Microlearning – what is it and how can it be used in eLearning?

Microlearning. It’s one of those buzzwords doing the rounds in L&D. But what is it all about? And how can you use it in your organisation or to assist your clients? There are many different ideas as to what it is and ways to define it. For B Online Learning, we like to think of microlearning as “a short piece of learning, that addresses a specific practical skill, that is just ‘long enough’”.

In this blog we’ll explore what microlearning is, what it isn’t and the tools you need to help you to get the most out of this online learning trend.

Microlearning? A short history

So, what’s the big deal about microlearning? Why are organisations investing time and resources into it? What’s wrong with a good old-fashioned workshop or eLearning module? There’s nothing inherently wrong with a workshop or a self-directed online learning module, they both serve a purpose. Whether you utilise one or the other depends on a whole number of things which is a debate for another time. We’re just interested in the ‘why’ of microlearning. The simplest answer is – we have terrible memories.

Back in 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus did some research on what he called ‘the forgetting curve’. The forgetting curve indicated that we forget a large percentage of what we have learned without some form of reinforcement over time. For example, you attend a workshop and after four to five days you have forgotten 80% of what you covered. That’s a big loss of new information!

To combat this, researchers proposed that learners should use the spacing effect help them remember what they’ve learnt. The spacing effect is the phenomenon whereby learning is greater when studying is spread out over time, as opposed to studying the same amount of content in a single session. That is, using spaced rather than massed presentation is more effective.

Much more recently, researchers such as Will Thalheimer have taken this concept a step further with a learning technique called spaced repetition. It incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent reviews of previously learned material to exploit the spacing effect. By having a spaced review of something we have learnt over time, less of the learnt content is forgotten.

So, does microlearning fit into this idea of spaced repetition? Yes, it does. Microlearning allows us to provide short review pieces that let a learner embed what they have learnt over a period of time.

There are a lot of businesses that ulitise this theory well. For example, Duolingo uses space repetition by spacing lessons out over small interactions and revisiting words covered previously.

Microlearning in the corporate environment

But what about in the corporate setting? What has best practice shown from corporate learning that might give us more information about why we could use microlearning?

Here are some best practice tips about microlearning in the workplace:

  • Length of time is crucial: Microlearning is no good if it’s too short. People can’t and won’t engage fully. That’s why it’s impossible to give a time limit to microlearning, and part of the reason why our definition says that the learning should be ‘long enough’. That may be 3 minutes or it might be 10.
  • Content must be able to stand alone: It’s not just breaking an existing program into smaller units. This turns the training into a start/stop process. The learning becomes inconsistent and fragmented, and there is the added effort on the learner to remember “where am I up to?” and “what did I review last time?”
  • Workers have limited patience: They want to be able to finish a task and move on to the next one in a reasonable time frame. If they feel something is bogging them down, they will get frustrated, and it will turn into a negative experience quickly.

Even if they have more time for a task – it generally won’t happen – interruptions are common in the workplace with other projects, customers, clients, meetings, etc. all are clamouring for attention.

When microlearning keeps these practical tips in mind it can be highly effective and an enjoyable and rewarding learning experience.

To sum up, why microlearning is important. It helps us take advantage of the spacing effect via spacing repetition and it also aligns with the best practice findings for workplace learners.

A closer look at microlearning – what is and isn’t microlearning?

Microlearning is NOT:

  • Splitting up, breaking down, and ‘to be continued’ content – microlearning must stand alone.
    • If you’ve just split up a full program into smaller pieces that need to be continued over several modules, it’s too fragmented and too much of a cognitive demand for a learner to remember where they left off. Splitting it up into a 20-minute video into 10 2-minute videos just provides an increased annoyance factor of ‘what did I watch before?’ and ‘which video am I up to?’ Both questions eat into their small window of patience.
  • Video only – It could also be a job aid, a scenario, a couple of quick reflective questions, a short podcast, a mini-module, etc.
  • Less than 5 minutes – It could be if you discover that 5 minutes is ‘just long enough’, but time should not be the deciding factor.

Microlearning IS:

  • Just in time (not ‘just in case’) – this is something you need now to meet that need.
  • Short and specific
  • A single focus – One idea/objective/concept/specific behaviour
  • Immediately applicable – no theory/no timeline/ no extensive history/no backstories. This is what you need to know / the process you need to understand, etc
  • Available for the learner to access on their terms.In other words, accessible on any platform – phone, desktop, tablet, available at work and at home – what suits them. Again, think of Duolingo – you can access on your phone, tablet, desktop.
  • Easy to find – not buried in the depths of your intranet.
  • Great for review, practice or extension, all of which fit into spaced repetition well.

What type of learning is microlearning best suited for?

  • Review
  • Practice
  • Extension

What type of learning microlearning isn’t suited for?

  • New
  • Complicated
  • Needs to be covered in-depth

When to use microlearning – some examples:

  • Time savers, handy hints or guides to a product or service
  • Best practice – people sharing what they have done in a particular situation – experiences that demonstrate a particular learning point.
  • Just in time – information about changes that learners need to know ASAP.
  • Troubleshooting – common issues and problems or FAQs. e.g. a lot of photocopies have mini microlearning lesion built in on how to unjam the paper tray/change the cartridge
  • Post sales service – e.g., flow charts to identify common problems and provide solutions.
  • Compliance – common issues and/or quick wins (examples of compliant interactions)
  • Company updates – change of executive, statistics regarding how company is going with sales, service, new product uptakes, success stories, etc.
  • Performance support – processes, remedial training, ‘How to…’ guides etc.

How do we build it?

Microlearning is simple and straightforward to build. You’re just asking the question – what do our learners need and how can we meet that need now to ensure that the learning gap is being addressed? Here are the three steps in the microlearning development process.

  1. Define – make sure on the same page.
  2. Develop – undertake multiple reviews to ensure quality and effectiveness
  3. Deploy – and evaluate

Too often developers are told a learning program is needed, get dumped with a whole heap of resources and hopefully, they get a subject matter expert to help and away they go.

While some developers might ‘fluke it’ and create a learning program that does a good job, many will end up creating a ‘click next, click next, do a quiz’, type program that gets lost in the annals of time.

This is not good enough for microlearning (and certainly not good enough for normal L&D either).

How do we ensure it is successful?

For microlearning to be successful, it’s going to need a few more characteristics. All learning programs need a measurable goal otherwise you’re just crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. What’s the goal of the program and how are you going to know if it has been a success?

What do they have to do to achieve the goal? Is it a behaviour, action or process? If you’re not sure ask yourself “What does this physically look like? If someone is doing this behaviour, action or process, what would you see?” The answer to that question is what is going to assist you in identifying your key takeaway i.e., what the microlearning is going to be about.

Determine the practical activity the learner can do to practice the key takeaway. This is what they can practice or apply during/after the microlearning.

What’s the mode of delivery going to be and how can they access it? e.g., screencast, mini-module, job aid, etc. and will it be available via desk/phone/tablet/other?

Finally, give them the option to have additional information if they would like to, but don’t make it compulsory to complete the microlearning.

What Articulate 360 apps can you use for microlearning?

All Articulate 360 apps are ideal for developing microlearning. The tools won’t do the job for you, you still need to define, develop and deploy a sound learning interaction, but they can certainly help when you are deciding on the mode of your project. For example:

  • Articulate Peek– Performance support, how to, troubleshooting etc.
  • Articulate Replay– Product focus, ‘guide on the side’, best practice, podcast
  • Articulate Rise– Flow charts, reference guides, interactive tours, simple scenarios, quizzes, curated videos/best of…, document repository, all available on a range of devices
  • Articulate Storyline– Branching scenarios, mini modules, quizzes, games, infographics.

Now that you know more about microlearning and the way it can be applied to online learning, we’d love to help you get started building it and incorporating it into your business, get in touch with us to find out more.

Or for more information on how our Birch Learning Platform can help deliver microlearning see the Using Birch Learning Platform for Microlearning blog.

And finally, if you’re looking for more examples of microlearning please watch our webinar on YouTube.

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