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The Microlearning Trend: Accommodating Cultural and Cognitive Shifts

by Jeff Fernandez

December 1, 2014

Feature

by Jeff Fernandez

December 1, 2014

“All told, a regimented diet of strict rules and linear learning can over-stuff trainees and leave them feeling bloated and overwhelmed. But by slicing training down into its most essential, wholesome, bite-sized chunks—that best serves a growing population of teaspoon-sized attention spans—I predict the feast of content you prepare for your audience will be far more appetizing.”

You hear it all the time: the millennials are hitting the workforce en masse and they can’t focus, can’t put their phones down, and they have “the attention span of goldfish” (quite literally—Dianne Dukette, MD and David Cornish, MD, doctors at Kaiser Permanente, claim that the continuous human attention span may be as short as eight seconds, while a goldfish seems to have some of us beat at nine). As digital natives fight these stereotypes, it turns out the observations might not be too far off. Attention spans are changing. It’s just not as generational as we might think.

It seems we’re all moving in this direction, and it’s a cultural and cognitive shift: old and young alike are consuming more media than ever before. According to Nielsen, older adults age 50 – 64 upped their daily web video consumption by 72 percent just in the second quarter of 2013. And far from anecdotally, if you compare nearly any movie from 30 to 40 years ago to today, you’ll notice whole scenes and individual shots are much longer—even absurdly so, to our modern tastes—and it’s because the film industry in the 1960s assumed audiences needed upwards of 20 seconds to recognize and process an image. I don’t think I have to point out how differently we consume movies today, where seizure-inducing fly-by micro edits are the norm.

How does this affect learning, and how do eLearning strategies and techniques need to accommodate these cultural shifts? I’d like to offer some ideas about these questions, based on current experience and research.

The microlearning trend

Microlearning—defined as learning in short, digestible, bite-sized units—is next-gen training for a workforce ready to consume it the way it does everything else: fast, small, and “our way.” Easily accessible via devices such as mobile phones, tablets, and laptop computers in formats as varied as videos, blogs, games, quizzes, simulations, podcasts, or slideshows, microlearning solves for dwindling attention spans, just at the time when technology is changing so rapidly that traditional L&D training methods can’t keep up.

Why? Because old school training is expensive, time-consuming, and simply can’t be produced fast enough to react to a constantly changing work environment. Digital skills need upgrades every few months, and practically expire every few years: Deloitte recently estimated digital skills have a half-life of just 2.5 years for any given role. And because despite technology and digital products rapidly proliferating and evolving, these developments are only able to improve performance with the right training.

In fact, of the more than 200 million adults in the US digital workforce, only one in ten consider themselves “very proficient” with the digital tools they use every day. And research conducted by Adobe shows that 58 percent of employees—despite using a set of productivity tools at work—report they’re “not productive.” Perhaps this is why labor productivity growth in the US business sector has slowed to a level not seen since the 1950s—just one percent for Q1 2014. All told, according to the International Data Corporation, this is driving a nearly $1.3 trillion bill for the US economy based on compensation. For a firm with 1,000 employees, this translates to a $10 million loss each year.

However, despite this endemic financial burden to companies, the effects don’t seem to be getting noticed—or addressed. Instead of formalized training on these technologies from employers, workers often rely on their colleagues for help, further clogging up workplace efficiency. Or, they lean on their friends: my co-founders and I noticed this trend while out for dinner one night four years ago. A text came through on one of our phones—one of many we’d been receiving lately—from a buddy who wanted advice on how to link Google Analytics to his WordPress account. Not that we were the experts on this particular digital task—but it echoed the murmurs of “Hey, do you know how to…” we’d been hearing in every cubicle and around every water cooler in every office where we’d ever worked.

What a concept! Why not let workers train themselves: on their own time, accessible via the internet, with short lessons that don’t interrupt work?

Faster and focused

Thankfully, a few L&D trainers are acknowledging this solution, too: a movement is afoot to try to cut training time down, to focus more on online and eLearning, and to deliver it all more efficiently. But yet, when trainers strive for brevity, their aim has been to consolidate content down to a day instead of a week, or reduce to 90 minutes what used to be a three-hour-long training session. Currently, the Association for Talent Development (ATD) estimates the average time spent training is still over 30 hours per employee (higher for larger companies), and for whatever reason that’s actually five hours longer than it was a decade ago. In my view, this is like trying to shoot a fire hose of information through an attention span the width of a straw.

Using microlearning as a guide, shorter is always better and is best delivered in an easy to comprehend-and-consume format, particularly video. The individual units should be granular, recursive, and organized into chunks or tracks that serve a larger learning objective, aiming to provide a more holistic and 360° view of a topic than would otherwise be delivered in a linear, structured course.

But how are, say, 50 one-minute instructional videos able to cover the same material as a week-long training session, you might ask? Because they’re not trying to. Microlearning strips training down to its most essential skills and knowledge—no time for a wind up and wind down, no tolerance for dull regurgitation, no room for fluff.  

Benefits of microlearning

This method is ideal for learners because the content is engaging, relevant, and can be consumed at the time of need. Even more so, it can be used as performance support, offering access and review in the field or as a resource for delivering updates, price changes, or anything else requiring regular augmentation. This facilitates just-in-time learning (i.e., when a worker needs it, when it’s most relevant to their work, and when they’re the most receptive), perhaps taking advantage of moments that don’t normally seem like training opportunities, like waiting for the bus or on a lunch break, or in the case of Google, during true “down time.” (We walk the talk in my company: “Testing on the toilet” and “learning on the loo” are one-pagers distributed in restrooms throughout our headquarters!)

Not just beneficial for learners, microlearning is also optimal for trainers: the pieces are easy to create, manage, and distribute, and much faster to produce (according to learning architect Ray Jimenez, up to 300 percent faster) while costing only half as much. With that kind of savings, organizations can afford to spend more on production, creating high-quality, beautiful, and engaging experiences offering up even more incentive to learn. And, by organizing content into smaller units or tracks of learning, you can simultaneously service both new and veteran workers, because they’re able to orient themselves in the ecosystem of the course, reviewing or skipping content as needed. If that’s not enough, microlearning is perfect for global training (Think: small chunks are easily translated for different cultures).

Best of all, microlearning is proving to be more effective: classroom training often yields few long-term takeaways (90 percent of new skills are lost within a year, reports the Wall Street Journal) while training company Mind Gym estimates that a microlearning method consistently yields four to five learned takeaways per session. Not to mention that distributed practice aids in retention: just like in like nutrition or exercise, or when studying for a test—small efforts over time are quantifiably more beneficial than a single cram session.

Finally, we know microlearning works. At Grovo, though we weren’t the first to notice the trend, we stumbled upon it in our data nonetheless: when you compare video completion rates over video length, there’s a direct and irrefutable correlation. The shorter a lesson the more it got watched, and the more likely a viewer was to watch it to its end, while the longer the content the more widely it was abandoned and ignored.

Applications

Not surprisingly, this is how our brains are already wired, by the way. And it’s how humans have learned and interacted throughout millennia (across distances in short, efficient bursts). The rise of micro media (Twitter, Vine, Tumblr, Yammer, etc.) and the emergence of the sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb, GoFundMe, etc.) are now broadening this “micro” trend across the culture, from boomers to Gen Z, aching for more control, a more individualized experience, and demanding results with the least amount of effort. The only difference now is that learning practitioners are finally catching on to microlearning’s value, just at the time when the perfect technologies have emerged to deliver it.

To successfully adopt a microlearning method of their own, we recommend that a company’s first step is to define the goals of their various departments, and identify the specific skills required to accomplish them. Based on this inventory, you can develop a program to strengthen those skills, but even more crucially, to build one that’s scalable to maintain those skills over time. In many organizations, it’d be most prudent to focus efforts on a small set of eight essential digital skills we’ve identified to be most critical:

  • Working with documents
  • Communication management
  • Project collaboration
  • Search and research
  • Attention management
  • Platform flexibility
  • Digital etiquette
  • The all-important … privacy and security

Payback

But regardless, a well-designed microlearning program will improve productivity, increase job satisfaction, retain your top talent—and even more so—repay your training budget in more than bite-size ways.

All told, a regimented diet of strict rules and linear learning can over-stuff trainees and leave them feeling bloated and overwhelmed. But by slicing training down into its most essential, wholesome, bite-sized chunks—that best serves a growing population of teaspoon-sized attention spans—I predict the feast of content you prepare for your audience will be far more appetizing.

References

Cornish, David & Dianne Dukette. The Essential 20: Twenty Components of an Excellent Health Care Team. RoseDog Books, 2009.


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I would go even further: create several "picolearning" activities into one microlearning activity, mixing presentation/media modes, cleverly reinforcing through repetition, etc.: burst one very short video clip, a user question-answer interaction to increase and report some mastery, a polling action which can be shared in a private group or public social space, and the like. In other words, the microlearning experience should be heterogeneous and composite, not just a very short reading or a very short video or a very short q&a. (Of course there are attentional and content-related limits to how fine the granularity should be.
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