Microlearning: The Misunderstood Buzzword

Microlearning Misunderstood

In case you’ve been under a rock the last year, Microlearning is THE new buzzword for training.

Tony Bingham stood on the stage at ATD ICE 2017 and announced that we, as learning professionals and as an industry, best get off our collectives butts and get onboard.

He gets a high-five from me.

However, here’s the thing. Microlearning is NOT a new term. It’s just new to the buzzword vernacular. Microlearning has been around for as long as people have been creating work aids to put toner in copy machines. Therein lies a key misunderstanding. That microlearning is some newfangled learning process. One that requires us to belly up to the technology bar and order up the new and sparkly methodology of the moment. Microlearning being new, is not accurate, nor is it accurate to state that technology must be incorporated. So, what is microlearning?

Every day we encounter microlearning activities. Here are a few:

  • The wizard that takes you through setting up a new app on your phone.
  • The flashcards your child uses to help with the next spelling bee.
  • The infographic you receive from “Eat This, Not That” shows you what happens to the body when you drink soda.
  • Those wonderful “Tasty” ™ videos from BuzzFeed, in 90 seconds, learn how to bake up a Banana Bread Ice Cream cake.

Microlearning and the “mini-course” have been making waves in the marketing space for a few years now. Entrepreneurs selling courses on everything from knitting to moving making have figured out how to use microlearning to their advantage. Meanwhile, we are still trying to figure out how to incorporate short videos and “mini-courses” into our overall learning strategies. *sigh*Microlearning Misunderstood

Potato, Potahto

It’s important to note there are people blasting the term “microlearning.” They state: “Do we really ‘Micro Learn‘ anyone”? A valid point, I suppose. Although, I’m not here to judge the naming of the term (heck, we can’t even decide how to spell it – hyphenated, nonhyphenated…UGH). Call it what you like, “micro-training,” “micro-content,” or “micro-activities.” Let’s stop debating what to call things and get on with it.

This is why I’m here today – let’s clear up a few areas where microlearning is misunderstood and possibly give you a better understanding of its use.

Microlearning is chunked content. 

This is the biggest misunderstood element of microlearning. Chucked content is chunked content. When referring to chunked content, it is to mean – one long program/course/video broken into bite-sized pieces, primarily to help with cognitive load.  Each content piece is connected to the other and, therefore, acted on in a linear fashion and has a “to be continued” element to it. With chunked content, you have to participate in part one in order to grasp the knowledge being shared in part two.

This is exactly why microlearning is not chunked content. Microlearning is designed for support and training in the moment. It’s “micro-content” used in the context of the need. Need a refresher on how to conduct the first phase of a performance review? Go here, watch this, and 5 minutes later, you are on your way! Need help on how to enter a new lead into salesforce.com? Pull out the job aid (that perhaps has a cool Aurasma link embedded in it), review and off you go.

MIcrolearing, at its core, is stand-alone, performance-support content. Microlearning helps people do the job when they NEED to do the job.

Microlearning must be a video and less than 3 minutes

Goodness, how we love to generalize things to make them fit into a preconceived notion of application. First, microlearning is not just videos. Secondly, even if it is a video, it doesn’t have to be capped at 3 minutes or even 5 minutes.

Any microlearning element needs to be right-sized for the problem it is solving. Now, that being said, if you find yourself drifting into the 15-minute mark – you are not creating a microlearning video. You are simply creating a video. It may the best damn video EVER, but it’s just a training video, so don’t label it as micro. Wistia conducted some very interesting research on ideal video length.  In short, we lose people at the 2-minute mark, and again at the 6-minute mark, you could go up to 12 minutes if the content is very compelling and super relevant.

Helpful Guidelines for Microlearning Development

I’m not going to get my feathers ruffled if you choose to call microlearning “mini-courses,” “micro-activities,” or some other such name. However, what is important is knowing we are on the right path. First and foremost, there is no place for bloated content in microlearning land! Developing microlearning is an exercise in how to take a scalpel to your content.

Here are six microlearning markers that will help you guide development.

  1. It shouldn’t take months to create. Time is of the essence. Microlearning primarily is for just-in-time, not just-in-case
  2. It shouldn’t take a long time to consume. View and go.
  3. One idea, one concept. No exceptions.
  4. Immediately applicable. Hugely relevant.
  5. Device agnostic. The content should be able to reach across mobile, desktop, tablets, and other digital media.
  6. ACCESSIBLE!  Microlearning content cannot and should not be buried within your LMS system ten clicks in. If you want people to use it, people need to be able to find it. In real life, we expect to be able to Google something and find a solution within seconds. The expectation is no different when on the job.

To wrap this up…

Your microlearning creation will need to address people’s desire to learn at any time in any place, placing people in control of their learning destiny. Microlearning is simple, short, and engaging. This is not to say we are ‘dumbing down” learning for the sake of being short or narrow-focused. Quite the opposite. When appropriately applied, microlearning can allow for deeper encoding, reflection, and practice retrieval – all necessary for the successful exchange of knowledge and learning application.

While microlearning may not fit all your needs, it can help you to bridge a skill and knowledge gap in the short term. Helping the people and the business reach a target without wasting a lot of time and money on solutions that may or may not lead to success.

What are your thoughts about microlearning? I’d love to hear about successful examples of microlearning have you seen recently. 

Microlearning Misundersood
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Shannon Tipton

Shannon Tipton

As Owner of Learning Rebels, Shannon Tipton is a skilled learning strategist, content developer and International speaker. Shannon has over 20 years of leadership experience developing successful learning strategies and infrastructures for training departments within organizations in North America, Europe and Korea.

Shannon works with people and organizations to develop learning solutions that brings actual business results. Recognized as bringing real-world expertise into the learning field, Shannon integrates technologies and social learning tools to strengthen workplace alignment, enhance collaboration and increase learning connectivity.

As author of “Disruptive Learning” Shannon frequently speaking at conferences across North America and Europe and ranks as one of the top 100 L&D influencers on Twitter (@stipton).

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