Microlearning has been championed as a way of delivering training just in time and directly at the point of need. But are the benefits all that they seem and does microlearning make macrolearning a thing of the past?
Micro v macro: the obvious difference
Micro and macro-learning can be regarded as mutually exclusive: what isn’t micro must be macro and vice versa.
Micro, as the name suggests, involves short pieces of learning that can be consumed quickly and are designed for maximum impact with minimal learning effort.
In contrast, macrolearning looks at the bigger picture. It consists of longer pieces of training, often courses, that cover broad areas and require a greater investment of time. Indeed, macrolearning is what most of us just call training. It’s the status quo.
Despite this obvious difference, in practice, micro and macro are intimately linked. Indeed, microlearning often starts life as macrolearning, which is distilled and repurposed to make it micro.
Macrolearning: common features and applications
If the primary definition of micro and macro-learning is by means of exclusion (if it’s not one it’s the other), there are differences in application that help us understand where one works better than the other.
Macrolearning is the formal training we recognise from our general education. This is the world of the course, the classroom and, latterly, the LMS.
Macrolearning often involves instructors, coaches and mentors. Information and knowledge are delivered over time and you’re expected to complete quizzes and assignments to demonstrate your understanding and progress. Elearning has had an impact on macrolearning (think of self-paced, multimedia online programmes and modules), but it hasn’t materially altered its focus and purpose.
Typically, in the business world, you might use macrolearning at the onboarding stage. Here you want to give new hires an overview and grounding in the knowledge and skills they require to do their job. Areas like Compliance and change management training also use a macro approach to provide an overview and context and give an in-depth understanding of a complex and diverse subject.
The downside of this big picture approach is its inflexibility and its inability to provide quick access to very specific and time-sensitive information. Macro content can be impenetrable. It takes too much time to discover what you only need a fraction of.
This is compounded by its inaccessibility. Macrolearning is often locked away in the classroom or in the LMS. Information isn’t readily available across devices or targeted to personal needs.
Microlearning: common features and applications
Microlearning addresses the drawbacks of macrolearning. It frees information from the confines of the classroom, the LMS, the instructor, or the course. Microlearning is delivered in small chunks that take a very short time to digest. You don’t need to sit the whole course to find out what to do in a particular situation. Instead, you have an array of searchable resources that you can access when you need them.
Digital technology has facilitated both the creation and dissemination of microlearning. Elearning content can easily be edited and repurposed into smaller pieces. These then make up a learning repository that can be accessed not only at the desktop but also on the go through mobile devices. Instead of having training pushed at them, learners can pull what they need, when they need it.
Microlearning resources are there to answer problems: small pieces of digital content like a video clip, FAQ, refreshed quiz, checklist and so on. Microlearning mimics the way we use wiki sites, search engines and social media: ask a question and someone gives us a quick response. Microlearning recognises the power and efficiency of informal learning, where you need a small piece of information to complete a task or do something more effectively. It works on the assumption that most of our learning occurs on the job and outside the confines of formal, macro training.
But while microlearning offers plenty of positives, it too has its drawbacks. In searching for the quick answer, you may not discover the right one. Breaking up knowledge into chunks runs the risk of fragmentation where information is divorced from its context, leading to potential misunderstanding. It’s also potentially harder to oversee, control or analyse. This lack of oversight raises the prospect of error and a lack of standardisation or standards. Accuracy might be sacrificed in the pursuit of the speed of response.
The impact of microlearning on L&D
In one sense microlearning derives from macrolearning. Consequently, learning designers working at the macro level need to be aware that what they’re creating is also likely to deploy in a micro setting. The designers need to bear in mind that what they’re creating has both a macro and micro application.
Not only does information need to be adapted to a microclimate, so L&D too needs to recognise and embrace the world outside the classroom and LMS. This is not only to prevent fragmentation and misinformation, but also to ensure microlearning is fully integrated into its training objectives and delivery.
Working with microlearning
If macrolearning has traditionally had its home in the classroom or the LMS, microlearning might, in contrast, appear homeless. The informality and flexibility which are the hallmarks of much microlearning can make it seem dangerously unanchored. If you consider that when you ask a question via a Search Engine you’re deluged by (competing) results, you can appreciate that with microlearning you run the risk of a lack of oversight and control. You might get the answer quickly, but it might not be the right one. Accuracy suffers in the pursuit of speed and access.
The solution to this present danger lies in creating an environment in which microlearning can be effective. This involves not only providing a microlearning infrastructure (processes to create it, a place to store it, tools to access, ways to analyse and assess its effectiveness and so on), but also a learning culture in which it has a place.
Microlearning is intimately tied to the notion of continuous learning. One of the problems with macrolearning has been that it is often a one-off event. Take onboarding, for example. You complete the course and become part of the team. There’s an implied assumption that you’re training is over. The reality is though that there’s so much going on for a new hire that you can’t possibly take it all in and much of what you’ve apparently learned will disappear shortly after you’ve learned it.
Microlearning is well placed to overcome forgetting and to extend training beyond the end of the course and take it into the working environment. It’s been shown that spaced learning and practice help deepen understanding and aid retention of information. Repetition and practice help cement knowledge. Microlearning by offering a small amount of information and often is ideal for such tasks.
Microlearning can be designed and used to support performance and collaboration in the workflow. It can capture the informal knowledge that resides in more experienced personnel. These experts can provide microlearning assets themselves. In our mobile devices, we possess all the tools necessary to create microlearning content. Creating microlearning assets needn’t be confined to repurposing macrolearning content.
AI and microlearning
Intelligent software, like a chatbot, can use microlearning content to help mentor learners beyond formal macrolearning, targeting material at individual 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, to recommending content based on job role, task or critical updates to training.
AI can dynamically use microlearning content to support performance and intervene where needed. It’s making intelligent use of microlearning’s great virtue: easy access to quick, targeted information. In a fast-paced, ever-changing work environment microlearning can deliver just enough information, just in time, for time-strapped workers.
Not a binary choice
The current focus on microlearning though shouldn’t blind us to the need to retain macrolearning. Not everything is suitable for short bursts of information. The macro view provides the context and the deep understanding vital to making microlearning work.
It’s not then a question of either/or, but rather one of building a symbiotic relationship between the two that goes beyond the repurposing of macro content as microlearning. Macrolearning provides the anchor for microlearning which in turn delivers refresher training and provides a conduit to capture informal knowledge and channel it back into formal training. Establishing this feedback loop makes overall training more relevant and effective and makes the best use of the benefits that both macro and microlearning bring.
Microlearning at Learning Pool
Take our new Learning Experience Platform – Stream. Stream has been designed to provide immediate support for microlearning through Flo, our AI-powered, virtual learning assistant. Learners can quickly search, find, take information from, and launch the specific learning content that they need at any given moment.
For a demo on how Stream can transform your microlearning contact us now, using the form below.
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.