The Definitive Guide to Microlearning
Microlearning has become a popular way of training employees in the flow of work. Over the next few weeks and months, we will be doing a micro-series on microlearning; delivering short, micro-content on the what, why, and the how-to guide to microlearning.At the end of this blog series, we will publish a downloadable guide to microlearning
Microlearning’s power comes from the shorter duration of learning. In this microlearning blog series, you will discover an in-depth look and understanding of why microlearning is effective. Microlearning is a logical response to a fast-paced society, driven towards learning efficiency:
- How do you learn faster?
- How do you retain more information?
- How do you retain information for a longer period of time?
- How do you learn and retain the right information?
- How do you learn, retain, and know how to transfer your knowledge to other challenges?
- How do you scale and manage the quality of learning to different people from different places, with different backgrounds and different motivations?
- How do you do all of this simultaneously?
Chapter 1. What is Microlearning?
Let’s break the word down into 2 chunks:
Involving minute quantities or variations
The activity or process of gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something
Knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study
Modification of the behavioural tendency by experience (such as exposure to conditioning)
To cause something to be in your memory by studying it
Microlearning has a few nicknames:
- Short courses
- Bites/Bite-sized learning
Microlearning can be defined as:
Short and small chunks of information used to meet a specific learning outcome. There is no definitive time requirement for microlearning, but typically microlearning content takes the learner 1-10 minutes to consume.
5 Micro-quotes about Microlearning from the experts
- “[Microlearning] is based on the idea of developing small chunks of learning content and flexible technologies that can enable learners to access them more easily in specific moments and conditions of the day, for example during time breaks or while on the move” (1).
- “Microlearning content is short and focused enough to meet an immediate need. It is a video, article, blog, ebook, audio clip or another form of content that can be indexed and found easily” (2).
- “...things we can quickly read, view, or consume and they only take 10 minutes or less. These may be a video, a blog, or a set of instructional questions that help us think differently than we did before. We as information-seeking animals consume this kind of material all day, and most of the news sites and social networks now offer such learning in a massive, curated stream” (3).
- "No matter if learning refers to the process of building up and organizing knowledge, to the change of behaviour, of attitudes, of values, of mental abilities, of cognitive structures, of emotional reactions, of action patterns or of societal dimensions, in all cases we have the possibility to consider micro, meso and macro aspects of the various views on more or less persisting changes and sustainable alterations of performances" (4).
- “Learning from content accessed in short bursts, content which is relevant to the individual, and repeated over time to ensure retention and build conceptual understanding” (52).
Chapter 2. A Micro-History on Microlearning
Once upon a time, we lived in a world without computers, the internet, mobile phones, devoid of the power to access information that was buried in stacks of paper. Take a look at the 200+ year micro-history of Microlearning:
Charles Babbage, a British mathematician, invented the Analytical Engine, the first computer resembling the computers we have today after borrowing technology from the weaving machine known as the Loom also known as the Jacquard or Weaving Machine (26)
PLATO, (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) the first learning platform was developed. A computer-based education system was created in 1960 by Donald L. Bitzer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). In addition to being used successfully as a teaching tool, PLATO also spawned one of the first successful online communities (5)
The Nokia 9000 Communicator, the first all-in-one phone, fax, calendar, email and internet in hand portable size, was released.
It is a fast-paced, “on-the-go” society. The way we solve problems has been disrupted by the introduction of the internet. You want to know how to put together an Ikea desk but you can’t find the manual? Google it. You want to learn Spanish? Download the Duolingo app and practice during your commute to work. Every day, we are microlearning. Anything is possible when you can find and act on information.
The history continues
Chapter 3. What’s the difference between Microlearning and Macrolearning?
|What does the prefix mean?||large, long, over time, large scale||A micro - small, short, minute in scale|
|What is it?||Developing a new skill and level of understanding||Exploring concepts and solving practical problems|
|What is the desired outcome of learning?||The learner wants a new skill or deeper understanding of a concept||Learner wants to solve a specific problem.|
|What is the content like?|| || |
|When is it important in the workplace?||Understanding the job, people, systems, strategies, industry, environment||Injections of new information at all career stages to solve various problems faced every day|
|How long does it take?||Hours - Days||1 second - 15 minutes|
Courses, classes, MOOCs
Mr. Miyagi training the Karate Kid to be a martial arts master
I want to learn Photoshop
For the first month, we will do onboarding and compliance training to get you up to speed.
I took a course in Spanish and studied abroad and I am now fluent
Video, blog, instructions
The Karate Kid learning to “wax on, wax off.”
I want to crop an image
Watch this 2-minute video on how to set up your work computer.
I learned how to say "where is the bathroom?'' in Spanish.
6 Microlearning Examples
Short, targeted, highly contextual messages or hints, to help users learn.
- Error messages
- Contact form explainers
- eCommerce hints
Tooltip from Google Drive explaining that every revision on the document is saved
2. Microlearning videos
Short, focused videos that are designed to meet a specific learning outcome. Microlearning videos can be designed to be: A standalone nugget that offers a specific learning takeaway. A part of a longer learning path.
- Explainer videos
- Brief & interactive videos
- Whiteboard animations
- Kinetic text-based animations
Ted Talks are micro-lectures that feature an expert speaking on a specific topic, limited to a maximum of 18 minutes
3. Microlearning apps or mobile apps
Apps that give you micro-lessons, on-the-go
4. Micro-challenges and games
Learning that is scored at the end, that can include an award, benefits, badges, notoriety, or other incentives for taking part or achieving a high score.
- Multiple question quizzes
- Polls, flashcards
- Question & responses
- Learner recordings to answer questions
Infographics (and often iconic, focusing on key points and numerical values) are graphic visual representations of information, data, or knowledge.
- Statistical infographics
- Informational infographics
- Timeline infographics
- Process infographics
- Geographic infographics
- Comparison infographics
- Hierarchical infographics
- List infographics
6. Social Media
Social media can be used as a micro-blogging exercise, and you can learn nuggets of information from the stream of content you subscribe to. Social media can be used as an activity feed of online communities of practice.
140 character snippets of news on social media
- Wall Street Journal
4. Why are Microlearning Videos so Effective?
Video gives you the ability to capture both visual and auditory channels at once, also known as dual coding theory, which allows you to spread the burden for processing the information across these two channels, providing more room for processing and retention. (15) Microlearning videos are short and allow our brains to take a break in order to process the information, helping avoid overloading the capacity of your working memory, also known as “cognitive overload.” Video is a popular mechanism for story-telling. A study by Wistia has shown, that the shorter the video, the more engaged the audience will be. All of these factors demonstrate the power of short, microlearning videos for engaging viewers.
Video is Popular
|Global reach||People like video||People prefer video & learning is better|
|Youtube uploaded its first video in 2005, and as of 2018, YouTube is localized in 91 countries and can be accessed in 80 different languages. (16)||Youtube has nearly 2 billion logged-in monthly users 1 billion hours of YouTube videos are watched daily -- This is the number of hours of video watched on YouTube every day, generating billions of views (16)||The average user spends 88% more time on a website with video than a website without one (17). Adding visuals to words improved transfer of learning by 89% (18)|
Video is a Storytelling Medium
|A picture is worth a thousand words. A video is anywhere from 24-60 frames (pictures) per second. 1 minute of video is worth 1.8 million words (20)||"Stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone." (19)||“Multimedia presentations (such as narrated animation) are more likely to lead to meaningful learning than single-medium presentations” (like static visuals in a PowerPoint or an audio recording like a podcast), (21)|
The shorter the videos, the higher the engagement
5. Microlearning for Every Generation: Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z, and Every Gen
Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z, and future generations will have grown up with mobile phones, the internet, and access to information at a high-speed pace that is likely to keep increasing as new inventions arise.
The combination of the mobile phone and high-speed internet has given life to Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and other social networks. Information sharing, the dawn of data as a currency and data used as a tool to personalize information have all been influential in shaping the most “informed” generations the world has seen thus far. What also makes these generations unique is the desire to learn and develop.
It is important to know and understand the workforce because as of 2019, Millennials are projected to number 73 million, overtaking Baby Boomers as the largest living adult generation (25), and by 2025 Millennials alone will make up 75 percent of the workforce (24).
Driven to Earn and Driven to Learn
Millennials are more educated than any generation, but their financial well-being is complicated (25). The Great Recession of 2008 had interesting implications for Millennials. Although Millennials are more educated, their median debt was nearly 50% greater ($19,000) than for Gen X debt holders when they were young ($12,800).
While young adults in general do not have much-accumulated wealth, Millennials have slightly less wealth than Boomers did at the same age. This modest difference in wealth can be partly attributed to differences in debt by generation (25). Compared with earlier generations, more Millennials have outstanding student debt, and the amount of it they owe tends to be greater (25).
It is likely that the complex financial situation for many Millennials and younger generations, is a driving force in their pursuit of learning and development, in order to grow personally, professionally, and financially.
The Learning Generations
According to Gallup's latest report, How Millennials Want to Work and Live, 59% of Millennials say opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important to them when applying for a job (23). Comparatively, 44% of Gen Xers and 41% of baby boomers say the same about these types of opportunities (23).
Additionally, an impressive 87% of millennials rate professional or career growth and development opportunities as important to them in a job -- far more than the 69% of non-Millennials who say the same (23).
As part of their candidate attraction strategy, companies should accentuate their learning and development programs, pointing to tuition reimbursement policies, on-the-job training, means of certification for going from good to great in the same role, participation in conferences and professional organizations, and other learning opportunities.
Furthermore, companies should publicize how managers support employees in meeting their developmental goals. When candidates are speaking to recruiters, interviewers or hiring managers, they should come away with a clear idea of what the organization can offer them in terms of ongoing growth opportunities (23).
More information, Less Time
Millennials and younger generations have more access to information, as well as more information to access. Information saturation requires the time to sift through it, or the tools to help you find what you need. Luckily, platforms like YouTube have nearly perfected their search algorithms, delivering the most relevant content recommendations, which has helped spur microlearning on-the-go.
In fact, 70 percent of Millennial YouTube users watched a video to learn how to do something new last year (28). Engaging educational videos have been so successful that Google announced in October 2018 that it’s investing 20 million into its YouTube Learning initiative, which will pay creators to make even more educational content—explainers, how-tos, lectures, and informational videos (29).
Millennials have fully adapted to Microlearning as a mechanism to cope with limited time and infinite resources. The rise of smartphones has massively contributed to the improved access to learning content from anywhere, and at any time. However, the increased demand for microlearning does not come without its challenges.
6. The Challenges of Microlearning
The main challenges of Microlearning stem from the growing demand for quality content, the growing expectation of personalized content, and the lack of time to produce and consume that content.
The 5 Biggest Challenges of Microlearning
1. Scaling personalized content
Personalizing millions of pieces of content so that it is relevant to every individual person can be extremely tedious.
2. Updating content
Content becomes out-of-date and irrelevant very quickly. The more content you have, the more difficult it becomes to manage.
3. Accessibility for all
“e-learning innovations also generate new polarisations in learning opportunities and life chances: people need to be digitally literate in order to access digital learning tools, and they cannot participate in e-societies and e-cultures, unless they have access to and know how to use digital information and communication channels” (30).
Although less than 2% of the global illiterate population lives in Central Asia, Europe and Northern America, and Oceania, it is important to note that Southern Asia is home to almost one-half of the global illiterate population and other rates of illiteracy fluctuate around the world. Literacy creates one of the biggest hurdles for the digitally disadvantaged in the ability to access and understand microlearning content (31).
The #1 reason employees feel held back from learning is because they lack the time to learn (32). Despite Microlearning’s shorter learning modules, people still may lack the time to fit in a few minutes of learning a day. This could also indicate that employees lack the time to search for learning that is relevant to them.
5. Creating a culture of learning
Motivating individuals with different aspirations is not easy. How do you create a culture of learning, when your organization is comprised of many different people? How do you personalize motivation?
7. What are the Benefits of Microlearning?
A fast-paced society needs access to fast-paced learning. The biggest benefits of microlearning can be broken down into 3 categories:
Time, Relevance, and Results
1. Learning that takes a minute
Microlearning usually takes 1 - 10 minutes.
Pain point: Employees don’t have time
The #1 reason employees say they are not engaging in workplace learning is because they don't have the time (32).
Microlearning is mobile-friendly so you can learn on-the-go. Short sized lessons make it easy to fit into a busy schedule. Learn (nearly) anywhere, any time.
Pain point: Can’t access learning from everywhere
It is difficult to start a large course on-the-go and have to leave in the middle of the lesson, and remember to pick up where you last left off.
3. Self-paced learning
Microlearning allows for learners to determine their own learning pace.
Microlearning promotes informal learning. Learners can research solutions to their problems at the moment of need rather than an inflexible formal learning structure.
Learners that struggle with certain topics or excel at certain topics, can move at their own pace without waiting.
Creating, publishing and sharing of micro-content on the internet opens up new possibilities for implicit, informal and incidental forms of learning, such as microlearning, the term referring to short learning activities with micro-content (33).
Pain point: Learning isn’t paced for everyone
58% of employees prefer to learn at their own pace and 49% of employees prefer to learn at the point of need (32).
4. Quick development and redeployment
Microlearning videos are ideal for agile training development and deployment.
There are a lot of microlearning resources available online already. Organizations can supplement their own training content with other online content.
Shorter content is easier to review.
Pain point: Employers don’t have time
Employers don’t have time to make long content or to continuously review and update it.
5. Relevant content
Micro-content allows for a narrow focus on issues that target specific topics. People aren’t weighed down with topics and content that aren’t pertinent to them.
Pain point: Irrelevant content
The longer the content, the more likely that a part of the content will not relate to each and every person.
6. Just-in-Time learning
Microlearning’s narrow focus and quick answers to learners’ needs make it an easy option as a Performance Support Tool that brings in specific learning aids to learners at the moment of their need.
Pain point: Can’t find the solution while on the job
If a person needs to revisit the training while on-the-job to find a quick solution to a problem, they will not want to be tasked with searching through a lesson that takes 40 minutes to complete.
7. Inject knowledge over time and remember more
Microlearning facilitates self-directed lifelong learning, as short activities can be easily integrated into everyday activities. Small learning steps with small chunks of information can be used for learning in between and on-demand. In this way microlearning enables individuals to stay up-to-date in today’s knowledge society. Small injections of information to review what was learned helps to reinforce knowledge, and remember.
Pain point: People forget the training
We don’t remember things we learned a month ago and that’s exactly what this “Forgetting Curve” diagram by Hermann Ebbinghaus (seen on the right) illustrates – we forget 80% of what we learned in 30 days (34).
The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve
8. Targeted content for targeted outcomes
Microlearning videos target a specific learning outcome in a small amount of time, and they offer higher recall and retention. Microlearning is typically less expensive to develop and maintain, which can contribute to a higher ROI.
Pain point: Learning isn’t aligned with business goals
It can be very difficult to align large courses and pieces of content to business goals.
8. Learning, Memory and Knowledge Transfer
In order to attempt to understand why Microlearning is so powerful, we must understand what it means to learn. How will we know the power of learning, if we don’t fully understand what it is?
As mentioned in the beginning of this guide, Learning can be defined as:
- The activity or process of gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something
- Knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study
- Modification of a behavioral tendency by experience (such as exposure to conditioning)
- To cause something to be in your memory by studying it
To oversimplify and combine all of those definitions, learning is the act of absorbing information, and using it.
How can you prove whether or not someone has absorbed information? How can you prove whether or not someone has learned?
Application of the information is key.
Knowledge “Transfer” is a cognitive practice whereby a learner’s mastery of knowledge or skills in one context enables them to apply that knowledge or skill in a different context. Because transfer signals that a learner’s comprehension allows them to recognize how their knowledge can be relevant and to apply it effectively outside the original learning conditions, transfer is often considered a hallmark of true learning (38).
Learning experiences are typically measured with a focus on how well information is memorized and the ability to repeat previously taught information, or a script, a standard procedure or routine for a specific situation.
It is especially important to understand the kinds of learning experiences that lead to transfer, defined as the ability to extend what has been learned in one context to new contexts (35).
In 1973, Steve Jobs decided to audit a calligraphy class. Fast forward a few decades, Jobs credited his teachings about typefaces as the inspiration for the typography in Macintosh computers:
“If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward 10 years later” (36).
Steve Jobs was able to recall upon prior experiences, and apply them to different contexts. Below you will find a spectrum of Knowledge Transfer. The more simple the knowledge transfer is to a relatively similar context, it’s called “near transfer”, and when it is more substantial, it’s called, “far transfer” (37).
Lack of application implies someone has either failed to absorb the information (memory), or failed to use the information (knowledge transfer). Sometimes people exhibit great memory, but lack effective knowledge transfer, and vice versa.
|Can remember information and transfer knowledge||A CHRO learns about Organizational Culture and Motivation. They draft an incentive scheme drawing on techniques and structures from the Two-Factor Theory of motivation.|
|Can’t remember information and can’t transfer knowledge||An instructional designer learns about Adaptive elearning. They can’t remember what they learned and they can’t apply it to different contexts on-the-job.|
|Can remember information but can’t transfer knowledge||An executive reads about Tacit Knowledge in a journal. They remember what it means, but they can’t apply any familiar concepts to challenges in their role.|
So how do we get people to remember and apply knowledge to new challenges? How do we get people to build on knowledge from one year to the next? How do educators prepare people to transfer their education and personal experiences to the workforce?
9. Memory and Microlearning
In the mid-1880s, Hermann Ebbinghaus became the first person to create a scientific approach to study and classify memory and introduce the world to concepts like the learning curve and forgetting curve. Learning is most applicable, when it is remembered. In the last section we went into learning transfer, but in this next chapter you will be exposed to the many types of memory.
Thinking in the Long-Term
The conversion of short-term memory to long-term memory requires the passage of time, which allows it to become resistant to interference from competing stimuli or disrupting factors such as injury or disease (40).
The longer your memory stays in the short-tem, the more likely it is to be encoded and consolidated information into long-term memory. Also the value that information to the person impacts retention in long-term memory (40).
Differences in the ability to retain knowledge can contribute to productivity differences across organizations. Microlearning facilitates memory retention in many facets, but we will focus on the many benefits that stem from: Repetition and “Chunking.”
Repeat After Me
The old phrase, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” rings true, but could be improved by saying, “If you don’t use it or review it, you lose it.” With repetition and the passage of time, you can convert a short-term memory into the more resilient, long-term memory. There is a lot of research that suggests Microlearning improves the act of absorbing and using information.
In Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve graph shown above, you can see that when someone first learns something, they retain all of that information. As the days pass, memory retention begins to drop. But as you perpetually review information, you retain more and more information.
In the beginning of a new job, we use Macrolearning during the onboarding process; to learn our responsibilities, become familiar with the organization’s systems, get to know other employees and where we can transfer our prior knowledge. We use Microlearning to learn skills on-the-job. For example, searching the internet for “how to do a mail merge in outlook,” is an example of Microlearning.
Over time you begin to get comfortable in a job and it becomes more routine, and you become more proficient and you gain new responsibilities, you may begin to want new knowledge to enhance your career, or you might be promoted; which require you to begin Macrolearning again.
Microlearning never stops throughout your career as you learn new skills every day and learn new ways to apply your knowledge. Once you have enough knowledge to be an expert, you can teach others.
Because Microlearning most frequently occurs when people need to apply the knowledge right away, it is stored and encoded in the brain to be more useful, and more likely to be remembered. In other words, Microlearning is often used repetitively, thus the forgetting curve is minimized and short-term memory transitions to long-term memory.
Central to the concept of Microlearning is the length of the content. The content is chunked into “bite-sized” pieces in order to keep the content focused and targeted, which makes it easier for the learner to tackle.
The size of the content also makes it easier to fit into busy schedules, but also makes it easier to create, adjust and give feedback, so organizations can pivot faster.
Additionally, shorter content enables the possibility to elevate content personalization and relevance for each individual in their role.
10. Questions to ask when building a Microlearning strategy
|Ask yourself||Example Answer|
|Define what business goals you are trying to accomplish and why?||Increase customer retention because losing customers is costing the company money.|
|What learning objectives will help reach your business goals?||Training that supports improving customer service and customer-centric behavior.|
|How can you break learning objectives down and chunk content?|| |
Improving customer service can be further broken down:
|How can you make this learning content relevant and valuable to each individual?|| |
How to resolve a customer complaint
|What types of learning content will you use? Can you repurpose content? Is there content that already exists that supports your needs?|| |
|How will you create a culture of learning and motivate employees to learn?||Motivate employees by teaching managers how to coach, and also give value and incentives to people that show growth and improvement. This all contributes to improvement in productivity and performance.|
1. How will you measure learning results?
Did they look at the content?
- How long did they look at the content for?
- Did they go back to content?
- Did they skip content?
- Did they complete lessons?
Did they understand the content?
- How did they score on assessments, answer accurately in quizzes
Did they like the content?
- Did they give feedback on their level of satisfaction and application of their new knowledge? What did they like or didn’t like? Why or why not?
Did they transfer their knowledge?
- How are you tracking behavioral change?
- How quickly do you expect to see the changes?
2. How will you analyze learning results?
- What specific learning metrics are you concerned with? Beyond completion and time on site?
- Can you identify learning patterns that lead to positive and negative business outcomes?
3. How will you measure business results?
- Who are the stakeholders?
- How do they measure training success?
- What specific KPIs do they want to influence?
- Do you have an agreed upon ROI model to understand the impact that learning had on those results?
- Can you correlate learning behaviors to business outcomes?
4. How will you adjust content based on results and feedback?
- Can you identify patterns that explain if you have high quality content or not (i.e everyone answering the same question incorrectly may prompt you to audit the content to ensure that the question is worded properly, that the answer is actually in the preceding content, etc.)
- Does one modality have a greater adoption than others? (i.e. if video gets better engagement than slide decks, maybe invest more in videos and spend less time creating decks)
What retrieval practices will you use to reinforce the learning?
- Are you achieving the desired, measurable behavioral change that the content was intended to create?
5. How will you scale?
- Do you have the technology to scale?
- How will you personalize content further?
- Will you use recommendations?
- Will you use AI / Chatbots?
- Will you allow for learner collaboration to create personal connections with team members/co-workers?
- What are your challenges?
11. Microlearning Best Practices Checklist
1. Microlearning content aligns with business goals
Your learning strategy should be aligned with the overall business goals of the company. Microlearning chunks should build to a greater and applicable initiative.
2. Production quality is superior
Everyone can create content, but not everyone has the ability to make quality content and maintain quality over time. Use high-quality assets like video, audio, and design.
3. Keep Microlearning videos short, targeted and lean
Microlearning’s strength is in short and targeted messaging. The longer the video becomes, the more difficult it becomes to utilize while on the go. Keep microlearning videos no more than 10 minutes per each learning objective.
4. Demonstrate knowledge in a variety of ways
Follow up content with multiple choice questions, but also a demonstration of knowledge.
5. Access anytime on any device
Give users the option to learn on their mobile devices, at any time of day. Give people the flexibility to learn when they want, how they want, online or offline.
6. Create a social learning environment
Give users the opportunity to review and create their own content, create discussion boards, etc. Use feedback to improve content.
18. Mayer, Richard E. Multimedia Learning. 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2009.
34. Ebbinghaus, H. (1913). Memory; a contribution to experimental psychology. New York city: Teachers college, Columbia University.
39. Types of Memory
42. Implicit Memory