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

smartphoneSo 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

youtube-344105_1280Perhaps 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.

  1. “Microlearning.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. <>.
  2. Quinn, Clark. Mobile Learning: The Time Is Now. Santa Rosa, CA: ELearning Guild, 2012. Print.
  3. Palmsource, Inc. “Zen of Palm.” Zen of Palm. 2003. Web. <>.


Microlearning: Fab or Fad? — 23 Comments

  1. I have the impression that with this assertion “Microlearning, in contrast, stands alone and provides its own context where needed.” you limit consderably the field of MicroLearning. I was thinking that MicroLearning could exists like a self service library but more organized than Youtube leading to the possibility to support the transfer of Knowledge more complex than changing the oil of a car. Do you think is inherent to the concept or just implied by the definition?

    • Bruno, I like the idea of creating micro-learning that can be both push and pull (your idea of a self-service library). I’m going to have a go at developing an ongoing micro-learning series to sit alongside a program running in my organisation (Work Connect and Learn – skills and behaviours for connecting, networking and collaborating either in a formal community or as an individual within a network). I’d like it to be able to be used in several ways – (1) as a follow on reinforcement series for those who have completed the course to enhance learning transfer (2) as a series which a person could use to develop skills and behaviours even if they haven’t done the course (3) performance support. So I’d them to be able to be used either by individuals dipping in and out as they see the need/value or for someone to follow them through in a sequence which builds skills. I wonder how challenging it’s going to be to do this so that all of the microlearning items are meaningful standalone and don’t rely on being part of a series. Am interested to hear from anyone who has taken (or tried to take) a similar approach.

    • I am finding “self contained” and “stand-alone” mean different things to different people. For example, I completely agree with the notion that small pieces of learning content can collectively make up a larger whole. What I mean is that each microlearning product must be complete, not assuming something was learned in another. So one would not begin with, “so now that we’ve finished steps one and two,…” It may refer to information in another module, just not presuppose it, as could a module within a large elearning product.

      • This is absolutely what I had in mind Tom. It shaping up to feel more like performance support in my mind than a course, but possibly arranged (either up front or over time) in a way that someone could build a bigger skill set by working through them in a sequence – or different pathways. Other option is that the microlearning items are used within a learning program – but are still comllete learning items in their own rights. As this is my first foray into microlearning design and development I think I should keep it simple.

        Will hunt around online for good examples and try to connect with people who’ve done this kind of work already. Let me know if you have any suggested resources. I know that Sahana Chattopadhyay and Jane Hart have written about topic.

        Thanks Tom and Bruno for giving me the nudge I’ve been waiting for to get in with this.

  2. Pingback: What to Do About MicroLearning? | Adam Weisblatt: Creating Understanding

  3. Top post, Tom.

    The line that resonated most with me was “I do believe microlearning is an important tactic for workplace learning and has a place alongside other approaches in the workplace.”

    Buzzword-related arguments are so extremist – this particular thing will take over the world and make all our dreams come true, or alternatively, it will fail dismally in a heap of flaming rubble and I can’t wait to say “I told you so”.

    Here’s another thought: How about applying the idea when it makes sense to do so?

  4. Great post (again), Tom. The line/section that really struck me was “Microlearning is not new” (perhaps the term “microlearning” is new, but the concept is not). I think the fact that it’s not new underscores your conclusion that it’s totally fab, and not a fad.

    As a college student before this whole Internet thing really took off, we had Cliff’s Notes – shorter bursts of info I needed, when I needed them. (Side note/question: Are Cliff’s Notes still around?)

    Regardless of what it’s called, I say “Yay!” for short bursts of learning, available (hopefully in a more organized fashion than YouTube), when I need it!

    I echo Michelle’s interest in hearing from anyone who’s integrated a series of microlearning pieces into a larger, overall learning initiative.

  5. Hesitated yesterday but after a detour by Adam’s blog and Michelle’s nice comment above I will dare making an offer.

    My suggestion would be to do a pretotype of what it could be. A collective effort between L&D professionals to which I would participate and bring my knowledge in IT. I gained during the last 18 months a good understanding of what L&D tech could do or not. Yet I have no L&D experience and competencies. I feel many tweeps of L&D have this but limited knowledge of IT. We could put it together for a small virtual project.

    Totally free from any imposed a priori sef limitation of xAPI or LMS even if we could reconcile what first and just specify what don’t.

    Pretotyping doesn’t imply any coding. Just sketches, explaining how it would work and get others to give their feedback. Could happen as a serie of blog posts hopping from blogs to blogs over 2 or 3 months. We could inspire our process from Design Thinking. Would be a good application of it as well.

    I beg your pardon, Tom, to use your blog for doing this proposal but I my mind would would be part of it.

  6. Tom, it strikes me that what makes micro learning work is context. In formal learning, we take people away and create an artificial context. When we’re in the moment, we have a context, and if we can find the right micro learning to get us through it, we just need the information. Whether that’s ‘learning’ or just performance support isn’t really important.

    • Clark, now you have me wondering about how I need to think about this context when I am developing microlearning items. I’m thinking about how to provide support for people as to WHY and HOW they can use our organisation’s collaboration tools (i.e. SharePoint, Lync and OneNote on both computers and mobile devices). This is part of a bigger strategy to develop a more connection, working and learning across our organisation. Content for the HOW would be both behaviours to participate on a network/community and how to use the tools for online aspects of this. I understand the organisational setting and work environment and a range of use cases. Is this enough context?

      Tom – let me know if you are ok with this discussion continuing on your blog.

      • I wrote a little about this before, but what I love about the concept is the minimal investment to produce something useful. At the same time, especially with video, it’s so easy to replay that you don’t need to repeat or reinforce – set users free to try what’s in the video and they can replay while doing as needed. When I repaired an appliance, I watched a video to see how to replace the part, then ordered it, watched again as I made the repair. And I have to point out that it’s very unlikely the producer of the video had any background in instructional design.

  7. Michelle, I’m driven to Carroll’s Nurnberg Funnel, where he focused on what they already knew and what they were trying to get done, and presented the minimal information for them to succeed (my ‘least assistance principle’ ;). And then tested and refined. It’s that you don’t need things like an introduction, learning objectives, practice, maybe even the concept, just “here’s how to do x, first you…”. You could add a concept if you wanted them to be able to transfer it (most EPSS don’t teach you anything, but could), and maybe a rating afterward to see if it helped.

  8. It might be helpful to think of microlearning content as learning objects. These can be assembled together in some sort of meaningful structure to facilitate pull learning; and individually redeployed in a push fashion, being self-contained as Tom has suggested.

  9. Good stuff Tom – I know we’ve chatted this one out on Twitter, but I thought I’d chime in with a little here too. Firstly I don’t think micro-learning is actually much of a phenomenon and nor is it controllable as such. Like all learning, a large degree of what we set up is not what ends up being learned – really it’s just micro-content, but in some ways I guess that’s true of all ‘learning’. We don’t design learning we only design content and environment, what actually gets learned is mostly beyond our control (thankfully). My take on micro-learning as a whole is that it can work really well as long as we realise that providing micro-content means contributing and guiding rather than providing absolutely everything. What I mean by that is that if you try and take a big complex topic and break it into tiny chunks for this type of distribution it would (ironically enough) be a massive task. Instead I think the small chunks are less knowledge based and more act as a guide – it’s also important that they’re not the only source of learning, the learner has to have space to find things themselves beyond the micro-content to get the most out of learning. Anyway, enough waffle from me, this is your blog not mine… but it does have me thinking so I may write something too and post you the link :)

  10. Thanks for your article, Tom. You share many interesting ideas and insights. For example, you make the important point that microlearning is not new. Is it reasonable to say that encyclopedias, and even dictionaries, are tools for microlearning? And they, of course, have been available for centuries.

  11. This seems related to what we called “just-in-time” learning, sort of like the use of U-tube video clips. Materials for just-in-time learning typically be these microlearning modules.

  12. For the consumer of microlearning, it is akin to, as David Yens says, “just-in-time” or maybe even “just enough.” From a development standpoint, it sounds like Agile – deliver small increments more frequently, inspect-and-adapt, do it all over again.

  13. Tom, glad that you’re pushing this important discussion!

    You say, “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.”

    I think this is too restrictive. Please check out my work at

    On that website, I describe subscription learning (the use of small nuggets spread over time) as a way to create meaningful learning interactions. Indeed, subscription learning can go way beyond “learning” to provide prompting mechanisms, calls to complete tasks, feedback, etc.

    The problem with the way many are thinking of microlearning is as a content-delivery system for folks with short attention spans. Unfortunately, we know that content presentation is a poor method. To really get folks to benefit from learning we need to ensure that we provide learners with at least the following (from the Training Maximizers model

    A. Valid Credible Content
    B. Engaging Learning Events
    C. Support for Basic Understanding
    D. Support for Decision-Making Competence
    E. Support for Long-Term Remembering
    F. Support for Application of Learning
    G. Support for Perseverance in Learning

    So, if microlearning only gets at A, B, and C; it will not create meaningful learning benefits.

    Subscription learning can deliver isolated nuggets of information, but it can do much more as well. For example, one of the most important learning factors (based on the scientific research) to support remembering is the spacing effect (spacing repetitions of learning concepts over time). If you take a nugget-by-nugget approach, you don’t get the spacing effect.

    Bottom line is that microlearning without intention, without scientifically-based learning design, with only isolated nuggets — will be a FAD.

    Microlearning that utilizes learning factors that help us reach the requirements of (D) decision-making competence, (E) long-term remembering, (F) application of learning, and (G) perseverance in learning will be FAB.

  14. Pingback: Learnlets » Defining Microlearning?

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