Micro-learning Under the Microscope

dreamstime_xs_47119176This is the time of year when we’re often asked to make predictions about learning trends in the forthcoming year.  I’m sure that one of the concepts we’re going to hear a lot more about is micro-learning.  I’m also sure that the more sceptical in the profession are already raising their eyebrows and muttering “not another buzzword”.  And to a degree, I can understand that.  Firstly, I think we’ve long strived to make learning as short and as punchy as possible.  I certainly began this crusade some seven years ago.  So why are we now trying to give it its own label?  And secondly, over the last few months, one or two training providers have clearing used their marketing communications to create “noise” about micro-learning that is all about describing their own solution.  But is it right that a vendor’s solution defines the approach?

So in this posting – where I will certainly be raising lots of questions and may not have all the answers at the moment – I will be asking:

  1. What is micro-learning?
  2. What does it look like?
  3. Where does it fit in our learning ecosystem?
  4. What issues does it raise?
What is micro-learning?

I’ve said before that mobile learning is not just an e-learning course on a smaller device and similarly, I believe that micro-learning isn’t just about taking a longer course and breaking it down into smaller chunks, although that is clearly a possible starting point.  As we’ll see later in my deliberations, we have to still make sure that each module can work well on its own and also when “recompiled” with others.

For me, micro-learning appears to be something that lies between a piece of learning and a piece of performance support.  Straightforward enough to deliver a concise nugget of learning, but focused enough to provide an immediate actionable result for the learner.

And how “micro” should micro-learning be?  What is the “optimal learning time” for a micro-learning object?  Simply breaking a longer course into its chapters might still leave modules of between 10 and 15 minutes in length.  That’s probably not really “micro” enough.  So we need to breakdown the content even further.  But if a piece of content is too short, does it cease to be as useful?  Does the effort in locating it in the first place ultimately prove worthwhile (something I’ll address later)?

In a previous posting, I also introduced the notion of “surface” learners, those who just need a basic high level awareness.  Micro-learning is definitely something for this audience to consume.

What does micro-learning look like?

Without a doubt, video-based learning is a primary micro-learning format.  The video content vendors have been some of the first to align their portfolios to micro-learning.  YouTube remains the largest source of micro-learning on the planet.  Explainer videos of up to three minutes in duration are providing increasingly popular and are some of the most flexible resources you can deploy online or via a mobile device.

Similarly, audio is a good micro-learning format.  I think it is time to resurrect the use of podcasting and I still love the concept of “coffee-casts” – a three to five minute podcast designed to accompany your favourite brew.

Executive book summaries are another great micro-learning resource.  Few of us have time to read the latest business books, but knowing the basics is enough for many of us to feel informed.  Many of these are now also available as podcasts too.  As well as acquiring these from vendors, we should also think about précising our own longer-form materials.

I’ve started to use mini-games for learning and this is a format that encourages short bursts of very interactive learning.  They also play out well on mobile devices.

Finally, what about a “pure learning” micro-learning course?  For starters, we need to look at how well existing instructional design approaches work for micro-learning, where the goal is for the learner to be in and out of the content as quickly as possible.  We still have much work to do in this area, but my initial thoughts are that we need to come up with a structure that allows for:

  • The “learning hook”/introduction
  • The context of this particular micro-learning object
  • Its relation to other micro-learning content
  • The main content explainer
  • A knowledge checker
  • A summary
  • Some suggested next steps

It’s quite feasible to pack all this into an explainer video, but how do we cover this all in a mini e-learning module…and keep it “mini”?

Where does micro-learning fit into our learning ecosystem?

I already view micro-learning as synonymous with mobile learning.  Most micro-learning formats are well-suited to deployment via a mobile device and the mobile experience is one that most favours short pieces of content which are available at the point of need, so supporting the performance support dimension I mentioned earlier.  I’ve also experienced how it’s relatively easier and quicker to access micro-learning on a mobile device, that trying to access it via your typical LMS.  Perhaps the LMS will remain best suited to deploying full e-learning content, but mobiles will be where we find micro-learning.

I’ve already touched on performance support and so will just say that we should look at how we can create more engaging performance support type content through the use of micro-learning.

Another trend we will continue to see evolve concerns the personalisation of learning.  Up to now, if the bit of learning I needed was buried deep in a longer course I would either never know it was there – typically we’re not too hot on categorising and tagging content in our LMSs, or even actually knowing what a course really contains – or I would get frustrated trying to find it, or I’d find I had to in fact study more of that course just to make the bit I needed make more sense.  By breaking down content into smaller self-contained chunks – and organising them well – I should be better able to create my own personalised learning pathway.

Micro-learning will also underpin any strategy surrounding user-generated content.  We really shouldn’t expect busy subject matter experts – or those with something to share – to have the time or skills to create a full-blown learning experience.  However, it’s not too difficult for them to pull together a short piece of content that gets straight to the point and is written for peer-consumption.

What issues does micro-learning raise?

I’ve already started to allude to some of these, but there are a few issues that cause me to pause, reflect and hold off galloping off to solve organisations’ problems with micro-learning.

How do we distil our content into shorter nuggets of learning?  If we are too gung-ho or lazy, will we really create assets that work for people?  We need to better understand the concept of “just enough”.  And if we are to avoid the prospect of “content creep” that will result in anything but micro-learning, we will have to think more about the context of each piece, alongside the requirements of different user groups and possibly think about how we create and organise “variations on a theme”.

What type of content will work best in a micro-learning format?  Over the last two decades, we’ve just about managed to fathom out how to deliver most subject matter areas via digital learning, but will the need to condense content to fit a micro-learning approach mean certain topics now can’t be supported this way?  Soft skills is the one I’m sure we’re all thinking about, but with the right design it must still be possible to address this area.  In fact, breaking a broader skill into its component micro-skills and focussing in on each would map to the micro-learning methodology.

The organisation of micro-learning is critical to its successful uptake.  It’s much easier to catalogue and promote a complete piece of learning than to have to do this multiple times for a whole series of micro-learning nuggets.  We need to think about clear content titling and presenting micro objects in such a way that someone who is looking for a macro-level view is equally catered for.  A few years ago I worked with a great range of generic content that was available in both micro and macro-level formats.  It was a challenge to organise this in the LMS so that learners didn’t get confused.

How can we make micro-learning easily accessible?  If it takes me five minutes to browse the catalogue in my LMS, only for the module to take 3 minutes, I might be left questioning the time it took me to find it.  Maybe the way our LMSs are structured actually hinders the deployment of micro-learning.  I’ve already mentioned my preference for deploying micro-learning via a mobile device.  Web- and native apps are so much more user-friendly when it comes to consuming short bursts of content.  Perhaps, as I’ve also done over the last 7 or so years, micro-learning is best accessed from the pages of our corporate intranet and embedded in the applications it’s been designed to support.  And can my LMS or portal help me to offer different pathways based on the “variations on a theme” concept I mentioned earlier?

What does micro-learning imply for the future of the “course” in our L&D portfolios?  When do we decide a full course is needed, or whether we should deliberately set out to create a suite of micro-learning modules?  Should we be offering a choice of consumption approach?  If learning preferences and habits really start to change as much as they have already, then will learners increasingly opt for a micro-learning approach over others?

Finally, how do we link individual micro-learning objects together to create a meaningful pathway without cluttering the content with bridging pieces?  At the start of this piece I questioned whether breaking down a full course into its chapters – without adding in extra content to provide the narrative and context of what happened before and after – was really the best approach for creating micro-learning.  There will always be a need to offer the full suite to a learner if that’s their prescribed pathway.  If we’ve made each object able to stand on its own, how will that look when they are studied in succession?  Will the elements we’ve added in to allow them to stand alone now get in the way?

I’ll summarise my deliberations with the mind-map I created as I was pulling together my thoughts.

Micro-learning Mind-map [Created in MindNode]
If you have any other thoughts as you reflect on the use of micro-learning, then do please share them, so we can continue to apply some rational thinking to this new trend.


Micro-learning Under the Microscope

3 thoughts on “Micro-learning Under the Microscope

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