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The Modern Learner Is Asking You to Go Micro

By and

Wed Jan 29 2020

The Modern Learner Is Asking You to Go Micro

Influences like mobile devices, social connectedness, and time scarcity have made modern learners consider how they are learning in their personal lives. What’s more, people are asking how those same approaches could be used in their workplace learning too. As a result, modern learners and modern organizations are asking for shorter-form content.

Think about it. Whenever you need some piece of information that you don’t know, you can look it up on the Internet. We don’t think it can be overstated how powerful it is that cell phones and tablets give us access to every website on the Internet at any time and location. We don’t have to remember phone numbers, addresses, or other facts we once needed to memorize to function in society. We also don’t have to take classes to learn how to fix our leaky faucets, bake a better cake, or a host of other things we learn from content on the Internet every day.


This begs the question: How can learning professionals be enabled to think differently about how they support employees at work? And, is there short-form content that we can provide just-in-time when they want it? Indeed, are there ways to make their jobs easier by giving them the information and learning they need just when they need it?

Let's look at mobile devices

Thanks to mobile phones, we’re able to get nearly any information we need anytime we need it. Case in point: Google Maps. Don’t know where you’re going? No problem. Your phone can give you turn-by-turn directions to new locations so you don’t get lost. But people also use Google Maps for routes they know well. It’s not that they don’t know the way; it’s that there are multiple equally good routes, and they are checking to see if one is faster than the other due to an accident or traffic congestion. Before they drive away, they can even call or text their family to tell when they expect to be home, knowing that the Google Maps estimate is going to be accurate within minutes.

This is a perfect example of performance support. No doubt, the idea of performance support has been around for decades, but the power of personal computers and mobile devices has enabled learning professionals to think very differently about how performance support can enable employees to be supported at work.

What about social connectedness?

If you regularly go to a physical office, you have the value of talking to, and learning from, the people around you. But regardless of whether you go into a brick-and-mortar building surrounded by other people or not, you are connected virtually to many networks and thousands of people.

Everyone is connected in lots of ways: work networks by email, Microsoft Teams, Yammer, or something else; professional networks on LinkedIn and Twitter; personal networks on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. The list goes on. All that social connectedness has enabled people to supercharge their informal learning, particularly learning from content posted by other people.


In many ways, people are asking how they can harness the power of informal learning at work—maybe we make it a little more formal, or maybe we keep it informal and offer more content or encourage people to participate more. Regardless of the form it takes, it’s clear that informal learning and learning from each other is driving everyone’s interest in microlearning.

Crunched for time

In our teaching and speaking across the nation, we often ask, “Do you have too much time?” No one raises a hand. Sometimes people will laugh or someone may call out “Yeah right!” but not one hand goes up. It’s because everyone knows the same truth: we’re all very busy.

Because people are so busy, when they need help with a task in their personal lives, they expect to find the knowledge they need right away so they can get on with their day. We have gotten used to being surrounded by instructional and informational content in our everyday lives, and having it available to help us right at the moment we want it.

Of course, people now bring that expectation to work, expecting to be surrounded by learning and support materials that enable them to make better use of their time. It really is all about getting the learning and support they need as quickly as possible, integrating that learning into the flow of their work, and using that to get on with their day as efficiently as possible. Of the three factors, this is the one that most causes learners (and organizational leaders) to demand microlearning at work.

Be part of the evolution

People are seeing the power of short-form learning in their personal lives, so it’s natural to want that same format and accessibility in the workplace too. A confluence of factors is creating a situation where people are recognizing more than ever before the power of microlearning. While microlearning isn’t a magic bullet for all learning needs, it is critical for the learning professional to include microlearning for targeted learning needs. The modern learner is demanding we go micro, and we need to listen to them about how to meet their needs.


Editor’s note: This post is adapted from Chapter 2 of Designing Microlearning (ATD, 2019).

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