There’s a lot of hype about microlearning right now. It seems everyone is going micro or wants to be going micro. But any time there is a lot of hype about any new educational approach, there’s a risk of blindly following a trend just to follow it. And then there will be those people who refuse to use microlearning because they don’t want to follow a trend they don’t understand.
To address all this, we really need to ask ourselves, “Why should I go micro? What value does microlearning bring to our learners and our organizations?”
Microlearning is really any asynchronous learning—such as e-learning, videos, and infographics—that is offered in short duration. Generally, we’re aiming for about five to seven minutes or fewer, but instead of focusing on seat time, the idea is really about meeting the learners’ needs as quickly as possible by giving them just what they need at that moment. (Microlearning is usually defined as asynchronous learning, but occasionally you will find people who are using microlearning in synchronous environments, such as instructor-led training and virtual, instructor-led training too.)
So, why should you consider using short-form learning as part of your learning and development toolkit? One of the greatest powers of short-form learning is meeting targeted learning and business needs and doing that without disrupting the flow of the business. Instead of pulling people off the job for an hour or two of training, we can give them little bits of content that they can consume when they need it and when they have time for it.
That’s a practical reason for organizations to go micro, but of course the next question we must ask is if this form of learning will be as effective at changing knowledge, skills, and performance as longer form learning. If not, the organizational benefits may not outweigh the disadvantages. Going micro, however, may actually improve learning and retention. And this is why people are so excited about microlearning—not only does it create less disruption to the business, but it may also improve retention and application, resulting in improved performance too!
Why is microlearning positive from a learning and performance perspective? I believe it’s because microlearning is learner centric. I first learned this term from Dr. Michael Allen more than 15 years ago. In his definition, being learner centric is when you design your course materials with the learner, not the content, as your primary focus. Dr. Allen believes that focusing on the learner helps us to provide interactions about the content and how it will be used on the job, instead of telling what a subject matter expert or executive thinks the learner needs to know. Being learner centric is really about focusing on performance improvement over knowledge gain.
I believe that using microlearning is another way of being learner centric. By being brief and giving people just what they need, you are focused on the learner and their needs—not on what content you need to cover.
Being learner centric in this way has many advantages. By focusing on the learner and what they most need to do their job proficiently, you are more likely to get the learner’s buy-in to using your materials because you’ve provided just what they need. We know that adult learners are goal oriented, so if you don’t provide what they actually need, they will become frustrated or even ignore the training. Conversely, if you provide just what they need, in conveniently packaged bite-sized chunks so they can get what they need and get on with their work, they will pay more attention and learn more from it. Also, if the learning is closer to the moment of performance, which short-form learning often is, employees are likely to incorporate that learning into their behavior better, which leads to improved workplace performance.
And again, this is intuitively good for the organization too. Traditionally, we have disrupted employees’ work to have them partake in training—even a 30-minute e-learning module takes the employee off the job for a period of time. Using microlearning enables learners to better fit learning into their busy day—and thus is less disruptive to the flow of work.
Microlearning isn’t the right choice all the time. Certainly there are lots of times when longer form learning is needed. But when you focus on the learner’s situation and the learner’s needs, you often find places where training can be provided in smaller chunks and meet employees’ needs better. When you do this, you get buy-in from both the employee and the organization.
Interested in learning more about microlearning? Join me at ATD 2019 in Washington, D.C. May 19-22. I’ll be teaching the Microlearning Certificate program and leading the concurrent session, Effective Microlearning: A Showcase of Examples and 10 Tips for How You Can Do It Too! You will also find my book, The Microlearning Guide to Microlearning at the conference bookstore.