Last reviewed 16 June 2020

In this article, Judith Christian-Carter, independent learning consultant takes another look at microlearning to see if it does have a useful role to play in workplace learning today.

Having disabused many L&D professionals of some long-standing learning fads, such as learning styles, neuro-linguistic programing, Myers-Briggs, to name but a few, has microlearning now taken their place? Judging by the number of articles written on the subject, microlearning is frequently being lauded as the solution to all workplace learning needs.

It seems as if a day doesn’t go by without someone somewhere writing about microlearning. It would also be true to say that to date Learning and Development (L&D) professionals fall into one of two camps when the subject of microlearning is discussed; they are either for it or against it. However, in the course of the last few years, microlearning has been the subject of some empirical research. Therefore, the time has come to look at what these articles are claiming and to align these claims with what research says about microlearning. This is not to say that microlearning has no place, or that it is bad or wrong, but to ascertain where it does have value and can make a difference.

What is microlearning?

Definitions are useful not only to help in understanding a concept but also to provide insight into the application of the concept. Here are three definitions from well-known L&D professionals which offer both of the above.

  1. “Learning from content accessed in short bursts, content which is relevant to the individual, and repeated over time to ensure retention and build conceptual understanding.” (Donald Taylor, 2017).

  2. “Small but complete learning experiences.” (Clark Quinn, 2015).

  3. “Relatively short engagements in learning-related activities — that may provide any combination of content presentation, review, practice, reflection, behavioral prompting, performance support, goal reminding, persuasive messaging, task assignments, social interaction, diagnosis, coaching, management interaction, or other learning-related methodologies.” (Will Thalheimer, 2017).

So, are short videos microlearning? Not according to the above definitions because content per se doesn’t necessarily result in learning. The key word in all three of the above definitions is “learning”, eg complete learning experiences, retention and understanding, microlearning is primarily about learning and not content.

Current research-based thinking

Most L&D professionals know that a “one-size-fits-all” approach does not address people’s learning needs. If anything, such an approach fits very few people, which is why over the years L&D has gained a poor reputation in many organisations. L&D professionals must understand people’s needs and what they specifically need to be able to do, and this applies to microlearning as well.

In the same way that “blended learning” was not new when the term first came into use, neither is microlearning new. Microlearning is actually a repackaging of previous learning ideas. Learning designers often talk about “chunking”, “learning nuggets” and “learning objects”. Chunking involves organising large blocks of content into smaller, logical segments. Cognitive science research shows that chunking can improve focus, reduce the potential for cognitive overload and make things easier to remember, plus people with little knowledge and skill of a topic benefit more from smaller chunks than those with more knowledge and skill. Thus, there is some degree of similarity between chunking and microlearning, except for one, very important point.

When chunking is done well it also shows the organisation of the topic, which helps mental processes and for usable knowledge to be built. By showing the organisation of a topic this helps people to see its scope and the connections between different parts. If the chunks are disconnected, and microlearning is often guilty in this regard, then people may struggle to understand a topic and how the various parts of it connect. Microlearning must include the right learning elements so, while smaller in size, each small learning chunk must include critical learning elements such as practice, feedback and reflection.

Finally, while technology can facilitate microlearning, the latter is not mostly about the former, despite what some may claim. Technology provides potential delivery methods for microlearning, but microlearning can work without technologies. The focus must always be on providing a complete experience, building understanding and the other learning elements that Thalheimer lists.

Effective microlearning

For microlearning to be effective the following must be ensured:

  • the provision of adequate practice to improve understanding and the ability to apply that understanding

  • providing feedback to correct any misunderstandings and to improve the ability to apply that understanding

  • insisting on specific learning outcomes by which to evaluate the effectiveness of the microlearning, as just counting the number of views is not sufficient in this regard.

While microlearning can be an antidote to the abundance and complexity of information people experience currently, if it is unorganised it can actually make the situation worse, due to the lack of deep learning. To achieve deep learning, people need to be able to organise accurately what they are learning with what they know already. It is, therefore, important to keep in mind at all times that people who lack the necessary knowledge or skills to make decisions or perform a task, often struggle with new language/terms, procedures and decision points. Research shows that these people tend to spend effort trying out approaches and seeing what works. Whereas people with more knowledge or skills use what they already know and can do to select approaches they think have a better chance of working.

Is microlearning useful?

The short answer is “Yes”. However, it must be used only where appropriate and it must be designed well, based on the following 10 critical design characteristics.

  1. Aligned with the desired organisational objectives.

  2. Based on a single, clear performance-based objective and/or knowledge objective.

  3. Short and focused.

  4. Creative, intriguing, inspirational.

  5. Delivered in a directed or just-in-time approach.

  6. Inherent value is clear to the learner.

  7. Tied to an overall learning performance strategy and not as a bunch of disparate objects flooding an already crowded learning space.

  8. Realistic and relevant.

  9. Appropriate to the objective and intended performance.

  10. Easily accessible — learners should not have to search for the solution.

Some successful uses of microlearning when based on the above design characteristics have been for:

  • adaptive learning, where people can find and organise the chunks they need to meet personalised learning needs

  • course augmentation, where it can be used shortly after a course or during a course to reinforce and deepen learning

  • remembering, in order to support remembering and the ability to apply learning through the use of spacing and practice elements

  • performance support, where information is supplied when needed to perform tasks, to support tasks or behaviours, as well as to learn from others.

Microlearning has a place

So, microlearning isn’t bad or wrong, and neither is it the total learning answer. Also, it cannot do all the (often irrational) things that people say it can do. However, it does make sense to include it as part of an organisation’s learning strategy. Above all, microlearning should be used where it fits and designed for specific workplace learning needs.

“Microlearning is not the solution to all workplace learning needs.” (Professor Christian Glahn, 2017). In fact microlearning cannot be the solution to even most workplace learning needs, simply because nothing is the solution to all workplace learning needs!