There’s a new buzzword in town, and it’s name is microlearning. Like its predecessors social learning, mobile learning, and blended learning, it’s being tossed around as the new big thing, something we must all get on board with or face extinction. This begs the question asked of every one of its predecessors: is it really fab and here to stay, or is it just a passing fad?
I do believe microlearning is an important tactic for workplace learning and has a place alongside other approaches in the workplace. More than that, I think it’s here to stay whether we like it or not. I’ll make my case in a moment, but first, let’s define what we mean by microlearning.
The term hasn’t yet made its way into dictionaries, so a crowd-sourced definition seems appropriate, and Wikipedia’s has apparently been copied to a number of other places:
Microlearning deals with relatively small learning units and short-term learning activities. Generally, the term “microlearning” refers to micro-perspectives in the context of learning, education and training.1
Note that microlearning refers to an activity (learning) dealing with small learning units (products). Microlearning itself is not a product, which will be important to keep in mind as more vendors enter the microlearning space and increasingly offer to sell microlearning (rather than a microlearning suite, library, videos, or other products).
Microlearning fits modern work styles
So what is it about Microlearning that’s so attractive to organizations? While there’s no agreement on the optimum duration for microlearning products, they’re very short. In contrast with traditional workplace learning approaches that range from fractions of an hour to days, microlearning engagement times are measured on the order of minutes, with ten minutes being a reasonable upper limit. That makes them able to fit into hectic schedules and busy lives without a need to pause, hoping to resume at a later time. Employees have the ability to engage and learn as needed, when needed, in discrete, short touches. It can also be reviewed as needed for comprehension or to follow a particular step in a process. It’s no coincidence this exactly mirrors the way Clark Quinn describes mobile learning in the eLearning Guild report, Mobile Learning: The Time Is Now.2 Citing The Zen of Palm3, a design guide for Palm OS developers, Clark writes:
“This short, poignant, yet still-relevant review of mobile principles characterized laptop use as only a few times a day, but for extended periods, whereas people accessed mobile devices more times a day, but only for very brief periods”
Microlearning fits the needs of all employees in today’s workplace and, to the extent the content can be accessed from mobile devices (such as video), it also fits workers’ needs for mobile learning.
Microlearning products are easier to produce and manage
Let’s consider a typical hour-long elearning course. During its development, learning objectives were set and agreed to. Activities were envisioned to help achieve the objectives, and thought was put into assessing whether the objectives were met. The design then grew around those objectives, and content was identified and chunked into manageable components that could be developed separately. A storyboard was assembled to visualize the flow and all the interconnections between the chunks. A lengthy script was written and approved, and voice over recordings were made. Developers put the assets for each component together and assembled a draft using an elearning development suite. Not only do all the components need to be completed at the same time, so too do all the individual connections between them as well as to menus and other navigational structures. This complexity also leads to another important requirement: extensive user and usability testing.
While the above detail only touches on some of the aspects of creating a full elearning product, it serves to provide stark contrast with the microlearning development process. Microlearning products usually need no navigation, and there is no inherently complex structure. Each microlearning product serves but one objective and is tightly focused on that objective. The result is a product that is much easier to produce, easier to maintain, and easier to test. It also doesn’t necessarily require an expensive elearning development application to produce. My first microlearning videos were turned out in just a few hours using the software that came with my computer. Microlearning video offers impressive opportunities for employee-generated content and large scale use in organizations. We need only look to YouTube for evidence of its potential.
Microlearning is not new
Perhaps the most “fab” thing about microlearning, and certainly evidence that it’s here to stay, is that it really isn’t new. People have been using YouTube for years to learn how to knit a sweater, change the oil on a car, or repair a broken appliance. Many of the people who produced these videos don’t have degrees in instructional design, don’t write out learning objectives, don’t develop voice over scripts, and don’t use sophisticated video equipment, yet their products are used for learning and found valuable by thousands or even millions of people.
Within the field of workplace training and development, we’re skilled at chunking. Individual chunks of content might be easily produced as (or repurposed into) microlearning content. To be clear, microlearning products are not simply chunked learning content. As part of a larger product, any one chunk of content may require knowledge or context provided by earlier chunks in the overall sequence. Microlearning, in contrast, stands alone and provides its own context where needed.
Microlearning is here to stay
Microlearning is here to stay. It’s not new, but is increasingly being hyped as a strategy for organizations to train workers. I don’t see it as a strategy so much as a tactic that, along with other approaches, helps to meet the needs of the modern workplace, particularly for busy employees. Such standalone learning products may be used in conjunction with other training approaches, or they can be used on their own. Their brevity also lends them to support performance improvement at the time and place of need and matches the needs and use patterns of mobile users. Let’s also not forget that microlearning products are relatively easy to produce compared with traditional elearning approaches, empowering users outside the traditional training role to participate in developing relevant learning content.
Microlearning is definitely fab, and not a fad.
Thanks for reading!
I would like to thank Andrea May and Laura Payette for discussions while writing this article. For another perspective on microlearning and applications, please see Andrea’s Micro-Learning: Making Learning Part of Everyday Tasks.
Note that microlearning products can present new challenges to traditional uses of Learning Management Systems. See Adam Weisblatt’s article on the topic here.
- “Microlearning.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microlearning>.
- Quinn, Clark. Mobile Learning: The Time Is Now. Santa Rosa, CA: ELearning Guild, 2012. Print.
- Palmsource, Inc. “Zen of Palm.” Zen of Palm. 2003. Web. <http://www.cs.uml.edu/~fredm/courses/91.308-fall05/palm/zenofpalm.pdf>.
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