Everything You Wanted to Know About Microlearning (But Were Afraid To Ask)

June 3, 2019

Written by David James

What is Microlearning?


I have to be honest, I hate the term ‘Microlearning’ – it considers the delivery mechanism above the things that matter to clients.

When you recognise that Microlearning is largely a vendor-driven medium that offers their own company’s IP in a different format, the desired result (for the vendors) is the delivery (via sale and implementation). It seems to me the market has looked at a presenting problem, i.e. people seem to have less time for training, and come up with the obvious solution: the shortest possible courses.

Microlearning, in many respects, is the dumbing down of L&D. Not in the reduction of the content, but in the reduction of our understanding of the real needs. Workers (our clients) don’t want shorter content. They want help with what they’re doing in an efficient manner – and if that just seems like the same thing for you, then this article may help.

What Microlearning Is

Microlearning is a mainstream topic now probably at the peak of the hype curve.

Different vendors will have different definitions of Microlearning, so let’s see what outside observers make of it. The most succinct definition I found was described by the Financial Times as “…lessons with a single learning objective delivered in bite-sized chunks on users’ smartphones.”

In this regard, perhaps it should be be more accurately labelled as ‘Microtraining’ or ‘Microcontent’?

What Microlearning Is Not

Goldfish in a bowl could be learners in a classroom.

As many people today believe, human attention spans are reducing and goldfish are now superior to us at maintaining focus. Perhaps this is why classrooms – having been abandoned by people – are being converted to vast fish tanks. (This is probably true but cannot be qualified as nobody has looked up from their smartphone since 2017.)

Over-simplified generalisations of other people’s behaviour – in addition to the moral panic of younger people liking things that their elders don’t always approve of – have led us to think that ‘other people’ have ADHD. This is why they will no longer commit large amounts of their time to classroom training and would prefer their training duration in secondsrather than hours.

“According to their data, about 90 percent of 2,500 education professionals agreed that contemporary technology had created a generation which struggled to concentrate, was prone to distraction, yet apt with web search and quick to find any information.”

Why Micro Learning is Educating the ADD Generation, The Next Web 

Or in other words, 2500 people skilled in a traditional approach to teaching, in a flawed education system, found that students were less tolerant of their outdated methods than students in previous years, especially because they could find it out for themselves.

Okay, so how will Microlearning help?:

“Taking information and skillfully repackaging it in shorter formats, micro-courses, where each lesson takes no more than a few minutes, has proven to notably increase completion rates, something that is reported by a number of companies working in the field.”

Ah, now we’re getting the the crux of it. The primary justifications of Learning & Development being ‘attendance’ and ‘completion’, so finding a format that more people stay with until the end is what’s craved. If what you want is a means to achieve this holy grail then buy! Buy away. Just Google ‘Microlearning’ and purchase the top result. Short-course completions, here we come!

But if you’re trying to find out if Microlearning can help your employees to perform and achieve results that matter then read on.

Microlearning Myths

Image result for unicorn gif

1. Employees Want Shorter Content

No, they want useful stuff that will help them with what they’re trying to do but aren’t able to – and they want this as efficiently as possible. Microlearning (sub 5 minutes or whatever the claim) is a misnomer. Recognising the format but not recognising the right intention is misleading us. I’m willing to bet that given a few minutes – or a real problem that needs a solution – your people will go to Google before any Microlearning content. Why is this? Because Google is predictable and reliable. We trust it enough in our personal lives to know it’ll get us something of value.

2. Completions Of Microlearning Matter

They don’t. This is another misnomer.  

“We had 2000 hits and 500 completions, which is up 10% on last month.”

“So what? How are those people performing? What’s the correlation between workers completing Microlearning and getting results?”

“Oh it’s not about results, it’s about engagement.”

“So how much more engaged are they and how do we know?”

“Oh, not that kind of engagement, I just mean clicks on the platform not their relationship with their work and environment…”

3. Engaging In Microlearning Means People Learn

In real life, when I read an article, I call it just that – reading. Same as watching a video. But when I access Microlearning (or anything else on a corporate learning system) it’s recorded as ‘learning’.

“Our people have spent 100 hours learning this month.”

Have they? Or does the same thing happen inside work as outside: we click something, we read/watch it, and because it’s little more than interesting, it’s almost immediately forgotten. Have you ever read an entire newspaper and had someone ask “what’s in the news?” and you can only really remember a couple of things? Damn! I wish I could have accessed that on the Microlearning platform because I would have learned it then rather than just read it with interest.

4. Popular Content Is Making A Difference

It might be what people need help with, but is it making a difference to performance or productivity? One piece of Microlearning is getting loads of hits, perhaps it’s on Time Management? Does this mean that everybody who clicked on it is now much better at Time Management? No. It probably means that there is a productivity and prioritisation issue that is largely unexplored in your organisation.

Let’s just hope the person who wrote that Microlearning, having never visited your organisation or spoken to any employees, helps in the context of their roles and workload!

5. Fun Content Is Better

Learning is often hard and edutainment is generally facile and useless. Don’t ask your people whether they’d like dry content or fun content because they’ll say fun and you’ll not be in any better position. Instead, find out what they’re trying to do that they’re not currently able to, and help them with that.

You’ll find that ‘fun’ is only a value in the absence of knowing enough. Have you ever tried to learn the guitar? It’s really hard. I can’t say I enjoy learning new songs for the first time but I get satisfaction from working hard to master it. Have you learned to manage other people? That’s really really hard. I must say that I rarely enjoyed my time being a new manager. The real life lessons were tough and I often lost sleep. But hey, I watched an animated video for 5 minutes and had such a fun time!

6. What Works For Another Organisation Will Work For Yours

In his book Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance, Boris Groysberg explores how rare it is for star performers in one organisation to be as successful when they move to another. His findings suggest that their success “depended heavily on their former firms’ general and proprietary resources, organizational cultures, networks, and colleagues”

But what if they had access to the same Microlearning platform at both organisations? Surely they could then be successful in both? Hopefully you can see how ridiculous that statement is and recognise that generic Microlearning doesn’t significantly affect performance. It’s a nice-to-have at best.

7. People Will Go To Your Microlearning Platform Instead Of Google

I know I’ve touched on this one above but it’s an important point. We trust Google for most things. Even with the pervasiveness of fake news and fake ‘experts’, we still trust Google enough for know-how and information. What Google has no answers for – and doesn’t plan to – is how to get the right stuff done at your organisation. This, and everything that branches from it, signals the biggest challenge for your clients. If L&D focused attention on providing guidance and support for this stuff then we wouldn’t find ourselves in a futile shootout for our employees’ attention with Google.

Don’t compete with Google, you’ve already lost.

If after reading these myths you still want to chase engagement as a primary measure of success then providing useful stuff to help people with what they’re trying to do will still get you better engagement than generic short courses but you’ll be aiding performance too.

So, what’s the point of Microlearning, you may be asking?

Well there is merit in providing tools, information, know-how and insights, in a similar format to Microlearning, that serves the needs of your people and your organisation but you can’t buy this off the shelf. You need to invest in solving real problems: Those experienced by your clients in pursuit of their work and career goals.

Getting Started With Microlearning (If You Still Want To Call It That)

If, as was determined in Groysberg’s book (mentioned above), key determinants of success are factors exclusive to a specific organisation then technology can help you to package up local know-how for the benefit of your clients and surface it as and when it’s required. So, in short, providing people what they need, when and how they need it. This may then look like Microlearning but it’s wholly in service of what your clients are trying to achieve, in the context of their work.

Think about what you’re trying to achieve and use technology to help you achieve that. If all you want to do is launch Microlearning, then go for it. It’s easy and you’ll smash that goal!

The long and the short of it is that Microlearning is a marketing term. It’s a way that vendors have packaged up their content in a different – shorter – format. So don’t be fooled.

Where the world is going is in scaling digital tools, information, know-how and insights that address the needs of people in each distinct organisation. Google has largely got the generic stuff all sewn up. What Google don’t have (and neither do the Microlearning vendors) is the hard stuff… Everything that stems from “How do I do (X) at our organisation?”

If you want to do something that affects performance and productivity then you’ll get out what you put into it…

Looking for a practical guide to engage the modern learner? Get the free white paper: The Empowered Learner.

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