Microlearning has benefits, and it’s easy to fall into the belief that it solves all problems. However, when we look a bit deeper, we see that there are times when microlearning isn’t appropriate. Moreover, even if it is right, you might go about it wrong. Here, we unpack some of the issues.
First, microlearning in either flavor – the ‘YouTube’ in-the-moment support or the drip-irrigation approach to learning over time – makes sense when either of those models characterizes your needs. However, if you need swift upskilling in the shortest possible time, or guided support via a human, microlearning isn’t the answer. So that’s an obvious way to go wrong, throwing microlearning at the wrong problem. There’s more, however. That’s where we dig into the characteristics of each.
When you have a need to build up a skill to a sufficient level, microlearning can help. You probably will need an initial learning experience – likely including an emotional hook, an initial model, examples, and a first practice – followed up with a steady ‘drip’ of reactivation and reapplication. Yet here are ways to go wrong here.
For one, folks often seem to think that taking an existing course and breaking it up into smaller chunks makes sense. However, even if the course was effective (and that’s not the way to bet), just breaking it up risks losing any benefit it may have had. There are nuances that must be understood to do avoid doing spaced learning wrong.
The first way to go wrong is to get the spacing wrong. If you don’t understand the rate of memory fading and the appropriate time to reactivate learning, you’re liable to lose the benefits of the approach. Too frequently, such as daily, risks annoying your learners and over-investing in resources. Thus, your spending could be higher than necessary. Similarly, too long, such as weekly, and you risk having the learning fade too much and the reactivation doesn’t have anything left to activate. Then your investment is completely wasted.
Of course, if you don’t provide a sufficient initial foundation, the subsequent reactivation may not achieve an actual improvement, as there wasn’t an appropriate base. Again, the investment in developing the learning won’t pay off, and the investment is forfeit.
Finally, what constitutes effective reactivation matters. Providing new models and examples, e.g., new content, is part of it, but so too is challenging learners to apply that knowledge appropriately. What you are having them do, and when, matters. You want content to expand their understanding, either showing new contexts that support further transfer, or extensions that handle new situations. The practice needs to gradually increase in challenge to adjust to increasing capability. Just presenting content, or just presenting quiz questions, both may be wrong for any particular situation. Thus, you could again be wasting a content investment.
Here the situation requires a different design and therefore runs different risks. Not understanding what makes support work in the moment is as bad as not knowing how to support learning over time.
There are a variety of situations where putting information ‘in the world’ makes more sense than putting it ‘in the head’ (e.g. using learning). When things don’t happen frequently, the likelihood that the requisite learning is available is low without extensive (and expensive) training. When it’s about repeating steps again and again, the likelihood that one step is missed is increased by the familiarity of previous steps. And so on.
Putting information into the world, however, can go awry. I remember working with a bank that had a fairly well-designed support for talking to customers that wasn’t used because the employees weren’t aware of what its role was! Developing a solution and not ensuring the appropriate support for use is in place means that the investment is wasted. Cross & Dublin’s book Implementing eLearning pointed out that every form of eLearning (and more) really is an organizational change, and should be treated as such. However, this holds true for spaced learning as well.
Of course, designing the solution to meet the need is also important. Providing a step-by-step guide to a process that’s well-known but repeated might not be as effective as a checklist. The reverse is also true, providing a checklist when the context really needs to be comprehended may not be as effective. Here, the investment may not be totally wasted, but the solution is less than optimal, and as such the investment isn’t appropriately leveraged.
Making the solution available using the right media is also an issue. We are amongst the organizations that I have seen use QR codes as ways to trigger videos in context. If they’re just available on a portal, folks might not find them as needed. Understanding the context of performance may indicate that an audio solution is needed if visual attention is necessary for a task, and in a noisy environment, a visual solution may make more sense. Getting this wrong also suggests wasting, at least partially, the cost.
Of course, one more type of mistake is using one type when the other is the one that’s prescribed by the nature of the problem. If folks don’t understand the nuances, they may develop a microlearning solution that fits to one type of approach, but the problem requires the other. Using spaced learning to develop a skill that is better served by support in the moment is just as bad as the reverse.
In short, the ways in which to go wrong with a microlearning solution include choosing the wrong solution, implementing the solution inappropriately, and not providing appropriate support in the larger context. These manifest in initial analysis, design, and development, and all can cause an investment to be partially or completely wasted.
Doing microlearning right isn’t trivial, and there are consequences for going awry. Please, do take the time to ensure your investments are aligned with the need so the effort results in a meaningful outcome.
To explore the full potential of microlearning and avoid costly mistakes, we recommend downloading our comprehensive eBook titled ‘Microlearning: It’s Not What You Think It Is.’ Gain valuable insights and discover effective strategies for implementing microlearning correctly. If you found this blog useful and would like to delve deeper into microlearning with our team of experts, feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re here to help you make the most of your microlearning investments.