In a recent recorded discussion, we talked with Michael Schreiner, the VP of Content at Vector Solutions (our parent company) about their recent, award-winning microlearning conversion & creation process. If you're interested in that, check out our Microlearning at Vector Solutions recorded discussion.
In this article, we're going to expand on that discussion, explaining what microlearning is and giving a few common and effective uses for microlearning.
You can find any number of definitions for microlearning out there.
But at it's root, microlearning is a short learning activity. Usually a minute or so, but perhaps as many as five minutes. And it's usually designed around one learning objective, or a small number of closely related learning objectives. Personally, I like the idea of focusing a microlearning learning activity on one learning objective.
That's it. Nothing too confusing, right?
No. The phrase microlearning may seem new and shiny, and it's certainly often talked about in a way that makes it seem brand new.
But if you strip it to its core, microlearning is just about delivering a short bit of training to teach around a learning objective. There's nothing new about that; people have been doing it forever. And because we've been doing it forever, and have a lot of experience with it, we also know it works well.
Then why do people seem to talk about microlearning so much these days? Well, one reason is because online and digital tools have given us some new ways to deliver microlearning that we didn't have back in the 1950s, for example.
Of course, another reason is that people and companies are trying to sell you the next new shiny object. It's important to recognize that, but it's also important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. No, microlearning isn't the silver bullet for all your training needs. But yes, microlearning can be very helpful and can lead to desired learning outcomes in training programs.
Here are three common and effective uses for microlearning.
You can use microlearning as a part of any normal training curriculum (or training path or learning journey or whatever you call this). There's no reason all of your training paths have to be made up of "macrolearning" learning assets. In fact, because in training less is often more, microlearning assets within a training path can be an exceptionally valuable component and you might want to give these more consideration.
After your initial training session (no matter what form that takes), you can use microlearning courses spread out over time to (a) help people remember what they learned earlier and (b) build upon their knowledge and skills.
Why would you do this, you ask? Well, it begins with an understanding of how we learn, and the fact that our brain isn't simply an empty vessel that we can "pour" information to and expect it to stay there. Instead, if we want information to truly get integrated into our long-term memory, we need to work with it repeatedly in our short-term, or working, memory. This repeated working with a topic, and the retrieval of something we were on the verge of forgetting, helps us remember new information instead of forget it.
Note that in both of the two examples above, your microlearning asset doesn't have to deliver content. It can instead deliver a short assessment, for example.
In addition to training, learning professionals should think of other ways they can help workers improve performance on the job. One of those ways is through performance support, which means resources that provide information to workers when and where they need it on the job. This can include something as simple as a manual or a paper-based checklist, but it can also be a short video delivered to a mobile device.
Performance support is a great use for microlearning because microlearning is (1) short, (2) designed around one learning objective, and (3) task-based, so you wind up with a short explanation of how to perform a job task.
One reason that microlearning is helpful is because our short-term memory can only process a small amount of information at any one time. Plus it can only keep something "in mind" for a short period of time. You can think of that as about 3-4 small bits of information for about 20 seconds.
Try it for yourself. Think up a 10-digit series of numbers. Write them down. Would you be able to remember them an hour later? Most likely not. So what do you do? If you're like many of us, you keep repeating the numbers over and over again, keeping them active in your brain and hoping they'll "stick" in long-term memory.
Now try the same thing with a series of 3 numbers. You can probably remember those an hour from now, right? It might take a little practice, but you'd most likely be able to do it. That's because 10 numbers (or 10 anythings) overloads our working memory. This is called cognitive overload. You can read more about this in our How People Learn and Why People Forget Their Training articles.
So one of the reasons microlearning is effective is because it doesn't risk causing cognitive overload so easily.
No, microlearning doesn't have to be digital or be delivered & accessed online. A short talk can be microlearning, and so can a paper-based checklist.
Of course, we live in the historical and technological moment that we live in, and we do have all of these amazing digital and online tools. So it makes sense that some microlearning would be digital and online. Plus we've already discussed some logical reasons to do that, such as with performance support.
Microlearning is helpful and has its place, but it also doesn't need to replace everything else in training.
Don't believe the hype from someone in marketing or sales trying to sell you a 100% microlearning solution, and don't get caught up in the excitement yourself and go overboard in developing microlearning.
Remember to always start with the end in mind--what business goal and learning outcome are you trying to support with your training? Then see if microlearning can help. If not, don't use it.
We hope you found this brief introduction to microlearning helpful. Remember to check out the interview with Michael Schreiner about the award-winning microlearning project at Vector Solutions and feel free to let us know if you'd like to learn more about our microlearning solutions.