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?
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?…
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
by Tess Robinson, Director, LAS
I am trying to teach myself to paint with acrylics at the moment. I have a definite idea in my head of what my paintings should look like, but with no painting experience, they don’t exactly come out like that when translated to canvas. It’s very frustrating!
As with many things, I turned to You Tube for help and found the rather wonderful Will Kemp from Will Kemp Art School. His tips have really helped me improve, although I still have a very long way to go before we’ll be hanging any of my creations on the wall. Whilst going through the tutorials, it got me thinking about how some artistic techniques can be equally applied to designing learning in order to help us see creative solutions and formulate a ‘well-composed’ intervention.
Will advises that to improve your drawing – a key pre-requisite of painting – you should narrow your eyes and really look at areas of light and shade. You need to temporarily hold off judgement and try not to second guess what you think the thing should look like, as oppose to what it actually looks like. This a great metaphorical technique for the research phase of any digital learning project. In getting to know your audience and accurately assessing the business need, you really need to be able to put your own assumptions and prejudices to one side and really look at the shape of what is there.
This suspension of judgement is prevalent in other arts as well and is often seen as vital to the creative process. With David Bowie’s recent death, much has been written about creativity in music. In an interview with Livewire in 2002, Bowie said:
‘I try to put judgement on hold for as long as possible. Then, when I need to listen to something critically, I put myself in a place that has nothing to do with the industrialized process we’re going through, being in a studio and all that. I’ll pretend that I’m on a ship, say, and I’m looking out to sea and there’s a distant fog on the horizon. I will listen to the piece of music from that place and see what it does to me. I use those kind of tricks all the time. It amazes me sometimes that even intelligent people will analyze a situation or make a judgement after only recognizing the standard or traditional structure of a piece. They will then confront the whole thing with a standard reaction and a standard reaction will not allow for deviancies. It’s the kiss of death in creating something’.
I read that and thought, wow, we do that. When we design learning we often take time out for a walk, a quick bike ride or a spot of meditation. Removing ourselves from the task in hand, allows fresh ideas to bubble to the fore and helps us to gain other perspectives – not dissimilar to Bowie’s method.
In researching creativity in the arts further, to see if there was anything else we, as learning designers, could learn from it, I stumbled across this article on the Guardian website from 2012. They asked a number of artists from a range of disciplines how they find creative inspiration. The one that resonated most for me in terms of its application to learning design was from Sunand Prasad, a renowed architect. He said:
- Keep asking: “What is really going on here?” – like a detective.
- Immerse yourself in the worlds of the people who will use and encounter the building or place.
- Forget the building for a while. Focus totally on what people will be doing in the spaces and places you are designing – next year, in five years, in 20.
- Ask off-piste questions. What if this library were a garden? If this facade could speak, would it be cooing, swearing, silent, erudite?
- Gather inquisitive and reflective people around you. The rapid bouncing back and forth of an idea can generate compelling concepts at amazing speed.
- Once there’s an idea, turn it upside down and take it seriously for a moment – even if it seems silly.
- We all have a sense of the sublime – use it to test your propositions as rigorously as logic and functionality.
If you replace the building references with learning ones, everything above can be equally applied to learning design. It seems that artistic creativity and creativity in terms of learning design are not so far removed.
As for me and my painting, well, as Picasso said ‘I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it’. One day, I will have something wall-worthy!
by Tess Robinson, Director, LAS
Our MD recently won an Outstanding Contribution award and was named as one of the Top 10 eLearning Movers and Shakers in the UK for 2016. The award was given partly because of all the voluntary work he has done to support the elearning industry but also because he’s seen as somewhat of a thought-leader in digital learning. Here’s what I have learnt from him:
- Listen (and hear the things that people don’t say)
Getting to the crux of a customer’s business problem often means not taking things at face value. If you’re really going to create digital learning that really makes an impact and measurably improves the performance of the business, you need to be able to accurately define what it is that the customer wants to change. Identifying the business goal is a key tenet of action mapping – a method that is ingrained in most of the learning we produce.
- Ask the right questions and ask lots of them
You can never ask enough questions, particularly at the outset of a project. Really understanding the customer is vital to being able to come up with the right solution. We have a standard list of questions that we always ask and then many, many more that will come up in the course of the research phase.
- Don’t be afraid to be outlandish
Fighting zombies or taking off in rockets to dance with aliens might not be the right learning solutions for everyone, but don’t be afraid to put wild ideas out there. They may not be what you end up with in terms of the solution, but thinking as widely as possible will inevitably lead you to be more creative and help you to find the most memorable solution for your audience.
- The creative process is collaborative and social – not just an individual thing
You can certainly be a creative, ‘ideas’ person as an individual – someone who inspires – but the true power of the creative process comes from the team, including users, customer and other stakeholders as well as the vendor team, and from ensuring that all the elements of a solution fit together and work. Kaspar Tang Vangkilde wrote an interesting theses on the social process of creativity at Hugo Boss, which backs up the idea that creativity is a team effort.
- Put yourself out there
Share stuff, learn from others, bounce ideas off people. Take an active part in the elearning community and aim to really raise the bar – rewarding in so many ways.
- Make time for mindfulness
OK, so it’s a bit of a trendy thing at the moment, but it’s not just a load of ‘hippy crap’. Various studies, including those done by Harvard and University of California, have found that meditation enhances creativity and improves focus. Being in a relaxed state of mind encourages divergent thinking and makes space for those ‘eureka’ moments. Working life can be very hectic. Taking time out to do nothing – just 20 minutes every other day will do – from being bombarded by texts, emails, phone calls, Skype messages and so on has been proved to have real results.
By Tess Robinson, Director, LAS
A few weeks ago I attended a fabulous workshop by Sally Spinks from Ideo. If you haven’t heard of them before, they are a design consultancy headquartered in California but with offices throughout the world. They use the design thinking methodology to design products, services, environments, and digital experiences. We have a bit of an organisational crush on them if we’re honest.
Here are my top 10 takeaways:
- Start with the human need – get into your learner’s space, put yourself in their shoes. Don’t just look at what they say and think but also what they do and feel, as these things can be quite different.
- Look outside – find analogous situations to inspire solutions. If you’re looking to get learners to share, think of situations where sharing happens well, for example a nursery or a group counselling meeting. Approaches from these do not have to be exactly replicated but you may find that there is some concept or methodology that can be translated to your project.
- Hook into what people are already doing – there may not always be a need to reinvent the wheel, it may be that small adaptations are all that’s needed to produce the desired behaviours.
- Prototype – this one is really important. Prototype early and at low cost to mitigate risk and to build your business case.
- Talk to your people as humans. Give people permission to be themselves, rather than corporate robots. You will be rewarded for it.
- Design not for people but with them. Engage your learners in innovation and they will become supporters.
- Look for patterns in behaviour or actions that will help you gain insights and spot opportunities.
- Brainstorming is a great tool but certain rules must apply – defer judgement, encourage wild ideas, build on the ideas of others but always stay focussed on the topic.
- Celebrate failure. As my husband said to my little boy when he was upset by making a mistake in his homework – ‘if everyone gave up when they failed, we would all still be living in caves’. Don’t be afraid to get things wrong as that is how we progress. Failure should be allowed and even encouraged.
- Evolution becomes inevitable when you use a design thinking approach.
The LAS blog is now available at www.las-hq.com/blog
by Tess Robinson, Director, LAS
The latest Towards Maturity benchmark report makes rather depressing reading. Despite being consistently able to show that those organisations who embrace learning technologies perform better, be it through increasing revenue, improving productivity or job performance, the overall situation remains relatively static in terms of budget committed to digital learning or the range of technology used.
So how can you convince your organisation that investing digital learning is a good thing?
- Embed the learning in your wider organisational strategy. What is the business problem you are trying to solve and what effect will this have on your organisation’s mission as a whole? Learning should not take place in a silo, it should be clearly linked to the organisation’s success.
- Measure the potential impact of the learning – this might be in terms of money saved if you were to do the training face-to-face, performance improvements, strengthening of in-house skills and reduction of reliance on external consultants, increases in sales – choose whatever measures are relevant to your organisation’s strategy as a whole.
- Don’t allow your organisation to stick to an outdated view of elearning. Make sure you are well-versed in the latest thinking – join a professional association (eLearning Network, ATD etc..), visit industry conferences and exhibitions, subscribe to the blogs of those who are at the fore-front of digital learning thinking, attend webinars (LSG ones are great) or join LinkedIn groups. Learning from each other and sharing best practice is key to moving digital learning on from dull click-next-to-continue stuff to really impactful, engaging interventions.
- Today’s technology makes digital learning more agile, relevant and immediate than ever before. With huge improvements in mobile technology, job aids can be delivered into your learner’s pockets. Social and collaborative learning is also attracting a lot of interest, if not yet being actually translated much into the work environment. In our private lives we learn socially – through Facebook, YouTube, TripAdvisor etc… If your organisation is reluctant to try these new things – pilot them, produce prototypes – allow them to see and experience the benefits before committing funding.
- If cost is an issue, often your existing technology can be adapted to accommodate new ways of learning. Always start with what you already have – it may surprise you.
- Check out award winners’ projects for inspiration and ammunition, they are often profiled online following awards ceremonies. Awards criteria usually stipulate that a project must show considerable impact – this can be in a number of ways, not just financial. If you can go to your organisation with concrete proof of the way digital learning can have a substantially positive effect on overall business performance, that’s a very powerful argument.
This blog is now also available at www.las-hq.com/blog
As LAS celebrate 10 years in business I find myself thinking back to what has changed over that time, what hasn’t, and what the future may hold. When I started LearningAge Solutions, it was as a jobbing contractor, working for a number of elearning development houses. Over time I started building content myself and soon needed to hire another developer. Now we have a globe-spanning team of about 20 people, a pretty stellar customer list and a good few awards under our belt.
So what’s changed?
- Learning has gone mobile. Increasingly users and customers expect the content we produce to work cross-device.
- Flash is dead. Back when we could author in Adobe Flash it was possible to create all kinds of cool interactive content. As long as the user had the Flash player, the content would work. Now HTML5 is the preferred form, however, it’s a step backwards in terms of what we can easily create.
- Learning has become playful. As the gamers of my generation have moved into positions of influence, more game-like learning experiences are becoming accepted. We even have a new word ‘gamification’ – like it or loathe it; it’s this season’s buzzword (see below).
- Learning is social. Because of the way we use social networks in our home lives, there is an increasing expectation that learning should be collaborative and social too. The trouble is, often organisations don’t have the best tools in place, or if they do, they’re not being well used.
- Learning experiences have gotten shorter. Partly in response to mobile learning and partly because of the pace of change; learning interventions are now much more bite-sized, often down to five minutes or less.
What’s the same?
- Our brains and how we form memories. The underlying structure of our brain is the same and it’s still just as hard to get anyone to remember anything. At least now a few more people are aware of this fact.
- We still love our fads and buzzwords. It was ‘social’ a couple of years ago, it’s ‘gamification’ today. The buzzwords come and go, but our appetite for the ‘next big thing’ that will solve all our problems doesn’t wane.
- Today for many people the course still is king. These tend to be those who have come from a traditional training background and who struggle to break free from the paradigm of ‘courses’.
- We still love video. Because of increasing access speeds video is very popular, but then again – it always was – we can just consume it more easily.
- The new Tin Can standards have started to become more widely adopted. This in combination with social learning can start to generate ‘big data’. Once we have a lot of data to play with we can start doing clever things with recommendations, like modifying learning paths and providing performance support.
- Collective intelligence is the natural step after social learning. Now that more work and more learning is done socially the logical next step is to start harnessing the collective intelligence within organisations for specific business purposes. Innovation or problem-solving for example.
- Entertainment and then learning will go immersive. The new batch of virtual reality headsets become available very soon. 360-degree camera rigs already exist. You can turn your phone into a VR headset with a bit of folded cardboard and an app. I see immersive films being the next big thing in entertainment and I hope it makes it as far as learning too.
- Badges will become the new form of certification. With LinkedIn getting on board with Open Badges and huge amounts of content being made available online for little or no cost, badges will become widely accepted as a form of accreditation.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that the job is still varied, diverse and challenging and that keeps it interesting. Technology is starting to take account of human behaviour and this enhances communications, ways of working and how we access learning. There is an explosion in tools, technologies and approaches to better working and forward-thinking organisations still need help negotiating and making the best creative use of them. That’s what we plan to spend the next 10 years and beyond doing.
The LAS blog is now also available at www.las-hq.com/blog