Is Microlearning Still a Thing?

By Thomas Toth - August 25, 2022

If you’ve seen me speak or worked with me and my team over the past few years, you already know my opinion of “Microlearning”. I’m not a fan of the concept. In my opinion, one shoe does not fit every learner or every topic. In fact, cramming a “learning moment” into 2 minutes and 2 seconds is doing a huge disservice to our learners and to the companies who invest in technology to deliver on this latest fad.

The concept of Microlearning is easy to understand – break the content down into short chunks that make it more easily understandable. Crate an infographic, a short video, a quick interactive quiz, a mini assessment, a quick 2 minute game. The whole idea is that the learning objective is simmered down, all full and fanfare removed, and delivered just in time.

I shake my head – how is this new? Hasn't this been the goal of eLearning since the start? Let me jump back into my time machine for a moment. 

In the early 2000s, I was speaking at conferences and calming down the L&D masses who were convinced that eLearning was going to take away the jobs and completely change the roles of the training professionals. They felt that eLearning was going to rule over all, and that the skills of an ID or facilitator were going to go the way of the dinosaur. I told them that they might need to upskill and learn to design or program eLearning, but that their expertise and skills as instructional designers or facilitators was not going to fade away and become obsolete.

eLearning is a part of my training “deck”. Five Square Learning likes to provide our customers with various options based on the performance gap they are trying to close. If training really is the issue (because we all know that sometimes it isn’t), then we look at the skills the learner needs to master. We come up with learning objectives that take into account the change we need to observe, and THEN we decide the most appropriate format; we pull the correct “card” and develop. Will the gap be closed with a one page job aid? An instructor-lead training course? An eLearning multimedia course? A web session conducted over WebEx? A video with a discussion afterward? Yes, we specialize in eLearning, but that peg doesn't fit every hole. 

Notice that there is NO time stamp on any of these opportunities because I let the CONTENT drive the format. I’m not going to automatically try to cram the learning into a two minute format because that might not be the BEST way for the learner to close the gap and change their behavior!

Organizations that begin the process by dictating the time or method before proper analysis is done scare me. “Thomas, your team has to build a ten minute eLearning course explaining our method for working with customers on the telephone”. What if the method has 10 steps? Can we tell a story? Can we make it immersive and interactive or is it yet ANOTHER PowerPoint deck with a quiz at the end? Why is 10 minutes the magic number? 

If we can figure out a way to deliver the content in 2 minutes, great! Maybe it’s ten 2 minute courses! Great! Then again, maybe its a 20 minute eLearning course with multimedia and interactions! I say this: let the content drive the format and duration. And don't be afraid to be creative!

Microlearning is a way for companies to cheat their employees out of a behavior changing experience by offering them bare bones education and calling it “micro”. Most of what's being created is not “micro”, it’s “lazy”, check the box thinking that does nothing to really improve performance. It barely scratches the surface and does nothing to improve performance. The quality is usually on the low end, simply because some versions confuse "micro" with "easy to produce and quick to deploy". 

If we can simmer the content down into an impactful 2 minutes, and we have the technical skills to produce the project and deliver it to learners just in time, then that’s not microlearning; it’s just “eLearning.” We don’t need a new “category” just because someone figured out how to get rid of the fluff and deliver in less than 2 minutes. Sure, you can teach someone to save a MS Word doc or define a print area in MS Excel in a quick, two minute video. But, how effective is your new coaching strategy going to be if the educational pieces are only 2 minute videos? What about practice and role-play? What about job aids and reinforcement coaching? What about feedback?

Here is the 2022 problem as I see it: traditional eLearning programs are no longer lean, streamlined and direct. They’ve turned into a bloated mess of text rich content, a PPT or PDF manual converted to an online program, and it is taking the learner hours to get through the content. Although there is no “best practice” for duration, people will stay engaged as long as the content is interesting, relevant and presented creatively. At Five Square, we love the 15 minute “chunks” – 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes or 60 minutes. But, if we are over 30 minutes per course module, then we might consider splitting into separate modules.

But back to the point, people have invented microlearning in order to combat the problem of eLearning bloat. Your learners can’t pay attention for more than 10 minutes of eLearning? You might want to consider the content and delivery style, rather than the duration.

If you’ve jumped onto the “micro” bandwagon, my plea is to consider it as an option, but not as the only solution. Don’t try to reverse engineer content into a format that plays for two minutes - odds are it will be an incomplete objective without enough detail and information for your learner. Use the proper duration to get the desired knowledge transfer. 
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