Microlearning: The Bite-Sized Elephant

July 16, 2018
Is Microlearning the new fad?
Renowned economist Robert Prechter once argued that in the course of a major bull market there’s something called a “point of recognition” when the general public gets on board. Business aside, have we reached that point of acceptance with Microlearning? Yes and No.

It’s getting difficult to tell a fad from a genuinely new development these days, but make no mistake – “micro-learning” has gained enough traction. It is here to stay. More so in today’s times of agile set up and instant gratification. Microlearning was the demand of the times, as social media and ultra busy lives have changed every single way we consume content, including learning.

When was the last time you were truly excited about a 40 minute traditional e-learning course? Businesses see this dip in your interest as reduced ROI!

Attention span of goldfish

According to a new research from Microsoft, people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds. Before you lose yours here, know that this number once read 12! In the study, where Microsoft researchers surveyed 2,000 participants and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs), it was found that since the beginning of 2000 (around the time when dot-com boom took over) the average attention span significantly dropped by four seconds. We are pointing to the impact of increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.

In terms of analogy, they say we now have an attention span less than that of goldfish – one notch less for the first time!

The theory has been challenged. Several research findings have debunked the goldfish attention span myth of late. But one point where marketing gurus stand unanimous is that the ideal length of a video is 2-4 minutes. Learning at such short stretches of time matches the working memory capacity and attention span of humans (leave goldfish to goldfish).

How Micro is Micro-learning?

If you ask people what micro-learning is, a majority will say it’s a mode of learning that is smaller than traditional training. They are not wrong. The greek word Mikros means small, after all. However, it’s more about focus and less about duration. It could be 3-5 minutes, 2-4 minutes, or somewhere between 4-6. Experts from learning and development industry have, thankfully, not issued any commandment on this so far. You could call it (in industry jargon) brief and targeted learning object that spans between 3 to 6 minutes, if you may. You could call it bite-sized, small learning snacks that are digestible.

The whole objective is, learning in stretches of 3-7 minutes matches the working memory capacity and attention spans of humans (leave goldfish to goldfish!) and that it saves you considerable time.

It also frees you from the additional burden of learning the detailed concepts which you’re already familiar about. Why should you browse pages after pages, and when all you need is a ‘refresher’ or a quick revision!

Natural fit for mobile learning

We are a generation that grew up on mobile smartphones. Few among us are old-school to that extent as to open laptops for general browsing. So for the time you are stuck in deep traffic, all you have to do is to take out your smartphone or tablet, and couple of swipes later, engage yourself with the desired information that is available in a quick time.

In fact the mobile learning apps work even without internet connection. You can view your learning content offline from your smartphones, and later go online to track the progress through the Learning management System. Given this flexibility to learn anywhere, anytime, they are fast emerging as an important training delivery format.

Text vs Multimedia

10 years ago, you required a sizeable budget, heavy equipment, and professionals to produce a simple video. Today, high-quality content can be produced with just a smartphone and a laptop.

And this is another standout feature of Micro-learning. Unlike the mundane and insipid texts (and volumes and volumes after it), Micro-learning comes with a range of multimedia formats more suited for the visual metaphor.

The enhanced instructional designs and the increasingly embedded UIs have made it much more entertaining these days. Such use of graphics and gamification has indeed made micro learning immensely popular in corporate learning environments.

Day-long PowerPoint training sessions are passé

Here is an interesting research carried out by the University of California-Irvine: Your employee works on a task for about 11 minutes before he is interrupted by a ring or ding of the phone, a popping email, or his co-worker who has come up to his desk. Within that span of 11 minutes, he engages in multiple short and quick tasks that average about 3 minutes each. If the task involves consuming digital information, he spends just 20 seconds browsing one piece of content before he clicks or flicks through to the next.

That is the point. Whether or not human brain is wired to retain focus for minutes and hours at stretch is a different debate for the coffee tables, but modern workplaces, with all their rigors and contingent complexities, are not quite the ideal scenarios for multi-tasking. The demand of the times is that content is delivered in short bursts, therefore, to aid retention and maximize productivity. Micro-learning comes as a logical solution as such – more so in training adult corporate learners. And the sooner your company adopts it, the happier your learners will be.

What it also means is, this learner satisfaction will eventually translate into more business for you.

In contrast, the longer courses are more challenging to digest and retain. Most employees are seen yawning towards the end and such extended training sessions even get in the way of their daily routine works.

To vouchsafe the obvious, the Journal of Applied Psychology says learning in bite-sized pieces makes the transfer of learning from the classroom to the desk “17% more efficient.”

How critical is micro-learning to a business

Think about a newly joined employee who needs a briefing on their roles and responsibilities. While as a formality verbal briefing could suffice, a micro-learning “nugget” could give them more confidence in taking over their new job duties with engaging content and knowledge that is spread out in self-paced, bite-size chunks of learning.

Business leaders are trying to figure out how micro-learning can help them improve employee performance in ways that traditional training and employee development tactics cannot. In fact, according to the Association for Talent Development’s 2017 report, Microlearning: Delivering Bite-Sized Knowledge, 81% of surveyed organizations are currently using or are planning to begin using micro-learning to support their employees.

Micro-learning can help solve some of your biggest business challenges and can have a profound impact on organizational success—whether you’re interested in increasing sales, reducing safety incidents, improving customer service, decreasing turnover, or achieving any other objective that is critical to increasing revenue or decreasing costs. The caveat is that you need to fully grasp the concept and implement it correctly in order to get these kinds of results.

First things first. For micro-learning to work, you have to identify a clear, specific, measurable business result that you want to achieve. Your micro-learning strategy must focus on solving that single problem. Do not get caught up in the intricacies of interconnected issues.

The desired employee behaviour will follow suit. Learning is a science, but if we integrate micro-learning with proven learning science techniques, we could actually maximize our investment of time and effort in employee training. Also when employees do not feel forced to eat information but rather play with it, they develop a certain confidence that enables them take the right decisions at work at just the right times.

The reality is that most employees are overburdened and under-supported. They don’t have time to stop working for hours, let alone spend days or weeks completing additional training. Here, micro-learning could be a boon in itself, for they don’t have to leave their workstation and yet avail the learning with familiar technologies in the regular shift. This makes sense in simplifying the overall workflow – improving training experience for employees and reducing complexity for managers (who can collect data about their employees’ performance and take a look at the types of content they consume.. the information they know and don’t know). You can then use the data to research and analyze how your training efforts are impacting your overall business in the larger picture.

How to eat an elephant?

To put it in the words of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, the “true scarce commodity” of the near future will be “human attention.” The buck stops there. This is where it all actually started. In today’s fast-paced culture, where an average office-goer consumes daily breakfast in subways and cabs, the mode of consuming content cannot stay aloof from the changing dynamics of life. Microlearning is a product of times; it’s a case of natural evolution – from the general, down to the specific.

Note that we have dropped the hyphen between micro and learning in the previous line. We started this whole conversation with the question whether micro-learning has indeed become a fad. In English language, it happens when a concept stands the test of time.

No wonder why organizations are pressing for small chunks of instructional content for access, search or reuse. Such standalone, micro-courses are available just in time, and they come with embedded graphics features that are engaging enough for retention. Organizations will continue to use microlearning for both formal and informal training purposes as it is easier, faster, more productive, and cheaper to build, deploy, and update.

Keep it simple! Eat the elephant one bite at a time.


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