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Microlearning: Hope or Hype?

Microlearning is commonly listed among the leading trends in L&D. For some, it’s the next best thing.  For others, it’s another example of industry hype. So, which is it: hope or hype?

What do we mean by microlearning?

Microlearning is small chunks of learning that can be easily accessed and digested. The creation of and access to these small pieces of content have been greatly enhanced by digital technology.

The process of microlearning is often seen as analogous to the way we do a Google search or look for something on YouTube or a wiki site. We’re looking for quick and easy solutions within a limited timeframe. It’s a case of needing to know something in the moment, at the point of need.

Finally, microlearning is a strategy, not a product. It’s a means to an end.

Microlearning: the sell

So far, so uncontentious. But for some microlearning has significance beyond these characteristics.  It’s seen as evidence of a sea-change in the way we learn. Modern technology and access to information and knowledge have or will have, so the argument runs, transformed how we learn.

We are a generation of knowledge producers and sharers and the unprecedented ease of access to information has led to a need to instant gratification and a new sense of ownership and control. We’re learners with a huge appetite for knowledge, but with an increasingly limited attention span. For us, microlearning is the logical answer.

Wait a minute

Let’s challenge the idea that microlearning enabled by new technology is a radical departure from the way we previously. Haven’t we been here before? It may be more than half a century ago, but there was a time when it was thought that TV would transform learning. A TV in a classroom might permanently replace teachers or trainers. Does anyone believe that now?

The concept of microlearning is far from new. In the 1950s George Miller’s study of short-term memory capacity came up with the ‘Magic Number 7 (plus or minus 2)’ and coined the term ‘chunking’. We’ve had Learning Objects and Nano-learning, to name just a couple of strategies that sought to remove the burden on short-term memory by providing learning in small, bite-size pieces. And, the problem of forgetting and the burden of remembering were analysed as long ago as the nineteenth century.

What’s the problem?

Why is it that microlearning still appears in lists of trends? Why is there still an appetite for it?  When you ask these questions what’s interesting is not microlearning novelty, but its place in the bigger quest to find a solution to a pressing problem. Rather than start with what the solution can (or can’t) be or do, let’s investigate more closely the problems microlearning is apparently addressing.

Let’s forget for a minute about reduced attention spans and recognise instead that the time for learning is restricted.  It’s been estimated that the modern employee has just 1% of their weekly working time is available for training and development. That’s about 25 minutes a week on average.  People require learning to be faster, more targeted, and personalised, and at a point where they really need it, in the workflow.

Technology may not in itself provide a solution, but people see the benefits it brings. Namely that you can ask a question and receive an answer immediately and one that can come in a range of formats, from blog to tweet to an audio file to video.

What constitutes microlearning?

It can be anything from simple text, an activity, a piece of video, some refresher questions or even a tweet or blog.  Microlearning resources are accessible through web apps or browsers. That means they’re potentially always available and accessible, but they can be intentionally pushed through notifications that alert learners to what they need to do and when they need to do it.  This gives learners a degree of control.

Research into cognitive science has shown the benefits of using strategies like repetition and reinforcement to build memory and acquire knowledge and help overcome the limitations of short-term memory. Small chunks of learning are being used for repetition of key points and spaced practice.  Practising something repeatedly over time helps fasten it in our memory.

We can strengthen memory further by forcing our brain to recall information: retrieval practice.  Regular short assessments can build learner confidence by recognising and acknowledging what they know, rather than emphasising what they don’t.

Microlearning at work

Microlearning is generally used as a means to get critical information to people on the job.  Again, we’ve been here before: think of job aids. The goal is to plug gaps in performance and give people easy access to time-sensitive information – specific things that they need to know now, not in general.  You can see the appeal to employees who are meeting clients, especially off-site, or dealing with customer queries in a support centre. Microlearning provides personalised and targeted information directed at people in context, at the point of need.

Microlearning can also be designed to support collaboration in the workflow. Here it’s not so much about pushing learning at people as allowing them to have an input into training. With technology, especially mobile connectivity, it’s easier to capture knowledge from more experienced personnel.  These experts can provide microlearning assets themselves and those assets can be added to the repository of resources and made easily accessible to all who need them. Creating microlearning assets needn’t be restricted to material repurposed from the existing macrolearning course content.

The potential for AI and microlearning

The growth of AI is also aiding the growth of microlearning.  With intelligent AI software in something like a chatbot, we can use microlearning content to help mentor and coach learners. This can be as simple as a chatbot issuing a reminder to take a quick piece of refresher training, to timetabling and delivering regular check-ups or assessments. AI-based systems are also recommending content based on job role, task or critical updates to training, and recommending content based on analysis of user preference or activity.

AI can dynamically use and adapt microlearning content to support performance and intervene where needed. This is making intelligent use of microlearning’s obvious benefits: easy access to quick, targeted information for time-challenged workers.

The context for microlearning

Even if AI represents an advance in microlearning, we should still be wary of getting carried away with the prospect. Microlearning represents an important part of training, but it’s still not the whole picture.

Recall that most of what’s considered microlearning content is in fact chunked and repurposed from existing (macro) content. Similarly, the practice and process of microlearning presume a foundation level of knowledge and learning. Microlearning can’t exist in isolation or remove the need for more formal, traditional training.  It needs to build on a base.

Microlearning can only have relevance and impact if it’s part of a training continuum or complete learning experience. We need to see microlearning not as individual, disconnected chunks, but rather as building blocks that help us step towards greater understanding. We may perceive microlearning objects as small complete parcels of learning, but their effectiveness is conditioned by what we already know.

The effective use of microlearning as a refresher and in spaced practice to aid retention of knowledge highlights this point: it presumes that there’s already some learning in place.  So, microlearning supplements and complements knowledge acquisition; it doesn’t replace L&D. And, if we don’t place microlearning in this broader perspective, chunking of knowledge might lead to fragmentation and miscommunication.

The microlearning climate

If we see microlearning in relation to the broader learning climate, we can better understand where it works best. The problem with our attitude to microlearning has been to oversell its reach.  It works well in the microclimate of L&D, but it’s not a replacement. We’re seeing the demand for small, agile, adaptable resources that create an easily-accessible repository of knowledge, but that shouldn’t blind us to the bigger picture which reveals training not as a one-off event but as a process and learning as a continuum.  In that challenge, microlearning can be an effective weapon.

The hope is that microlearning forms an important part of a comprehensive training and learning strategy, enhanced by the application of new technology. The myth is that microlearning provides a total solution.

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