Learning to love Microlearning


Call it bite-sized learning, performance support nuggets or even “micro-assets”, microlearning suddenly seems everywhere. Hitting us in ever smaller more intense bursts, these tasty chunks are leaving us breathless and panting for more knowledge everywhere we go.

But what exactly constitutes microlearning, beyond content delivered in 1-5 minutes bursts?  Microlearning was conceived as a solution for just-in-time training and performance support. But it can also be applied to long term learning programmes. Exponents claim that delivering learning content in bite-size chunks and drip feeding it over a longer period helps learners to retain more of this valuable information long term. Applying memory-building techniques such as spaced repetition and repeated retrieval via quizzes and knowledge checks enhances this.

In contrast, standalone learning interventions using long elearning courses or classroom training with lots of material offered as a single hit over a short time period are less memorable. In short, they are in one ear, and very rapidly out of the other.

Microlearning can increase voluntary participation in learning, even more so when combined with gamification. Because it requires less commitment, learners are more likely to venture their time.

On the other hand, social technology watchers will tell you the biggest driver in the rise of microlearning is the changing way we digest stories and data. The growth of the mobile device, iPhone, Android or whatever, creates a ‘consume on the move’ faster lifestyle. The smaller screen lends itself to smaller more compact and simpler content.

Why learners love microlearning

Be that as it may, for the beleaguered learner, there are clear identifiable benefits in the microlearning revolution:

  • It’s accessible anywhere. Well, anywhere with an online connection. Unless, of course, there is a system available such as learningCloud Mobile.
  • It works reliably on different device types. Believe it or not, learners seem keen on things that ‘just work’.
  • It consumes less time. Learners hate having their time wasted for some reason. They are apt to get irritated at any course that spends more than two minutes telling them something they already know.
  • It’s brilliant at supporting on the job training and means less time away from work. It’s debatable how many are that pleased about the latter but everybody loves a helping hand when they need it most.
  • Learners claim they remember more of what they’ve learnt, often because it uses rich media formats. It’s unclear how they remember they’ve forgotten something but we should take them at their word I feel.
  • It can be more easily personalised. Coming in small chunks, it’s much easier to tailor their learning programmes to suit individual learners, based on their latest level of knowledge in a given subject area. Again, it avoids wasting time by telling them what they already know.
  • It can increase voluntary participation in learning, even more so when combined with gamification. Because it requires less commitment, learners are more likely to venture their time.

Why organisations love microlearning

No wonder this approach is now shaking up traditional, corporate training and learning models. Especially when there are also good reasons for organisations to love microlearning as well:

  • It’s cheaper to build, especially if you can create a micro-assets library and use a production-line process.
  • It can be produced faster. Short content means shorter development cycles. That makes it quicker to deploy as well.
  • It’s much easier to update.  Keeping learning current in a fast changing business is always a challenge. Microlearning can mean less needs changing as well speeding the process further.
  • Wide application: it can be applied informally or formally through dedicated programmes, just-in-time training or performance support.

Generational observers claim that it more closely meets the expectations of the millennial generation now entering the workplace.

Why doesn’t everybody?

Surely then this is a solution that works amazing well for everyone. But if so, why isn’t everybody chunking up and swapping out everything for a micro-world? Enter stage left Malcolm Gladwell, author of ‘Outliers’. Probably, closely followed by Matthew Syed, author of ‘Bounce’.

Gladwell and Syed’s common message was something like –  people aren’t born geniuses, they get there through effort. Lots of it. About 10,000 hours of it in fact. Unfashionably, they claim learning takes sweat and application. Their books reveal there is no short cut. If that’s true, then people who are attracted to microlearning because it offers an effortless route to expertise will be disappointed.

That aside, this does not take away the significant advantages – for learner and corporation – that we’ve highlighted. As a performance support tool, there seems little excuse for organisations not to investigate the possibilities on offer. As a broader learning tool, as the workfare changes generations, learners will increasingly appreciate the microlearning environment.  Learning must still be worked at. But microlearning can make that effort far more palatable for both learner and learning professional.


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Martin Belton

Martin is a director of Ascot Communications, one of the UK’s leading consultancies working with learning technology organisations. He has presented on stages as far afield as Tokyo and Los Angeles and authored more papers on elearning and IT than he, or anyone else, cares to remember.