Microlearning is not a Platform, it’s a Design Choice

focused biologist studying plant leaf with microscope
Photo by RF._.studio on Pexels.com

One frequent buzzword you’ll hear a lot in the eLearning world is “microlearning”. More often than not, it’s pushed by companies trying to sell you on their new platform for authoring/ delivering learning in micro-sized doses to your learners.

To adapt Dan Ariely’s quote about big data to the online learning space:

Microlearning is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it…

But before you buy into a new platform or authoring tool to create microlearning experiences, you should know what it is (and isn’t), what the research says about its effectiveness, and how you can create and deliver microlearning assets with the design tools you already have.

So What is it, exactly?

Since microlearning is so tied to vendors’ commercial offerings, the term basically means whatever their platform does. As practitioners, we need to divorce the hype from the legitimate pedagogy.

The key elements appear to be:

  • Short duration of access
  • mobile-friendly (tech, look, and feel)
  • Leveraging push notifications on mobile devices
  • Some assessment or measurement of engagement

By these metrics, you can achieve microlearning with any elearning delivery platform you have access to, as long as you keep these criteria in mind when you’re developing and editing your content.

Research Support for Microlearning

I dug back to the first research paper introducing MicroLearning as a concept (Bruck, 2012), and even then, it was understood to require a dedicated platform for delivering small bits of learning content to learners’ mobile devices at predertermined intervals.

The article is suffused with all of 2012’s excitement about the possible ways smartphones and the internet could potentially improve learning. Bruck’s paper acknowledges limitations of mobile learning, and the early state of academic research on the affordances mobile devices add to learning.

Bruck seems to believe that breaking large learning assets up into smaller chunks and delivering them to mobile devices will result in better learning.

“It may not appropriate of all forms of learning and therefore, it compliments (does not replace) other forms of learning” (Bruck, 2012).

MicroLearning involves Major Editing

There’s nothing new under the sun, and microlearning was common long before the Internet came along. Readers Digest was famous for offering condensed versions of great books so you could get the main points of some great books without actually reading every word.

My dad had a copy of this thing called The Great American Bathroom Book which provides “single sitting summaries” 🤢 of great works of literature, business, psychology, and more, giving you just enough of an understanding of these works to be able to talk about them at parties. And what teenager didn’t flirt with Cliff’s Notes to get the main gist of a dense assigned reading, or to try to fake having read it before a class deadline?

Even now, apps like Blinkist and Lucid Learning do a nice job of boiling down essential works of literature and business nonfiction into highly condensed, mobile-friendly, “single sitting summaries” 🤢 that you can consume from anywhere on your phone.

The common theme running through all these offerings is that they are heavily edited by an expert on the content. Someone, somewhere, read the full book, picked out the key points you absolutely need to know, and summarized those key points in the simplest, most economical language possible. This extreme form of editing requires sophisticated brain-work that many subject matter experts don’t have the time or the appetite to engage in.

As an Instructional Designer who works with SMEs, it’s usually the case that they’re resistant to revising and summarizing their work, and I’m usually not familiar enough with the content to do it for them. More often, the content remains in the same form it was in when it came out of the SME’s brain — whether that’s a Zoom recording video or a PowerPoint deck. Editing that “rough draft” down into a highly consumable asset is a challenge of remorseless copy editing, radical wordsmithing, and deep collaboration with SMEs. That’s how it happens.

So when a stakeholder asks you for microlearning, ask them how large the source content is, and ask them to outline the 5-7 key points they want learners to remember after the learning task is over. Those 5-7 points should make up the entirety of your microlearning content.

Push vs. Pull in Learning

Many microlearning platforms seem to take it as a given that training involves “pushing” information to learners, rather than (y’know) giving them agency over what information comes into their brain and how they’d like to learn.

You are not a mama bird feeding her chicks. They are individuals who can learn for themselves.

It’s an arrogant mistake to ignore learners’ individual agency in their learning, or to assume that we know better than they do what they need. In fact, a recent study said that learners in workplaces are just as likely to search independently on open-web sites like Google and YouTube to solve work problems rather than using the materials pushed to them by learning experience portals (LXPs) using some black box algorithm to decide what they should know.

And this makes sense… if we define microlearning as the self-directed practice of searching for small bits of information at the time we need them to solve a pressing work problem.

By this definition, Micro-learning is all around us! We do it everyday! A blog post is micro-learning. A single YouTube video is micro-learning. A wiki page, (or better yet, a subtopic on a wiki page) can provide a focused, single-sitting “atom” of information that can be delivered to learners just when they need it, preferably in response to an event when they realize they really need THIS answer.

We’ve all become accustomed to Googling for answers at the moment when we need them most, and websites have adjusted to become more modular, more focused, so that you land on the right page to consume your answer quickly.

Microlearning in the Real World

broken sink

Recently the plumbing under my kitchen sink broke, and I had to quickly learn the skills I needed to fix it. I didn’t enroll in a 10-week survey course in Plumbing at the local community college — that would be ridiculous. I searched YouTube, watched a few videos, Googled a few questions I had, and got to work!

The Pedagogy of Learner-Centered Microlearning

From a pedagogy perspective, the scenario above contains some highly desirable characteristics:

  • a self-directed learner with intrinsic motivation
  • an authentic problem to solve
  • Self-monitoring, where the learner determines when mastery is achieved
  • learner evaluates and consumes content according to their preferred learning style
  • learner demonstrates mastery by solving a real-world problem

Notice that, in this scenario, the traditional tasks that teachers usually carve out for themselves — lecturing and assigning reading materials then testing to see if students read them — are conspicuously absent. There is no pushing or “pre-chewing” information before the learner gets it. The learner is the driver of the learning. Their need to find answers is driven by an authentic goal (e.g. “to have a working sink”). And the specific learning materials are less important than what students do with them.

Towards a Paradigm of Learner-Directed Microlearning

If we stop thinking of microlearning as only a “push” of content to the learner, but rather as a design principle of facilitating learners’ ability to access content easily, we get a clearer idea of how to structure all learning content to support learners’ choice and voice.

If you want to deliver this kind of microlearning experience, ask yourself:

  • How can we edit and “chunk” large blocks of content so learners can access them according to their needs?
  • How can we use our existing tools to “atomize” content by topic for easier searching and access?
  • How can we simplify complexity using visual design and accessible language?
  • How can we limit cognitive load during the learning task?
  • How can we collect meaningful analytics about user learning across our content offerings?

And the eternal question…

  • Why are we having a meeting when this could have been an email?

But… why NOT just go with a dedicated microlearning platform?

You’re plucky, I like you. Well, the answer is that you likely already have some learning delivery and measurement platform in your organization’s tech ecosystem. You probably have an LMS in place, as well as some integrated way to analyze learner activity on that platform. Hopefully, it supports mobile devices as well as desktop machines (because it’s 2023 now), and hopefully it gives you meaningful data about what’s happening with your users.

If that’s not the case, and your audience is a mobile-first kinda’ crowd, then by all means, build your tech ecosystem around a mobile-first solution.

However, if you’re like the rest of us, you’re trying to balance the legacy software platforms you’ve inherited and integrated into your existing ways of working, and are trying to keep up with the rapid pace of change and serve your users and stakeholders the best you can. You don’t want to add a new dedicated system to meet every different use case, and you don’t want the headache of trying to capture learning analytics across a mismatched patchwork of vendor platforms.

If that’s you, start to form a long-term-plan of how your legacy platforms can be better utilized or replaced to support not only the ways you’ve been working, but the ways you want to work going forward. Experiment with design-first ways of delivering different types of learning content from within a unified toolset of authoring tools and delivery platforms. Proactively define what kinds of data you need from your different learning technologies to paint an accurate picture of whether you’re fulfilling your teaching and learning objectives. Familiarize yourself with the competitors to the software you’re currently using, and consider whether it makes sense to consolidate platforms while maintaining and expanding the capabilities you depend upon. It involves a lot of research and critical thinking, but has the potential to make measurable changes at your organization.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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