The Microlearning Hype: Is It All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

If ATD ICE had created a word cloud for the most talked-about “new” concepts, techniques, etc, microlearning would have been the biggest word. Though the term has been around at least 20 years, it’s suddenly become “hot” and its definition has most definitely morphed. This post is not designed to argue against it. It’s intended to clarify its limits and optimal uses.

With 20+ years in this industry, experience has taught me to be skeptical of fads. This is particularly true as I gained experience in designing solutions that got business and performance results. Those solutions required significant time investments as well as strong implementation strategies to support them. Experience (and the research) show that there is no magic solution to help people build skill and knowledge. Skill-building and experience come over time and with considerable effort.

Big moments (dare I say, micro-moments) provide significant insights that we carry forward. But our true skill building comes from investing effort and energy over time. By “big moments,” I mean intense emotional experiences that leave their mark on us. Ones that prompt a desire and intention to act or believe differently. Even after years go by, we can vividly recall certain situations and the lesson learned from it. For instance, I can recall the day my husband had a heart attack. I can also recall very small details of the day each of my children was born. I remember how I felt in situations like these and use those feelings to guide decisions I make now.

Where You Invest Your Time, You Invest Your Knowledge & Skills

Conversely, big investments in time relate to how we learn to do difficult, complex things – things we cannot learn in five minutes or in five-minute increments spread over time. On the personal side, think about relationships (with a spouse, a child, or a friend). Good relationships are the result of significant time investment and skill development. You have to learn how to be self-aware and then other-aware. You have to learn communication skills and teamwork skills. These skills are not hard-wired into us, though they may come more easily to some of us than others.

On the work side, think about a major skill or body of knowledge you’ve invested time in learning about. One big investment I’ve made in the past few years is to build my skills in agile project management so my organization could shift to this methodology. This required lots of reading, conference attending, and, most importantly, on-the-job experience. No one of those things would have given me the skill set I needed. I needed to go “deep,” and deep isn’t done in 5 minutes’ time. Further, this huge time investment required strong motivation on my part to learn. I invested time and tried different things. I made mistakes, reflected on those mistakes, and adjusted behavior. Then I talked to colleagues and learned from them. I adjusted my behavior to improve.

How to Incorporate Microlearning into Your Training Strategy

The problem with the current excitement over microlearning is that some folks are cutting it away from its original intention. They imply that big things can be learned in these tiny increments. However, we cannot learn large topics and complex skills in just five minutes/day (or even 15). Imagine if your child’s school announced that arithmetic would now be taught in just 5 minutes (or heck, even 15 minutes) per day. Or imagine that someone could be taught to code, be a great leader, or be a terrific salesperson in just five minutes/day. It’s a bit ludicrous, isn’t it?

As you consider the variety of tools available to support microlearning and its best uses, consider these things:

1) Microlearning has morphed since its origin.

Microlearning, as it was originally conceived, was about the microelements that could roll up into a bigger lesson. It was about considering the “micro” perspectives associated with skill-based learning (smallest blocks of learning associated with a much larger skill set).

In other words, let’s break a really big curriculum into small parts, and let someone master one small part before moving onto the next small part. If you are trying to help someone build a really complex skill, microlearning is possibly one tool you will incorporate. However, it will not be the primary tool because it would take far too long to get to success. Instead, think of microlearning as micro-reinforcement rather than the way people initially learn.

2) There’s a huge difference between being able to “find/locate” something and truly learning something.

Much of what is touted as microlearning is really about implementing technologies that enable workers to search and locate things when they need to figure something out. I recently wanted to create a timer to go into a Powerpoint slide. So I googled “creating a timer in PowerPoint” and followed the steps. I do not know how to create a timer. I will have to search again the next time I need to do it. That’s okay because I don’t need to do this very often. Remembering how isn’t efficient because of the time and effort required for me to do so.

3)  Spaced repetition and retrieval practice are what enable us to remember what we learn – and are what microlearning either provide or tee up.

For you to say you learned something, you have to be able to retrieve it later. Breaking a long lesson into short chunks of five minutes doesn’t enable learning unless the design allows for lots of spaced repetition and retrieval practice. You need something that triggers your brain to recall and/or apply the information you learned.

4) Jobs that are highly repetitive are suited for microlearning.

This is because spaced repetition or retrieval practice are built into the jobs themselves. Workers can complete a short micro-lesson (perhaps on how to correctly stock a shelf or how to process a bank deposit transaction) and then do this same task over and over again in their real jobs.

4) Google and “search” within websites have taught us that we can find/locate almost anything we need.

L&D’s job is to help figure out when it is more efficient or effective for a worker to continually look something up versus when it makes sense for someone to truly know”something. L&D professionals need to be clear on when they are creating a micro-tutorial that gives people info when they need it, and when they are really trying to build skill or knowledge that requires no searching for info at the point of use.

If you want people to execute a task daily or weekly, for example, you don’t want them to look up instructions every time. (Imagine having to read the directions on using your coffee maker and making coffee every time you used it.) If workers do a task monthly, they probably still want to learn it without having to refer to instructions, though it will take them longer to learn. Tasks done even less frequently benefit most from some sort of find/locate resource associated with them.

5) If you truly want workers to behave in a different way or demonstrate a skill or attitude consistently, microlearning can help you achieve your goal but won’t stand solo.

Right now, my company is working hard to develop people’s understanding of emotional intelligence and to build that skill within leaders. This involves a book club with readings, monthly conversations, and revisiting of goals each person set. But it’s not enough. People need daily reminders to change or build behaviors. This is where microlearning can be a sweet spot. For example, we could push out a daily (or weekly) micro-lesson or practice opportunity to support the larger learning and cultural effort.

How to Stay Grounded

L&D professionals have a responsibility to the businesses to be extremely clear on the possibilities as well as the constraints of the suddenly hot term “microlearning.” Remember, C-suite people will be intrigued by fads, trends, or techniques that dangle the promise of making their companies more profitable. On the surface, reducing the amount of time people need to spend developing skills, seems like a great thing. Less time to learn means more time to produce, right? And that should increase profits.

Also remind yourself that from the vantage point of the C-suite, the role of L&D is not to develop people. It is to make the business more profitable, to enable company growth, and to support its need to stay compliant with regulations. L&D accomplishes these goals by designing and implementing solutions, infrastructure, or processes that help people achieve a company’s strategic goals or needed operational results. Typically this requires people to have specific skills or knowledge. But it’s ultimately up to L&D to figure out how any training or learning initiative links to a company’s strategic or operational needs.

If you grow and support people with intention, the company will grow. So before you jump onto the microlearning bandwagon, identify what business results you hope to achieve and analyze how or if microlearning helps you achieve those results. If the rationale for adopting the microlearning trend is solely a cost-cutting one, be wary. Cost-cutting may produce a quick bump in profitability, but its effects tend to be short-lived. Growth in people requires long-term investment, focus, and time – not micro-investment.

Microlearning: What It Is and What It Isn’t

Earlier this year, we published the results from our 2017 Learning and Remembering Survey. In the survey, we asked respondents to tell us what learning trends or new training delivery methods they are most excited about for 2017. The number one answer? Microlearning. 18% of respondents said they’re excited about microlearning for the year ahead. The overall breakdown of trends cited lines up with the type of solutions we have been creating in recent months:

Learning Trends Chart

Microlearning can take many different shapes. Some use short videos. Others create short tutorials that are mobile-optimized. Many turn to bite-sized games.

With that being said, just because people are excited about microlearning, doesn’t mean they know the proper way to incorporate it into their training strategy. I hope this article will help you discover what microlearning is, what it’s not and how to effectively blend it into your 2017 strategies.

Small but mighty microlearning

There are lots of ways to describe microlearning. I think eLearning Heroes says it best when they compare it to one of my favorite things: food! The idea is simple. A large eLearning course is like an entire cake. It’s something you wouldn’t eat all by yourself and you have to give it plenty of time to digest.

Microlearning, on the other hand, is like a batch of mini-muffins: easy to eat in just a few bites. Likewise, microlearning delivers content to learners in small, bite-sized pieces. It allows learners to focus on a single objective for about 5-7 minutes at a time.

There are plenty of reasons why microlearning is a good training tool. Let’s take a look at a few.

Microlearning is a valuable reinforcement method.

The first word that comes to mind when I hear the word microlearning is reinforcement. What do you really think sales reps will remember from a 3-day product launch meeting if you don’t follow up after training? Microlearning allows you to reinforce the most important concepts and need-t0-know information after a training event without requiring a large time commitment from learners.

We designed Knowledge Guru’s new Drive app with this use case in mind. The app delivers customized daily mini-games to learners on their mobile devices. Each day of play takes only five minutes to complete.

Access our webinar recording on Reinforcement 101: How to Help Reps Say and Do the Right Thing to identify the best training reinforcement strategy for your organization.

Microlearning is useful if you want to space content out over time. 

The challenges and cost of not remembering are staggering. The good news is that proven strategies (like microlearning) exist that inhibit forgetting and enhance remembering. We recommend using a 10-minute microlearning snippet to introduce a concept, a live meeting to elaborate on it, and a reinforcement game offered later (such as Knowledge Guru) to provide additional repetitions. Also consider sending simple email messages or a link to a short video that reinforces, or reiterates a message.

Spacing is only one part of remembering. Repetition is the second part. Our brains constantly set priorities for us cognitively. The brain continually assesses what info and skills are essential to us and lets go of what is not. Frequent repetitions cue our brain that something is important and needs to be retained. Microlearning allows organizations to deliver these frequent repetitions to learners in small, easy-to-access chunks of content.

Busy employees need something quick and easy to access.

Let’s face it: the people you train are busy and likely feel they can’t commit much time or attention to training once they are out of the new hire phase. Sales reps are out in the field most of the day and have little time to sit down at a laptop. Call center reps work in high production environments where they’re on the phone all day with limited time for anything else. Most people simply don’t have time to take training all at once. But microlearning could be a good solution to help people fit learning into their busy schedules.

When microlearning is not so mighty

Microlearning may be an optimal solution in the situations mentioned above. And lots of organizations think learners need microlearning. When in reality, microlearning may not be the right solution for their employees at all.

Two years ago, BLP President, Sharon Boller, wrote an article for ATD on microlearning myths. Her assertions on microlearning still stand today.

Microlearning can’t help learners go from novice to expert. 

In order to sustain a successful product launch, you want your reps to know your product(s) inside and out. Sales reps need to confidently communicate the points of differentiation that drive the value of the product based on each customer’s needs.

When you need to help learners become experts, a microlearning module is not enough. It takes longer periods of time to develop more in-depth knowledge or advanced skills.

Microlearning is no replacement for performance support. 

Microlearning is great for spacing learning out over time into small chunks or reinforcing a larger training experience. But what about when learners simply need to look something up? This is where performance support comes in. For instance, sales reps might find it difficult to keep up with new product releases and need a way to easily reference them. Sharon suggests:

“In this scenario consider creating a Google-esque type of search tool rather than one-off micro-learning modules. You can house all those micro-modules within your Google-esque environment.”

Microlearning should include less content than a full-sized course.

This one should be obvious, right? If the content learners need to know barely fits in a one-hour eLearning course, you shouldn’t try to simply replace that course with a 5-minute microlearning module. You’ll have to either strip the content down to the essentials or break one longer course into several smaller micro-lessons. You might also use a microlearning solution to reinforce the key points from the course.

Is microlearning right for your organization?

When deciding how to deliver training, you want to make sure you understand exactly who your learners are and what they need. Our Training Needs Analysis worksheet will help you ask the right questions, zero in on the “need to have” information, and make a sound plan for identifying the right learning solution.