Microlearning, the practice of learning in small learning units, is the new craze in the learning and development industry.
The reason behind microlearning’s recent popularity revolves around three things: workers are time-constrained, obsessed with mobile devices, and are impatient. Today’s average U.S. employee works 47 hours a week, 49% of employees work 50 hours or more per week, and 20% work 60+ hours per week.
Not only are employees overworked, but they are obsessed with technology, even checking their cell phones about 150 times a day. It’s no wonder they only have 1 percent of their work week (about 24 minutes) available for learning.
The combination of busy schedules and a mobile device that gives them immediate access to an infinite amount of information also has workers accustomed to immediate answers and a general impatience towards finding solutions. It’s true, Google it.
As a result, businesses must seek faster, more effective ways to deliver training where and when their workers ask for it. Enter microlearning.
This type of learning is touted as bite-sized, personalized, attention- grabbing lessons that are easy to access and apply. And because content is simple to create, it is easy to develop educational material to meet ever-changing business needs.
According to Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin by Deloitte, “Microlearning content is important because the way we work has radically changed, and we are constantly bombarded by distractions.”
And Debbie Williams, marketing director at TOPYX, agrees, referring to microlearning as the future of corporate training: “Microlearning is one of the most effective forms of information acquisition, effective at helping people keep and recall information.”
But is microlearning the best way to teach today’s busy and overwhelmed employees? Let’s take a look at the potential shortcomings of microlearning:
1. Teaching students the big picture
Microlearning: does it help students see the forest from the trees?
Microlearning consists of short learning nuggets which are designed to meet specific learning goals. However, while this type of content is easy to digest, students can miss the big picture and lack a larger perspective of the problem.
In other words, while microlearning can help students quickly solve problems, it doesn’t provide students with a framework. For example, microlearning could teach a student how to do a simple database query. But if you ask the student to do a database query that includes multiple tables, relationships and exclusions, the microlearning nugget will be inadequate.
2. Turning novices into experts
Learning from a short video is simply not as effective as learning directly from an experienced instructor.
Early in the learning curve, employees require macro learning—committing a great deal of time to learning a whole new area or domain—to fully understand a new role, process, culture and system. And as students progress along the learning curve, they need continuous boosts of new skills, information and connections until they become experts.
Once this macro learning is complete, students can learn via microlearning because they now have the foundation, experience and context under them. After all, what’s a better way to learn? By sending employees to a 3-day training course with an expert instructor or showing students a series of 5-minute videos on how to use the software?
Another way to think about it is what are the consequences or costs of a student who learns something incorrectly? If the costs are small, then perhaps a microlearning course is appropriate. But if the potential costs are large, or if you plan to rely on the student for critical functions over a long-term period, then investing in proper training would be the appropriate way to go about training.
3. Providing an environment for students to practice real-world tasks
Proponents of microlearning maintain it is beneficial for students to receive small bits of information to avoid overloading students or taxing their short attention spans.
But active, hands-on practice is the key to learning. According to John Dewey, learning must be relevant and practical—not passive and theoretical. “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn,” said Dewey. “And the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”
Giving students something to “do” is the premise behind virtual training labs. These labs are critical in replicating realistic situations that teach students the skills they need when they are back at their desks, working on actual software.
Because learning by doing has been proven to create higher knowledge retention than just listening and watching (death by PowerPoint), the combination of virtual instructor-led training (VILT) and virtual training labs are more effective at helping students achieve performance fluency. And this hands-on practice can help students get the real-life skills they need to not only succeed in their jobs, but throughout their careers.
The bottom line is that all skills must be practiced and require more than 3- to 5- minute segments of instruction. It is vital for students to practice these skills by working on real-world tasks—instead of merely watching a handful of short videos.
4. Promoting teamwork and collaboration
In addition to real-world practice, it is important for students to learn how to interact with a team to test new ideas, obtain feedback, collaborate and discuss theories.
John Dewey maintained that learning is a social and interactive process. He believed that students thrive when allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum and take an active part in their own learning.
That’s where virtual training tools come into play. For example, ReadyTech offers many innovative virtual training tools that enable instructors to create a collaborative learning environment for students.
These include quizzes, polls or exams to create interaction; Screen Share, which allows instructors to let a student teach the class for a short period; annotation, which allows instructors and students to discuss images, screenshots and the product that the training is on; and Breakout Groups, which allows instructors to break the class into smaller groups for group assignments.
All of these virtual training tools help instructors provide a collaborative learning experience for all students.
Survival in today’s business world depends greatly on acquiring and retaining knowledge, skills and capabilities. But organizations can’t rely solely on microlearning to fill knowledge gaps.
Microlearning is most useful when combined with other types of learning—such as hands-on learning, macro learning, spaced repetition and reinforcement learning—because it is ineffective to only teach new information in short bursts.