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February 2018
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February 2018
microlearning
Newsletter Article

Is a Little Learning Really Enough?

A quick internet search of the term “microlearning” results in a ginormous volume of information. This trend toward smaller learning solutions begs an important question: Is a little learning really enough?

The English prefix “micro” comes from the Greek word “mikro,” which means small. We use microscopes to view tiny particles up close. The prefix doesn’t refer to the instrument itself, but to what we can see by using it. No one looks into a microscope expecting to see the big picture. No one points a microscope toward the heavens expecting to see the constellations. The scope of what we can see with a microscope is much smaller.

Likewise, microlearning is a great tool for helping learners “see” small and specific bits of information. But is it an effective tool for helping them grasp big picture stuff? Probably not. Sure, we can dissect an elephant-sized subject into tiny pieces and study it piecemeal, but seeing an elephant one square inch at a time is no replacement for experiencing the whole thing intact. If you’ve ever stood very close to a mosaic mural, you know that a big picture is greater than a sum of its pixels.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with zooming in and focusing on a single pixel, tile, or micro-topic. I’ve learned to do everything from replacing a headlight to grilling a perfect steak by watching YouTube videos. But no one became an auto mechanic or chef that way. The depth and breadth of knowledge required to be an expert, professional, or leader requires a more protracted and holistic “macro” learning approach. This prefix comes from the Greek word “makro,” which means large or long.

So, let’s return to the original question: Is a little learning really enough? It depends.

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There are millions of people who recognize currency at a glance, but usually only those who can analyze the economic and monetary factors involved in earning, investing, and spending it wisely become millionaires. Creating wealth requires both micro- and macroeconomic knowledge. The same is true in the knowledge economy.

Eight hours of macrolearning might be as inefficient as binge-watching for a college student who just needs to know how to balance a checkbook. But a series of microlearning lessons would be as ineffective as channel surfing for someone aspiring to be an accountant. Sometimes learners need microlearning and other times they need macrolearning. Often they need both. It’s not an either/or proposition.

When learners only need to know a little and they need to know it now, go small. But when learners need to see the big picture complete with background and context, go big or go home!

Do you use microlearning in your training practice? Where does it help, and what are its limitations? Share your thoughts in the Comment section below.

© 2018 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
As a professional consultant, trainer, and public speaker, ASTD Links Field Editor Don Levonius draws on more than 15 years of leadership experience. He has directed talent development for 23 Disney hotels, 200 retail and dining locations, a large transportation system, a security division, an international college internship program, and a global professional association. Today, Levonius is principal consultant with Victory Performance Consulting, where he provides OD and talent development solutions that help clients do what they do best, only better. He holds a master’s degree in HR development and a second master’s degree in business and organizational security management.
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