The Myth of Microlearning

The Myth of Micro-Learning

There’s a new buzz phrase going around town these days in the L&D and talent development communities: “microlearning.” An infographic on the modern learner, published by Bersin and Associates” in late 2014, seems to fuel this fire.

Meet the Modern Learner - Microlearning can help

The biggest take-away many are getting from this infographic is that today’s workers—the modern learners—have only 1% of their workweek to devote to professional development and learning. That equates to 24 minutes per week if you assume a 40-hour work week. Which is a measly 4.8 minutes per day to focus on learning.

The concern I have is that we make an assumption that we can or should winnow down all of our learning initiatives to fit within this 4.8 minutes per day (or 24 minutes per week).

Not All Training Fits the Microlearning Model

We can, however, handle reinforcement of training in 4.8 minutes a day. Learning science-based platforms such as Knowledge Guru, qStream, or Axonify can be very useful in delivering micro-reinforcement in this context. For additional ideas on how microlearning can be beneficial for training, check out this article.

Microlearning is not useful when people need to acquire/learn complex skills, processes, or behaviors. Imagine trying to learn any of these behaviors or skills in 4.8 minutes per day:

  • A musical instrument
  • Project management
  • Agile software development and processes
  • Instructional design
  • Any software tool
  • Teamwork skills
  • Sales
  • A product (e.g. launching a new one)

What our industry needs is better clarity on when we need to formally train people when we need to reinforce knowledge or skills people are building on their own, and when we simply need to keep key principles or practices front and center (e.g. safety and security practices).

The BLP Way

A few years ago, we opted to create a “learning lab” environment in our own organization. We knew we wanted a means of building technical and project management skills. It became apparent that if we wanted innovation to happen, we had to give it time to happen. This sparked the idea of “skill-builders,” which are formal side projects that employees can do on company time. This year, we formalized it to the point where an employee can allocate five full work days to their skill-builder.

Here are the criteria for doing a skill-builder:

  • The skill-builder needs to link tightly to a competency the company has agreed is important to us. (e.g. We use AfterEffects quite a bit in our work. So, if a graphic designer wants to learn AfterEffects, he or she can craft a skill-builder around it.)
  • BLP needs to make sure the employee has sufficient time to do it; ideally, they will be able to work in 1/2 – full-day “chunks” on the skill-builder as it is too hard to stop/start when you are in learning mode.
  • A formal document needs to be created that describes the project, what skills it will build, and what resources are required, and how it links to BLP business needs.

An Example of the BLP “Skill-Builder”

Here’s an example of what one team member, Jackie Crofts, recently did with her skill-builder: she produced a fabulous AfterEffects video that we will use as a “product tour” of Knowledge Guru. She had only base knowledge of AfterEffects when she started.  More critically, Jackie is a fabulous illustrator, but she had minimal skill in using stock imagery and in doing graphic design work. She is a pure artist, which is great when we are designing games; challenging when we need her to focus on marketing collateral.


Let’s not get so excited by this concept of “microlearning” that we fail to recognize when it is appropriate… and when it is absolutely not appropriate. If we had only allowed Jackie to spend 1% of her workweek building AfterEffects skill, she would never have built the skill she did. Also, note that we did not send Jackie to a formal AfterEffects training course. We provided her with access to tutorials and to a colleague with AfterEffects skills, but she was mostly self-directed with her skill-builder.

So, is microlearning the right answer for reinforcement? Absolutely. Will microlearning help when it comes to actual skill-building? Not really. People still need dedicated time to build their arsenal of knowledge and skill. However, not all of this time needs to be spent in formal training. It does need to be time they can devote to learning for more than 4.8 minutes per day or 24 minutes per week. The payoff to organizations who give employees this time will be huge in terms of the innovation and productivity gains over the long-term.

Have training needs of your own? Whether microlearning is the answer or not, you’ll need a plan. You can start with our Simple Template for Planning Your Training Program.

  • Devary Shmaya-Smart

    Thanks for this.

    What if the fundamental problem isn’t the number of hours or minutes devoted to learning, but today’s contrived learning scenarios? They are descendants of the industrial age and prussian education models, and reflect needs of factory owners seeking robotic labor in human form: managing instructor work load, training conformity in response to very narrow set of stimuli, and recall of isolated factual data. None of these outputs reflect the needs of the modern worker, student, or citizen. More importantly, the third output has been all but entirely offloaded to machines.

    When training or learning experiences are still driven by these, don’t we keep seeing learners devise ad-hoc impromptu learning exchanges with peers and external resources to achieve the objectives they know are the true agenda? Seems to me that micro-learning describes what learners have had to go out and invent for themselves already. I suspect formalizing micro-learning doesn’t run the risk of over-simplifying the complexity of modern skill sets, but rather of being co-opted by the mis-aligned, out-moded mechanics of traditional contrived learning offerings.

    To create effective INTENTIONAL micro-learning I offer that we should probably map it to the organic micro-learning people have been doing on their own, as the information and technology age unfolds. Social learning seems like a good place to begin looking for those natural patterns.

    That said, the opportunity to do a micro-sabbatical project at work is a great extension of the concept of micro-learning. wink.

    • Mark Sheppard

      An excellent and well thought out response here. Couldn’t have said it better.

  • Mary McGivern

    This is what I have been feeling about micro-learning as well. I also think social learning is a myth. Thank you for sharing.

    • Mike Amera

      So you are saying actually talking to someone means you do not learn, and that learning can only happen in a classroon environment?

      • Mary McGivern

        We all learn new things every day. I just would not create a learning plan around it. what I don’t think has been discussed enough is contextual learning. How do we get learners to learn so that it internalizes quicker.

  • Mark Sheppard

    Hi Sharon:

    While there is much I would like to say on this post, I will leave the bulk of it to those with more presence in the microlearning sphere. I’m generally happy with the posts you offer here, but I know we will never be in agreement on everything, so let’s use this as a springboard for more dialogue on this hot-button issue.

    I will say two things, however, the first is that the title of the post is somewhat disappointing because it doesn’t accurately reflect the substance of your argument. The second thing is directed to the commenter who “doesn’t believe in social learning”: if she has ever learned something from someone else (like a peer or a friend or anyone in a non-teacher role, that was social learning in action.

  • Chris Osborn

    Interesting post – I’ll grant you that. But micro-learning is no myth. The problems with the Bersin are simply too numerous to list, so I’ll simply state that any effort to formally categorize true workplace learning in today’s environment is a fool’s errand. I’d like to learn more about the “skill-builders” you describe, but I’d encourage you to carefully consider the research being produced that’s coming out of the field of neurosciences and the behavioral sciences that are scientifically validated. Some of the findings are very helpful and explain a lot of what does and does not work. One that that science proves does not work are week-long immersive “training” experiences. Short, single topic bursts of focused content, tied to the proper length of the human cognitive load works. That’s no myth. That’s science. That’s not just valid for reinforcement, either. I’d love a chance to sit and talk, because there is a lot to learn about what your organization does.

  • Mike Amera

    It is not that Micro learning is a myth, it is simply that people misunderstand the concept of it. I get calls everyday from people who are tasked with creating “micro learning” modules, who have no experience or knowledge in the science of learning and are loking for help. They believe it should be used to replace classroom training quickly.
    They think that a micro learning is just a 4 minute elearning module. As long as it is under 5 minutes then it must be a micro learning. People will treat a 4 minute elearning module the same as a 20 minute module. It still has to be put on an lms, log in, do it, do a test and evaluate. And this is micro learning, in their opinion.
    One person called me as he spent 6 months trying to create a micro learning project as he felt he had to figure out Captivate or Storyline etc, before he could create it. By the time he had the concept, the project was obsolete.
    Micro learning is becoming the silver bullet for thinking that people can learn quickly if the content is short.

  • Shivani Nalkar

    Wonderful article and insights!
    But, microlearning if applied effectively can also help you understand complex processes. I wrote something on similar lines recently, you can find it here –