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As society changes the way we absorb information and interact with one another, so do the tools, techniques, and strategies we’ve become accustomed, and education is no different. We’ve investigated adaptive learning, which uses learner-driven technology to chart future curriculum, and today we’re diving into another phenomenon, “microlearning.”

Easily digestible microlearning “nuggets” provide short bursts of content to quickly teach learners something new. While this method may be the perfect solution for some situations, it also has its limits. Explore when and where learners can best utilize this quick strategy, or should rather opt for a more traditional approach.

Finding the right teaching tools for current students who range in age, motivation, technology know-how, and educational goals is, and will continue to be a constant struggle. We know that the one-size-fits-all model doesn’t, but researchers, institutions, and educators are constantly trying to find new methodologies that allow for, and support, the diversity we see in learners. And that leads us to “microlearning.”

What is Microlearning?

Microlearning is pretty much what it sounds like — the content is broken into small “bite-sized” pieces, often called “nuggets”, and delivered to learners with one defined outcome. Some hallmarks of microlearning include…


When to Use Microlearning

In the workplace:

Microlearning has taken off as a way to quickly and efficiently up-skill employees who already have a wealth of experiential knowledge, but need to learn a new technique or skill. Microlearning is also beneficial when teaching or announcing new policies or procedures in the workplace. Because microlearning is technology-based and incredibly fast, it’s realistic for employees to make time in their busy schedules for these short bursts of learning.

Of course, at the end of each nugget, the employee will be tested on their knowledge or mastery of the nugget’s content. This presents a unique opportunity to think outside-of-the-box and use real-world situations as templates for proving proficiency. Rather than asking the employee to memorize information and complete multiple-choice tests, employees can demonstrate their understanding and ability to implement the content in a likely scenario.

Scenario-based testing gives learners the opportunity to show how they may implement new information in their current work environment. For example, if a member of the sales team was learning about a new product to upsell current clients, they might be asked to make a 30-second video pitch for the product, outline a potential sales call, or list the features and benefits of the product based on specific client industries.

Not only does this give the evaluator a sense of how well and how likely the employee is to implement the new information, but it forces the employee to really understand the concept as it applies to their daily responsibilities. If the employee misses the mark completely and does not achieve the learning outcome expected, the scenario can be discussed with more upfront knowledge than what you get with incorrect multiple-choice answers.

Scenario-based testing can also highlight areas outside of the microlearning nugget where an employee needs training or additional instruction. It can also call attention to someone who has mastered the subject and may be more useful in another role. Basically, both employees and employers win by gaining a better understanding of the content, expectations, and level of mastery in a short amount of time.

With millennials:

Because microlearning is fast and relies on technology, it’s perfect for the short-attention-span and tech-savviness associated with the millennial generation. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, more than one-in-three U.S. workers in 2015 was a millennial (adults ages 20 to 36 in 2017). That means millennials account for the largest share of the American workforce, so it’s pretty important for this generation to learn what’s necessary for success.

Microlearning provides the perfect format for millennials to move at their desired pace, absorbing content in a way that’s familiar, while getting to choose when, where, and how they learn, and in some cases, how they’re tested. The move toward personalization in education is attractive and efficient for a generation who has grown up with these type of technology-based interactions most or all of their life.

Now, this is not to say those baby boomers, or Generation Xers won’t also benefit from microlearning. As always, there are multiple factors that go into choosing the right modality for the right student, curriculum, level of understanding needed, and long-term goals. Regardless of when you were born, microlearning can provide a quick, easy, and highly accessible avenue to gaining new skills, but when is it the wrong strategy?

When Not to Use Microlearning

The concept of microlearning seems to be fueled, at least in part, by a 2014 infographic titled, “Meet the Modern Learner”. Among a number of interesting takeaways, the Bersin by Deloitte research revealed the following:



The first statistic is the most alarming when you figure that 1% of an average 40-hour workweek equates to just 24 minutes per week, or only 4.8 minutes each day. According to that, our modern learners have less than five minutes each day to devote to training and development. In today’s fast-paced, technology-reliant world that may not be enough to stay current depending on the industry.

Overall, we see a workforce that is busy, distractible, and mobile. Microlearning addresses each of these issues by delivering quick pieces of educational content using a variety of methods, including video, and is available digitally on mobile devices.

So it must work for all modern learners, right? Eh, not so fast…

It really depends on the content. With all other factors staying constant — like preferred learning style, learning ability, and desired outcome — certain objectives cannot be achieved with this staccato-type learning. Microlearning should not be used when people need to acquire complex skills or learn new behaviors.

Think about these tasks…learning to play a musical instrument, gaining proficiency in project management, instructional design, or teamwork skills, or mastering sales tactics. These concepts can certainly be learned using adaptive learning techniques, but they require more instruction that is provided in microlearning.

The key to knowing when microlearning is appropriate, and when it’s not, is to start with the learner. If they already possess some foundational knowledge of a related, or parent topic in the curriculum, then microlearning could be beneficial as a building block or reinforcement tool. On the other hand, if the concept being taught is completely new, high level, or requires some prerequisite knowledge, a more in-depth educational design would provide the comprehensive knowledge required to master the new concept.

As modern learners adapt to changing technology in their personal lives it’s the job of educators, institutions, and professional settings to meet them where they are using the tools they’re most familiar. Microlearning may be a quick and easily accessible way to upskill your workforce, introduce a new skill, or reinforce a necessary foundational concept. On the other hand, if brand new skills with intricate methodologies, behavioral requirements, or muscle memory are necessary, you’ll probably get a better outcome with a more exhaustive format.

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