What is Microlearning?

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A Bite-Sized Guide to Microlearning Cover - 2021-1

 

Introduction

You're here because you've heard the term #microlearning. Maybe you're a training and development professional, looking for a primer on the topic. Perhaps you're a content developer or instructional designer, looking for guidance on creating short, focused learning experiences. You might be a training manager or instructional strategist, pondering how microlearning could fit into your organization's overall learning strategy. This is a summary of the recommendations I make to my clients at Allen Interactions and practices they have implemented in their organizations. These are insights into what makes for successful microlearning gleaned from experience working with varied companies and organizations.

In the spirit of making "short and sweet" learning content, this e-book is organized into short sections, each independent of one another. You can read the sections in order, read them out of sequence, or only read some sections. Each provides a foundation of knowledge in the following topics:

  • Is microlearning a good fit for your organization?
  • Delivering microlearning
  • Planning a curriculum with microlearning
  • Designing good microlearning experiences
The rest of this introduction discusses the definition of microlearning and explores what we know about its effectiveness.

What is Microlearning?

There are lots of definitions out there about microlearning. Some say it has to be in video format and others add that it has to be less than three minutes. I absolutely believe it's helpful to list platforms that work for microlearning delivery and outline some guidelines for how long such experiences tend to be, however, I don't think creating hard lined rules create a safe, fun, and experiential environment for learners.

Rather than define microlearning by the clock or by the media used, let's define it by its core characteristics:

  • It has to be short.
  • Make it focused and curated.
  • Each lesson should stand on its own.
  • Make it convenient and referenceable.

It has to be short.

Microlearning lessons are short enough so that completing them "on the go" doesn't negatively affect the learning experience. Microlearning can be completed during a coffee break or on a subway ride.

Make it focused and curated. 

A single microlearning lesson focuses on one skill or topic. If you were creating microlearning on the basics on boxing, you might create one video lesson on how to throw a good right hook. Uppercut punches would be a separate lesson. Each lesson should also be curated so that it can be experienced quickly, efficiently, and pleasantly.

Each lesson should stand on its own. 

Each lesson should provide value, even if it's completed in isolation from the larger curriculum. If a learner only has time to complete one lesson, they should still feel a legitimate sense of progress and accomplishment.

Make it convenient and referenceable. 

When designed thoughtfully, microlearning can serve double-duty as a learning experience and as performance support. Learners should be able to access the microlearning easily when they want it or need it.

Is it multiplatform?

When learners want to engage with microlearning systems, it can help if the lessons are multiplatform: available on mobile, tablet, laptops, and desktops. This enables learners to access microlearning in contexts that may be more convenient (e.g. on the train) or closer to the moment of need (e.g. right before a client appointment).

However, creating high-quality multiplatform content can be a challenge for many organizations. Not all organizations have the security infrastructure, design staff, and development expertise to enable multiplatform deployment. Moreover, not all organizations have the culture required to really maximize the benefits of multiplatform learning.

In an earlier edition of this e-book, we included "multiplatform" as a core characteristic of effective microlearning. We've since removed it; our experience since the first edition has shaped our beliefs, and we think the revised design principles are superior in that they're platform-agnostic. Organizations that don't need, can't produce, or won't benefit from multitplatform learning may still find microlearning to be a good fit for their learners' needs.

Why is microlearning trending now?

You’ve also been here before. Training and development as an industry is all about trends, it seems. There’s always some new idea about designing learning that vendors and talking heads claim will revolutionize the way learners acquire skills and knowledge. Each new development tool seems to create a tsunami of excitement and social media shares.

This isn’t strictly negative; after all, the enthusiastic discussions that can be sparked by the release of a new tool or the emergence of a new process can help every participant improve his or her practice.

But rarely do these new tools and ideas live up to the initial hype and result in the learning revolutions that fans hope for.

Microlearning is appealing because it's a reaction to how consumers have come to interact with Web content. It makes sense—the most popular Web content is short.

  • The ideal blog post (2,400 words) will take the average reader about ten minutes to complete.
  • The average YouTube video length is about 12 minutes.
  • TED and TEDx talks and performances top out at 18 minutes, though speakers are often asked to present for only 3, 5, or 9 minutes.

Examples of microlearning

Because Web consumers expect content to be short, there is already a host of microlearning available for public access. Some of it published well before the term "microlearning" grew its own hashtag.

If you're looking for inspiration, here are three examples you might want to explore:

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Duolingo

This multiplatform language learning application has social media integration and elements of gamification. Each lesson in the expansive curriculum uses interactive exercises to introduce 8-10 words from the learner's selected language. To pass a lesson, the learner has to complete about 5 minutes of practice with the new words.

Learning Platforms

Many courses on today's leading learning platforms display the characteristics of microlearning. If you start a course on LinkedIn Learning, you'll likely see that the course is broken up into chapters or modules, and then further segmented into lessons. Each of these lessons is only a few minutes in length, focuses on one concept or skill, and is curated to stand on its own while also fitting nicely into the course as a whole.

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YouTube™

This is certainly the Wild West of learning content, but quality microlearning can be found out there amongst the evergrowing body of YouTube™ videos. Extra Credits, Food.com, and TED-Ed are three examples of learning-focused channels that typically create their content in microlearning format.

Is microlearning a good fit for your organization?

The idea of short, focused experiences might be appealing to us as learners, but there’s a lot more to a successful microlearning initiative than the quality of the exercise or ease of use. Here’s a checklist of factors to explore when considering microlearning for your organization.

  • Will the microlearning be optional or required? This might affect where and when learners access the content.
  • Does your organizational culture allow for small chunks of training time? This is an especially important consideration for companies with hourly employees, who may be expected to be compensated for learning time. If this describes your organization, examine these employees’ incentive structures. If they’re paid on commission, you may be better served by optional microlearning that can be positioned as a means for them to enhance their skills, and thereby increase their commissions.
  • When and where will your learners complete microlearning? During the work day? After hours? On lunch breaks, or during their commute? Make sure that you’re interviewing your learners and finding out what they will actually do. Just because learners could complete a module on the train doesn’t mean they will.
  • What devices will learners use to access the material? Laptops, desktops, smartphones? Which operating systems and web browsers will they use? For mobile, is delivery through an app an option?
  • Will learners engage with individual microlearning experiences in a sequence, or in no prescribed order?
  • What existing instructional design resources does your organization have? If you’re lucky, you may already have a comprehensive skills hierarchy for your learning audience. The majority of our clients do that analysis from scratch at the beginning of a project. So, if you don’t have an existing map of which skills learners need and how they depend on one another, you may want to start there. Read more about this in the "Planning a curriculum with microlearning" section.

Delivering microlearning

This is another factor you should define before you begin any significant microlearning initiative. While you can create microlearning interactions or videos one at a time and host them on your LMS like all of your big e-learning courses, this might not provide the optimal experience for users or for the organization. Even if a microlearning experience is pleasurably short and focused, it’s only really useful as microlearning if learners can access it without digging through layers of cumbersome access points. Ideally, learners who were required to complete microlearning in order to acquire new knowledge and skills will want to return to the mini-courses for remedial training or for performance support.

A law of the Internet applies here—if it’s hard to get at, people won’t see it. So before you begin designing microlearning and pushing it out to learners, know the following:

  • Where will microlearning content be housed?
  • How will learners access it?
  • How will learners know about it?
  • What data do you seek to glean from microlearning usage? How often will you review this data? If microlearning is simply up and available for learners at all times, you may receive a constant stream of data that you can use to guide additional training efforts.
  • Security. This may be one of the biggest challenges for deploying content that is short, focused, coherent, and convenient. Video is touted as a great medium for microlearning, but while there are many existing platforms for sharing video content on the Web, it’s unlikely that you can put your content up on YouTube™.

So, if you’re hoping to implement true microlearning that learners can access anywhere, anytime, then that means you’ll have to address the same security issues that any mobile e-learning course would have. Many employees will want to access content from their own devices, and it would be unfortunate if a competitor accessed your microlearning content through a misplaced iPhone®!

Planning a curriculum with microlearning

Go for the small stuff. 

Practicing blues scales and 2-5-1 chord progressions will help a saxophonist get better at jazz improvisation, but she’ll still need to practice Giant Steps many times before she plays her solo on stage.

A widget salesman’s main job is to sell widgets. To truly master the skill of selling widgets, he spends months acquiring product knowledge and developing narrower skillsets, like how to ask open-ended questions, when to ask for the sale, and how to overcome objections.

It would be difficult to finish an entire saxophone solo or have a robust sales conversation in the time it takes you to finish a latte. Applying these skills in their entirety requires longer periods of time and potentially some dedicated space. Consequently, extended or complex skills like these aren’t great candidates for microlearning because the characteristics of good microlearning are fundamentally incompatible with the requirements of the intense, focused practice sessions required to develop mastery of such skills.

Plus, it’s likely that these complex skills are most important for the job, so enabling learners to practice them is essential for their success. You don’t want to short-change them by providing the wrong type of learning experience, so think twice about replacing your whole curriculum with microlearning. Extended or complex skills should still receive dedicated practice time, through in-person or virtual classroom training, e-learning, webinars, or some other means.

However, microlearning can be used to train or hone sub-skills— components of those larger, more important skills. While microlearning might not be a great format to help the widget salesman practice sales conversations from start to finish, it might be a good way for him to practice sub-skills like overcoming objections or matching product features to customer needs.

Designing good microlearning experiences 

A single microlearning event is short and delivered asynchronously. If you create a curriculum that has a significant microlearning component with many videos or interactions, that content won’t be completed in one sitting, but spread out over time. Of course, skills and knowledge are interdependent, but it’s impossible to fit every potentially relevant piece of content into one slice of microlearning —plus, it isn’t a good idea. Our perspective is that it’s better to make another, separate learning event than to cram irrelevant content into an experience that’s supposed to be concise.

If your organization is truly on board with a microlearning approach, then it can make dealing with SMEs much easier. When the veteran with years of industry expertise pushes to include just another piece of content because “learners need to know this,” the instructional designer can push back, citing the limitations of microlearning. Instead of including extraneous content, offer to create another microlearning lesson that focuses on the SME's additional content.

Here are some considerations to keep in mind when designing microlearning experiences.

Minimize introductions.

Our experiences with classroom training (and much existing e-learning) makes us feel like we need to preface learning experience with lengthy introductions. While this is certainly a problematic practice in e-learning, it’s an untenable one in microlearning. You only have a few minutes of the learner’s attention—don't waste it on overblown introductions!

Modern learners have been conditioned by their everyday online experiences. When they enter a microlearning experience, they expect it to get straight to the point. In a microlearning video, avoid spending more than a few seconds on an introduction before getting to relevant content. If your microlearning is interactive, let learners immerse themselves in the activity as quickly as possible, and only use an introduction if it’s needed to set context.

Show, don't tell. 

This is especially important for videos. Should you be using them to demonstrate a process or to illuminate a concept? This principle applies to more interactive microlearning as well. Maximize the amount of time you spend showing or asking learners how to do something, and minimize the amount of commentary you include.

Try to be performance-focused.

Focus on a narrowly defined skill and context. A single microlearning exercise on “overcoming objections” isn’t going to give enough practice to develop the skill. Give learners multiple scenarios so they can practice the skill in varied contexts. Create one scenario on “overcoming objections with an impatient customer,” another on “overcoming objections about price,” yet another about “overcoming objections with a skeptical customer,” and so on.

These suggestions are written with video or interactivity in mind (videos are not typically "interactive" because most do not require input from the learner to advance). I don’t consider microlearning to be limited to video and interactive media; one might create microlearning using email or web pages, with text and imagery available to learners.

 

Ellen Burns-Johnson

senior learning experience designer

@EllenBJohnson

Ellen round

 

Ellen Burns-Johnson has over a decade of experience in the education and training industries. She has crafted the instructional strategy and design for dozens of major initiatives across diverse topics, from classroom safety to IT sales. Emphasizing collaboration and playfulness in her approach to creating learning experiences, Ellen’s work has earned multiple industry awards for interactivity and game-based design.

Ellen is also a Certified Scrum Master® and strives to bring the principles of Agile to life in the L&D field. Whether a client is a Fortune 100 company or a local nonprofit, she believes that the best learning experiences are created through processes built on transparency between sponsors and developers, empirical processes, and respect for learners.

Outside of her LXD work, Ellen plays video games (and sometimes makes them) and runs around the Twin Cities with her two mischievous dogs (ask for pictures).