Is Microlearning Really Learning? It Depends …

Despite its ubiquity and undeniable usefulness as a tool in the eLearning repertoire, microlearning defies easy definition. It fills a multitude of roles and is called on in a huge range of situations, both at work and in learners’ personal and consumer lives. But despite the abundance of both actual microlearning and discussion about microlearning, the question remains: Is microlearning really learning? The answer is, “It depends.”

In a recent Guild research report, L&D Research Essentials, Guild research director Jane Bozarth points out that microlearning is generally agreed to be “just enough” content, but asks rhetorically, just enough for what?

Bozarth goes on to ask (and answer): “Does it support learning? That largely depends on the behavior you are trying to change long-term. As with many instructional strategies, the idea of microlearning has its place as part of a comprehensive plan for improving workplace performance, particularly in a world looking for more self-directed, on-demand endeavors beyond traditional formal courses.”

Microlearning for new or forgotten skills

Microlearning excels for certain training tasks, even those involving new or forgotten skills:

  • Just-in-time: In every aspect of their digital lives, learners of all ages turn to short, mostly online, content to solve immediate problems. This microlearning is often in video form, but it can be text-based, infographics, or take another form.
  • Performance support: Akin to just-in-time learning, performance support tools can enable the efficient completion of seldom-performed tasks and processes. Rather than providing new knowledge (how do I peel a butternut squash?) a microlearning performance support tool might remind a busy executive how to fill out an annual review form—a task she’s had training on and done, but not since last year’s review cycle.
  • Spaced repetition: Whether teaching new information or refreshing material taught in more focused training, microlearning is a natural venue for spaced practice. It can be adaptive, with chatbots or other AI-based tools offering up content based on each learner’s past performance and job needs.

Microlearning might change behavior

The “just enough” conception of microlearning describes a content approach targeted to meeting very specific—and often very individual—needs. A learner has a question or problem, and microlearning provides an immediate, useful solution. Whether that is really learning depends upon whether that information sticks with the learner and whether the learner’s behavior changes as a result.

After the manager looks up how to complete annual reviews and she finishes her stack of forms for the year, will she remember the process or need to look it up again next year? If, after using the microlearning, the learner correctly performs the task ever after, learning has occurred. But what if the manager has to review the microlearning each time she needs to complete performance reviews for her staff? The only behavior that has changed is where she seeks help—rather than asking a colleague or manager or registering for a long eLearning course, she reviews the five-minute video or refers to the handy annotated infographic as she completes the forms.

On the other hand, if continuous microlearning drills learners in the features of new products so thoroughly that they recall the details they need when meeting with clients, rather than fumbling with data sheets and promising to send a follow-up email with the requested info, then the microlearning has changed behavior in a positive way.

Choose microlearning? It depends …

Like other digital learning approaches, microlearning has a place in the L&D toolbox. Also like other approaches, it is not the solution to every learning question. Choosing the right approach requires thinking about the problem to be solved, the person who needs to solve it, and the environment where training, microlearning, or performance support will occur. As to whether microlearning is really learning: In some cases, microlearning will lead to “sticky” learning; in others it will provide “just enough” to solve a problem. And in other situations, a different approach is a better choice.

Explore the future of microlearning

Join The eLearning Guild on Feb. 20–21 for the Microlearning Summit and explore the future of microlearning. Learn how microlearning can support remote employees, how companies are using microlearning, and what’s next for this popular approach to eLearning and performance support.

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