02 Dec How Are You Using MicroLearning?
by Jeanine Limone Draut
Microlearning is one of the current darlings of the training industry, and understandably so. It typically costs less to develop than full elearning courses and delivers instruction in smaller, more manageable chunks for learners.
But like many like many instructional design trends, the focus has been on the technology (how to develop and deliver short multimedia modules) rather than strategy – why and when to use microlearning.
What is microlearning?
Microlearning usually refers to short, multimedia elearning modules that focus on a specific piece of information or skill. A module is typically 3–5 minutes long, but can be shorter or longer depending on the design and how long the learner takes to move through the content.
A microlearning module can be a YouTube video of how to cook a certain dish or how to clean out the trap in your sink – just-in-time learning I needed the other day when my daughter dropped her ring in the sink. It can also be animation with a voiceover, like this video that explains colon cancer screening. It might have interactive elements, such as brief quizzes or embedded video examples the learner can watch to learn more.
Microlearning doesn’t have to be multimedia; it can be any bite-sized chunk of learning. For example, text-based daily tips such as Harvard Business Review’s Management Tip of the Day offer readers an opportunity to remember and refresh skills every day.
Some elearning thought leaders say we need microlearning because our learners, especially Millenials, have increasingly short attention spans. I disagree. There is no reliable evidence that people have shorter attention spans than they used to before we had constant access to information and entertainment. People still focus and pay attention to the things they want to focus on. They simply have more options for escape if they are not engaged.
Others say that microlearning is necessary because people are not serious about learning or won’t spend the time to do it. This isn’t necessarily true, either. People are motivated to learn when they have a reason to learn. Learners may be more willing to sit through a boring and irrelevant learning module if it is 3 minutes long instead of 30. But that’s not exactly an instructional design success.
This is the power of microlearning: it reaches learners in their world, repeatedly, to support learning over time. People don’t usually learn in one sitting, whether it’s 8 hours, 30 minutes or 5 minutes. With microlearning, we have multiple opportunities for just-in-time learning or reinforcement of previous learned skills or concepts.
Microlearning for just-in-time learning
In the marketing and communication world, we talk about having a strategy that includes “push” and “pull” communication. Just-in-time learning is “pull” communication – you make the information available and the reader or learner seeks it out when the information is needed.
It’s similar to a job aid in that the learner seeks the information right before or in the midst of completing a task. This is how I used the sink trap video. I was a picture of modern learning with bucket, tools and a smartphone (at a safe distance from the impending mess).
Microlearning to reinforce skills and ideas
Microlearning shines as a way to reinforce ideas and skills. It brings learning to life with examples, case studies and real-world applications.
For example, new employees might attend a half-day training where they learn about the company’s products or services. As a new employee, the learner won’t retain all of that information, partially because it is an overwhelming amount of information and partially because the learner doesn’t yet have adequate context for it. To mitigate this “forgetting curve,” you can follow up with some regular microlearning modules for the next two or three months, to reinforce the information and help the employee put it into the proper context. These modules could include mini case studies that ask the new employee to choose the best product or service for a given situation.
Microlearning is not magic
Just because you can cram a lot of content into a neat 5-minute video doesn’t mean your learner will be able to learn and use it. People do not magically assimilate information just because it’s in visual/video format (or both video and audio), despite the myths about this. We are still working with the human learning process and all the limitations, inefficiencies and principles that come with it.
During a small block of learning time, a learner can develop a shallow understanding of one or more large concepts or go deep on one specific skill or idea, but not both. For example, Northwestern University has an interesting microlearning module about science communication that lays out the aspects of how to communicate scientific and technical ideas to different non-technical audiences. Learners can go through the module and get a high-level sense of what’s involved in this kind of communication, but learners will need more information, examples, non-examples and practice before they can do it.
Microlearning may appeal to you or your organization because it’s short, and therefore has a shorter development time. That’s true to an extent. But as Blaise Pascal said, “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” It takes skillful and thoughtful instructional design to make the most of a short learning event. Every second counts.
Use microlearning strategically
We minimize the power of microlearning and do a disservice to our learners if we think of microlearning as “learning lite” – a quick way to learn without much effort. But if we use it strategically as just-in-time learning or learning reinforcement, microlearning can be a powerful tool in the instructional designer’s toolbox.
If you’re interested in architecting a micro-learning strategy or developing micro-learning modules for your organization, we can get you on the path to micro learning performance. Start today by getting in touch with us. If you can’t already tell, we’re passionate about it, and we’d love to share that passion with you.