In the past few years, the term ‘microlearning’ has often appeared in lists of learning trends. To some, it’s clearly the next big thing. But what is it? How do you do it? And, what’s its appeal?
Microlearning in short
To understand microlearning, it’s good to start by looking at the output: that is, what people call microlearning. Most people agree that the defining aspect of microlearning is that it involves small amounts of learning content that can be taken or digested in a matter of minutes. It’s very short; it’s micro.
Brevity indeed is its ostensible appeal. It’s been estimated that the modern employee has just 1% of their weekly working time available for training and development. That’s about 25 minutes a week on average. So, rather than sit through an entire course in a classroom or at a computer, the argument goes, learners can access a piece of micro-content that quickly gives them something specific that they need to know.
It’s at this point that things start to become a little less obvious and questions start to arise. What, other than its length, makes microlearning different? How much is enough? How do you know enough is enough?
Nothing new here
The answer to the debate about whether microlearning is a fad or innovation is that maybe it’s neither. It’s been pointed out that microlearning isn’t a new idea. Ideas of chunking content go back more than half a century and in the elearning era, we’ve had the vexed debate about Reusable Learning Objects. But just because it isn’t new, doesn’t make microlearning necessarily a bad idea.
If we focus on the key characteristics of microlearning content – short and easy to digest or access –we can start to see its practical application.
Generally, with the theory of chunking information, you create the microcontent from existing material. This can be as simple as breaking up an existing module and repackaging it as shorter, more focussed elements. The advantage is that instead of wading through a course or a manual, learners find information easier to locate and are better able to access what’s relevant to them. In this sense, microlearning is a form of job aid or a quick reference guide.
We can, however, go beyond simply re-using what we have already, and instead look at how we can re-purpose material. This can mean reconfiguring content in the form of FAQs, best practice tips, or quick how-to guides. Existing content can be reformatted as refresher training or quick quizzes to check competency and aid retention of knowledge. Key training objectives can be produced in checklists, explanatory diagrams, or a glossary of terms. Updates, feedback and comments can be included to improve the quality of content and capture existing expertise – making use of blogs and tweets by experts, for example.
Microlearning content can be in a variety of forms from paper-based to digital. The digital content, though, has the advantage of allowing for the inclusion of interactive video, animations and sound. It’s also easier to administer, manipulate and update. This flexibility aids the repurposing of content.
To make microcontent usable, though, it has to be accessible. There’s no point liberating key elements of training from a lesson block or manual if it remains locked away in the classroom or LMS. It needs to be stored in an accessible repository where it’s indexed and searchable. Even if it’s not in an FAQ format you have to be able to query the content to find what you’re looking for.
Here again, modern technology improves efficiency. You don’t have to believe that ICT has changed the way people learn, to recognise that it’s made finding information a good deal easier. We can use mobile technology and connectivity to make microlearning content available on mobile devices so it can be accessed away from the classroom and desk at times and places where it’s needed. This expands the scope of your resources, unlocks your content, and gives learners a degree of autonomy and control over their learning needs.
Knowledge and economy
eLearning has made microlearning content easier to create and more accessible. It’s also given L&D departments the opportunity to make that content more attractive and memorable. But creating it is just the first step and now we need to consider how and where it’s used. This means considering the environment into which the micro content is released.
If microlearning is just about turning a one-hour-long course into a series of 20 three-minute mini-courses, not much has changed and little gained. Microlearning can’t exist in a vacuum. Just as the micro content often emerges or is repurposed from existing materials, so microlearning itself needs to be built on existing foundations. It has to be part of an overall learning and training strategy and fulfil a defined function.
Making best use of microlearning
Brevity may be a strength, but it can be a weakness too. We’re back to the question that bedevilled learning objects: how much is enough? The danger of breaking down training into ever small pieces is that you have fragmentation of knowledge. Instead of building bridges, you create gaps. Microlearning needs to be grounded so that it expands and enhances, rather than replaces, what exists.
Recognising that microlearning needs to be anchored can facilitate the more effective design and application of microlearning. Instead of just ‘chunking’ what’s there, build on what exists, and not simply re-purpose it, but redesign it.
That redesign extends to the delivery of microlearning as much as its content. It’s been shown that spaced learning and practice are vital elements in deepening understanding and aiding retention. Microlearning’s flexibility and digestible size make it ideal for such tasks. It can reinforce and deepen learning by building on previous training. Repetition and practice help cement knowledge.
Also, with its increased accessibility, microlearning can be used effectively to support performance in the workflow where training is applied. Microlearning content can be explicitly designed and formatted with the working environment in mind.
The role of AI in microlearning
Up till now, we’ve been talking about providing ease of access to short pieces of learning. But technology offers us the prospect of going further and targeting and personalising the microlearning we provide. One of the touted advantages of making learning more accessible is that it gives the learner more control to decide where and when he or she learns.
But what if they decline that invitation? If learners refuse to take up what’s on offer, it suggests training and learning are optional whereas we know they’re essential to improving effectiveness and performance. We need a way to deliver microlearning that doesn’t rely on individual motivation alone, but that also addresses and targets individual needs.
Artificial Intelligence can help here. Intelligent software, in something like a chatbot, using microlearning resources can help mentor learners beyond the classroom and the LMS. AI can support performance by determining where intervention is needed. It can analyse gaps and determine preferences to target material at individual learners. There’s also the prospect of AI helping create microlearning on the fly: not just returning results like a typical search engine but adapting a piece of learning appropriate to the learner’s query.
Delivering personalised learning combined with analysis of what’s being used and what isn’t can help organisations better understand both what learners know and, critically, what they don’t. Addressing the gaps can be as simple as a reminder to take a quick piece of refresher training, to timetabling and delivering regular check-ups or assessments, to recommending content based on job role, task or critical updates to training. And, for time-poor workers in a fast-paced, ever-changing work environment getting just enough information, just in time, makes sense.
Support for microlearning
You can look at the appeal of microlearning from a couple of angles. Firstly, that’s it’s short and easy to access which makes it more appealing. Secondly, it can provide information in a format that makes it easy to apply. These are significant advantages, but they’re only realisable if microlearning is properly supported.
With ‘chunking’ of content there’s a danger it loses context. So, for effective microlearning, you need to create and maintain an environment in which it can work. It can support performance, but it needs to be supported itself. It requires a culture of learning to sustain it. This means bringing it into the workflow and using tools, like AI, to activate and promote it.
Microlearning content will be short-lived if it’s not given a place and function within the broader learning strategy. But given that support, it can extend the remit and scope of training and bring it closer to the space where it’s needed. If this can be done, it has a big future.
Mark has been with Learning Pool since 2010. In that time, he has helped shape the technical and product direction of the company. He led the development of Adapt, a project that has revolutionised the mobile learning experience, not just for our customers but across the industry. Prior to joining Learning Pool, he held a variety of roles including software development manager, SCRUM master, product manager, and technical architect. Today, Mark is focused on driving our innovation agenda and leads a large team supporting 2 million learners across all our products, alongside over 20 technical and product specialists within his team.