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Microlearning – what the devil is it and 5 things it’s good for

March 31, 2016

The limitations of human memory are an eternal conundrum for learning designers – how exactly do you create meaningful learning experiences for learners who have a shorter attention span than a goldfish? Or who are only able to retain 7 items in their short term memory1? Perhaps microlearning is the answer?Goldfish

There are certainly a wide variety of definitions of microlearning. I went to a talk on the subject at a conference recently, where the learning interventions they were discussing were up to an hour long(!) – not quite my definition of micro.

So what does microlearning look like in our world? Microlearning is short, bite-sized chunks of learning tightly focussed on essential skills or knowledge. These might be in the form of videos, blogs, games quizzes or even simulations. More often than not, they’ll be delivered to a mobile phone. With 75% of adults in the UK owning a smartphone, the majority of learners have the ability to access learning in their pockets whenever and wherever they need it.

So what is it good for?…

  1. Performance support

Microlearning was made for performance support. We already know that we humans struggle to retain a lot of information – having concise help available at the point of need makes a lot of sense.

  1. Breaking larger learning objectives down into manageable chunks

The accusation of the learning being reactive, rather than proactive is often levelled at microlearning. In terms of longer-term behaviour change, microlearning can have a role to play. Just because the learning is organised into small chunks doesn’t mean that they cannot serve a larger learning objective. Resources can be tagged and organised into learning tracks which allow the learner to gradually build up skills. Learners can also skip content that they already know. Breaking the learning down in this way makes it more convenient for learners to access it on-the-go at their own convenience.

  1. Agility

Because microlearning is, by definition small. It’s quick and cost-effective to produce. This enables the business to be very agile in learning delivery and to respond to rapidly changing business environments effectively.

  1. Spaced repetition

Learners can be sent notifications to go back and repeat chunks of learning. As they’re short and focussed, learners know that this won’t take up much of their time, so may be more willing to access the learning in a spare moment.

  1. Gamification

Game mechanics can be incorporated very effectively into microlearning, particularly in terms of levelling up, gaining badges, encouraging daily use or competing against other learners. Just like those apps that kids love that tell them to feed their dragons every day to get coins to buy a really cool exclusive dragon, it’s possible to make those chunks fun and addictive.

In our experience, at the moment, microlearning is rarely the answer on its own. It tends to be most effective when used in a blend, as a reinforcement or performance support tool, with other more in-depth forms of learning. Every project is different though, and it’s important not to discount it as effective in its own right.  Constant improvements in personal technology mean that increasingly sophisticated learning experiences can be delivered in this way, allowing the line between work and learning to further blur. We haven’t seen the pinnacle of microlearning yet.

 

1Miller, G. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The psychological review, 63, 81-97.

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