emphasizes Olivier. Finally, he reminds developers to produce only what learners need.

Macro Results

Clearly microlearning doesn't have micro impact. It is a highly viable tool that furthers the development of skills and knowledge. You have to figure out where it fits in the overall learning vision; when it is most useful; and how to zone in on the most critical concepts that, once learned and implemented, lead to anticipated benefits and desired results.

Where Does Microlearning Fit in My Learning Ecosystem?,  Carla Torgerson, Insynctraining.com (2017).
A Bite-Sized Guide to Microlearning, Ellen Burns-Johnson, Allen Interactions (2016).
Is Microlearning a Myth?, Sharon Boller, ATD (2015).

Topics: Microlearning