Microlearning is None of These Things!

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What is Microlearning? There are generally two different stories you may have heard. One says “it’s like YouTube, you look something up and it helps you get it done.” The other says “its little bits of a course, spread out over time”. Both of these can be good things, yet, they’re also very different. They’re also possible to get quite wrong! That’s important if you’re interested in microlearning. Which one are you talking about?

Too often, we see people being unclear about what they mean. That’s advantageous to them because they can ride along on the coattails of the excitement, and yet end up playing to their strengths. It also likely means that it’s not to your advantage. You benefit from knowing what they are, how they differ, which to use when, and how to do each well. Just as they’re different, so too are the requirements to get each right.

So, let’s talk about each. Let’s be clear about what we’re talking about in each case. We’ll also throw in a tiny bit about a third interpretation that is harder to do but may hold lots of promise in the long term.

It’s like YouTube!

For the first one, they’re leveraging an experience you’ve likely had (I certainly have). You’ve got something you need to do. In my case, it was a dryer that refused to function. I no longer remember exactly what the problem was and how I used the video. What I do know is that I used the video to successfully diagnose the problem with my dryer, replace the faulty part, and get it running again. A number of years later, it’s still running strong!

Several things are important here. First, I used the video to successfully repair my dryer. I didn’t have to call a repair person, so I saved money. My dryer also continues to be useful.

The second important thing is no learning occurred! I can only vaguely recall where on the dryer the part was, and I can’t recall its function, nor how I sourced a replacement. All I recall is that I was able to use the video. If I ever had the same problem again, I’d need to find the video again. Yet, that’s OK!

That’s really the message. This is what is technically termed performance support, a.k.a a job aid. The video provided sufficient support for me to succeed. Yet I didn’t need to learn! I leveraged my existing electrical knowledge (it’s an electric dryer) with the minimal sufficient support to achieve my end. It filled in the missing gaps.

It’s hopefully obvious that this was the perfect solution in the moment. This is a problem that one faces rarely. Trying to put it into my head as learning first, then having me perform, wouldn’t make sense. It’s also hopefully obvious that the solution is not one that uses traditional instructional design. Instead, you want to design the appropriate job aid: the diagnostic trouble-shooting (perhaps, maybe I performed that beforehand and only then needed the video to accomplish the task; I really don’t remember, and again, that’s just fine), conveying the context and the steps, perhaps the tools and parts required.

To reiterate, this is frequently the best solution, making the information available in the world. A client once told me that their ‘How to’ videos to accompany their product were the most visited resources on their support site. It’s not a course, it’s not learning, yet it is valuable and worth doing. Even for things done more frequently, if and when it’s the situation that you don’t have to learn anything to succeed, microlearning makes sense. Ok, so the label ‘microlearning’ is misleading here, as it’s not about learning, but that’s where the hype wagon has left us. Learning might happen anyway, but it doesn’t matter. Doing performance support is also worth doing right. How that’s done is very different than the other approach.

It’s about course bits

On the other hand, courses are about developing new skills, and there are good reasons for breaking a course up into small bits spread over time. (One of them is not our decreasing attention span, purportedly now down below that of a goldfish; that’s a robustly debunked myth!) There are certainly learner preferences for smaller content. However, learner preferences have a notoriously low correlation with the actual value of an approach. Instead, our reasons are based upon a significant aspect of learning science.

Learning, in our brains, is really the strengthening of neural connections. Our thinking is based upon patterns of activation across the myriad of neurons that constitute our brain. When we learn, we’re strengthening the connections within those active patterns (which are frequently two patterns newly put into conjunction). There’s an interesting phenomenon here, however. Just as you can’t build muscles in one shot, but instead require multiple sessions over an extended period of time, so too with our brain. In this case, the function that does the strengthening of patterns fatigues after some amount of work, and needs rest before it can strengthen some.

What this means is that we need to space out learning: do some strengthening, and then take a break before strengthening some more. Just as building muscles requires lifting weights, learning new skills requires practice and feedback. These ‘bits of practice broken by periods of rest’ is known as spaced learning.

This model of ‘bits of a course’ matches nicely with spaced learning! That is, we need to reactivate the patterns in conjunction, again and again. That can be a refresher of a model, another example, and more practice. Providing small bits of this matches technology capability with our learning architecture.

However, the questions of how much practice, over what period of time, and with what spacing, isn’t a formula. The answer depends, at least, on how complex the skill is inherently, how frequently it’s performed outside the learning experience, and how important the consequences of getting it wrong are.

Also, the design of the solution is very different from that of the performance aid. For an aid, you’re designing for the one use. For the skill, you’re figuring out what the minimal first bit is (and that’s likely larger than subsequent bits), what the right next bits are, and importantly, considering when things should be revisited. You’re balancing the need to gradually strengthen some knowledge with also gradually extending it.

Importantly, this is not just taking an existing course and breaking it up. If a course is currently designed to achieve something in one pass, it’s probably wrong! But it’s also likely a continual sequence of material. Breaking it up requires recognizing what information will atrophy (it does), when to reactivate versus extend, when to increase the difficulty, and when to finish.

Wrapping up

Graph talking about in micro learning in detail about Just in Time learning and spaced learning

There’s one more possibility, and that’s performance support that also develops your understanding. That is, it helps in the moment but also is designed to extend your understanding over time. It would take some additional content to layer on the rationale for the steps, to drive deeper understanding. You might even change what it says over time. To be fair, we haven’t really seen this, nor is there a background of research data to support it. Yet, we believe it’s doable. Determining when and where it would make sense is a separate issue.

To be clear, microlearning is not just presenting small bits of content. If it’s to be used, it needs to be usable. If it’s to build up over time, the process needs to know when and how to strengthen, and when to extend. Neither comes fortuitously by luck; it has to be by design.

The bottom line is that both instantiations of microlearning are separately valuable. They’re worth executing when circumstances suggest. They’re also worth doing right. What doesn’t make sense is not knowing which to use when and how they differ.

To learn more about the full potential of microlearning, download our comprehensive eBook ‘Microlearning: It’s Not What You Think It Is’. Let us know if you found it useful and if you would like a detailed chat on microlearning with me or our team of experts, reach out to elearning@upsidelearning.com.

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