Inspire Learners with Microlearning: Help Stressed, Unmotivated Employees

I’ve published two posts on microlearning in recent months. One was on this site; one was done for ATD. Both generated discussion with some folks debating my assertion that we need to be very cautious about leaping to it. I’m going to stand by my assertion. I think “micro-lessons” can be great for some things; I do not think they are the answer to most things. And for learners who are over-extended and not motivated to learn in the first place, they are not the answer at all.

Will Thalheimer, someone I respect tremendously in the arena of learning science research and applying research to practices, wrote an extensive comment to my ATD post. He also linked to a post by Alex Khurgin, CEO of Grovo, a SaaS company that produces lots of microlearning. Khurgin positions microlearning as good for 21st-century businesses. Khurgin’s blog is high-level and, in general, promotes microlearning as the solution to the crazy pace that exemplifies many of today’s organizations.

Here’s the thing. I feel like I am an example of the “C-suite” person so many say are the reason we need to shift to microlearning. I do not own a Fortune 500 company, but I am a business owner who has concerns about maximizing what my team can do. My company has been named as one of the top 25 fastest growing companies in Indiana… and making sure our team members continually learn and grow is a key reason why we’re on that list. Their skill and knowledge fuels company growth.

Why Companies *Think* Learners Need Microlearning

Microlearning for stressed learners

Within my company (and probably many others), these truths all affect my team’s ability to learn:

  1. We’re stressed. Life is stressful, not just work. We all have a bazillion things to do each day and many people who need things from us.
  2. We face multiple interruptions each day. If we don’t discipline ourselves to ignore email, disconnect from instant messaging, or mute our phones, we can be distracted every few minutes all day long every day.
  3. Time is limited. We never feel like we have enough time to get things done.
  4. We want to enjoy life. Most folks don’t want to work 60-hour weeks; we need for our work – and our learning – to happen within the sanity of a 40- to 45-hour work week. Sadly, we don’t all hit the goal of 45-hour maximums, which makes carving out time for learning a constant challenge if it is not prioritized.
  5. Maintaining focus is HARD. New technologies and ideas are like squirrels, tempting us to run off in new directions all the time. We see these squirrels when we consume content on social media – checking out links sent via tweets, perusing Zite, monitoring our Feed.ly accounts. We can get highly distracted just trying to “keep up.”

Microlearning is identified as the answer to items 2, 3, and 5 from that list, but I do not believe it is truly “the” answer to any of them. It sounds great on the surface, but the root of the problem goes deeper.

Motivate. Focus. Repeat.

So what is the answer? I think these things are…

  1. Make sure motivation exists. Putting people who have zero desire to be learning into a learning situation is a recipe for flushing money down the drain. Motivation trumps almost everything else. Really great instructional designers can help with motivation, but only to a point. People need to perceive that learning the new skill matters to them in a significant way.
  2. Make sure focused time is available. Get clear on company priorities and realize you can only execute on one priority at a time. Without time to focus, people cannot learn. Don’t think you can squeeze a learning experience into five minutes per day.
  3. Repeat to remember. Assume that people will need to have multiple repetitions to truly learn something. Repetition can be effective in short, continuous bursts… but I’ll save that discussion for another blog post.
  4. Make sure there are immediate opportunities to use what’s being learned. Without the immediate opportunity to apply, learning gets lost. This would be a second way you can flush money down a drain.
  5. Make sure someone else – besides the learner – cares about what someone is learning. Someone else, either a manager or co-worker, needs to inquire about what’s being learned. If people never get to talk about or reflect on what they are learning, the learning will be extremely limited and difficult for the person to apply it.

Example

Right now, I am taking a 5-session MOOC (massive open online course) called Smart Growth for Private Businesses. It includes about 5.5 hours of lectures, several quizzes, and four case studies that are each 12-15 pages in length. I started the class about three weeks ago; I’m now three-fourths of the way through it and should have it completed in the next week or so. The lectures are organized into relatively small chunks, which are interspersed with 2-minute quizzes. The first sessions lectures are organized into “bites” of varying lengths that range in length from 2 minutes to 26 minutes. To date, I’ve invested several hours and I think every hour has been hugely valuable.

My completion of this course hits the five ingredients I feel are necessary for learning:

  1. I’m motivated. My company is growing extremely fast; we want to control our growth to maximize the health of our company and its team members. We’re also getting ready to start another strategic planning cycle and I will use the info from the course as we execute this process.
  2. I’m finding time to focus because focus matters. I’ve clarified my priorities… and taking this course is one of those priorities.
  3. I am reviewing the content with myself and others. I have taken notes, I’ve gone back and reviewed sections, etc. I’m repeating to remember… even using the white boards on my walls to write down key concepts I want to retain.
  4. I already mentioned strategic planning we’re preparing to do. I have an immediate need for the content.
  5. Two others in the company are also taking the course. Having someone to talk to is huge in retaining the information and learning from it.

So… that’s not microlearning as I’ve seen it defined. But I can tell you I am getting excellent results, and I absolutely do not believe I would be getting excellent results if this content was of low or even medium value to me and delivered in small, five-minute chunks each day.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts: can microlearning truly help an employee who is stressed and lacks motivation learn?


Want to revamp your training? Plan out more engaging solutions and curriculums with our Simple Template for Planning Your Training Program.

  • Sharon

    Excellent perspective. I liked your example. I guess part of the debate could be what true micro-learning is what it is not. I want to add my perspective from research that micro-learning sessions are highly targeted, focused, 4 to 7 minutes in length and most importantly (very few mention this) one micro-learning session per learning outcome.

    I saw some research studies reporting micro-learning during my doctorate study. Though several examples in educational settings, but I believe those are more of ‘chunked sessions’ than truly micro-learning sessions. Usually MOOC courses combine several learning outcomes in one chunked session. They probably define length and scope of each chunked session based on topics and not per se based on learning outcomes. I could imagine a 5 days online course could easily have 40 to 50 learning outcomes. Managing, sequencing and delivering that many ‘chunks’ may not be effective for all the learners.

    Educational courses probably would need different approach to use micro-learning in true sense (one chunked session per learning outcome).

    Raman K. Attri

    Researcher: Speed to Proficiency Through Training and Learning
    My blog – Personal Resonance©: Accelerating Time-to-Expertise
    http://www.personal-resonance.com