What is Microlearning?

Microlearning is “A short piece of learning, that addresses a specific practical skill, that is just ‘long enough’”.

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 without some form of reinforcement over time, we forget a large percentage of what we have learned. For example, you attend a day’s learning workshop and after 4-5 days you have forgotten 80% of what you covered. That’s a pretty big loss of new information!

To combat this, researchers have proposed that learners should use the ‘spacing effect’ to assist them in remembering what they have 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, it is better to use spaced presentation rather than massed presentation.

Researchers such as Will Thalheimer have taken this concept a step further and proposed a learning technique called spaced repetition that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material, in order 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 allow a learner to embed what they have learnt over a period of time.

Best practice microlearning in the workplace:

What has best practice shown regarding corporate learning that might gives us more information about why we could use microlearning?

  1. 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. The learning still needs to grab the learner’s attention. What’s in it for them? Why should they care?
  2. 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?”
  3. 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 and preventing them from getting on with their day, they will get frustrated and negative towards it fairly quickly.
  4. Even if they have more time for a task – it generally won’t happen – interruptions continue in the workplace because they have their ‘real jobs’ to do! Projects, customers, clients, meetings, communications etc. all are clamouring for their attention.

When microlearning keeps these practices in mind it can be effective and not add any additional burden on the learner. Heck they may even enjoy it!

What is and what is NOT microlearning?

Microlearning is NOT:

  • Chunking, breaking down, and ‘to be continued’ – Microlearning has to stand alone. If you’ve just chunked down a full program into smaller pieces with a ‘too be continued’, it’s too fragmented and too much of a cognitive demand for a learner to remember where they left off. Chunking down a 20-minute video into ten 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 questions, a 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’)
  • Short and specific
  • A single focus – One idea/objective/concept/behaviour.
  • Immediately applicable – no theory/no extensive history/no backstories.
  • Available for the learner to access on their In other words, accessible on any platform – phone, desktop or even tablet, available at work and at home – what suits them?
  • Easy to find – not buried in the depths of your LMS/Intranet.
  • Great for review, practice or extension, all of which fit into spaced repetition well.

Check back soon to read my other posts on how to build microlearning with Articulate tools and how to use Birch Learning Platform for microlearning.

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