The learning and development world has been abuzz about microlearning for some time now. It’s been a top trend on nearly every industry list for several years and has moved beyond being a passing fad to being a solid feature in the corporate learning landscape.
What is microlearning?
Exactly as the term implies, microlearning means consuming small chunks of learning in relatively short periods of time and focusing solely on short-term learning activities.
Debate about whether this is really a new practice or if it’s what learning designers were doing well before the term emerged are less relevant here. What matters now is that the popularity of the buzzword has given way to useful discussion about the best way to use microlearning to solve L&D problems within organizations. As an industry, we are moving beyond the buzzword and toward the problem-solving.
My colleague Mike Martin, Head of Customer Experience and Training at SAP Litmos facilitated a webinar about this very topic. He challenged L&D professionals to focus on the results we are trying to achieve, rather than getting caught up in the trends and fads, and reminded us that building a modern learning culture takes much more than buzzwords!
Benefits of learning in short, focused segments
Most research points to the effectiveness and benefits of microlearning as well as the fact that learners tend to prefer it. Microlearning offers a customized, informal, and on-demand learning experience that aligns with how we consume digital content in our daily lives. L&D professionals see it as a way to deliver appealing, easy-to-use content for time-poor employees. Organizations the world over embrace microlearning as an efficient way to train their workforce.
At the heart of every effective learning intervention is analysis and design. L&D professionals everywhere follow this methodology in their roles. It’s a process we’re all familiar with: align with business priorities, identify learning needs, design the learning solution, and measure for impact. (For a comprehensive view on this, check out McKinsey & Company’s report on the essential components of an L&D strategy).
Essentially, before jumping to microlearning as a solution, try asking: How can microlearning legitimately help me implement my L&D intervention and solve a problem in my organization?
It’s a big question, so to help, let’s look at some examples.
Microlearning use cases
Here, we’ll unpack four ways that microlearning can legitimately help to implement an L&D intervention and solve a real-world organizational problem.
1) Learners need a refresher
Workers are now required to have a vast array of skills and knowledge to do their jobs well. Whether it’s using a new IT platform, hiring strategies to tackle unconscious bias, or debunking historic workplace myths in favor of a more modern approach. Given the volume of information we consume at work each day and the variety of tasks performed, it’s common for skills and knowledge to be learned but used infrequently. With limited opportunities for repetition, knowledge retention fades and proficiency drops. It’s the “use or lose it” principle. That’s why knowledge top-ups or refreshers are essential.
Microlearning can be a highly effective for refresher training to reinforce topics that workers already know something about. Having pre-existing knowledge means the course doesn’t need a lot of context and background explanation. Just jump right in with key ideas to trigger prior knowledge, and your learners get exactly what they need.
First aid training is an excellent use-case for microlearning refresher training. Certified training delivered regularly is essential for effective first aid in the workplace. But – thankfully – few of us put our first aid training to use. Short-burst refresher training on responding to a medical emergency, administering CPR, or attending to someone having a seizure or choking can provide effective, even lifesaving, updates.
2) Learners need a reminder
Even in organizations with strong corporate compliance programs, conduct breaches and safety violations still happen. These incidents may be one-off actions by an individual or point to a more widespread knowledge gap in the organization. Either way, a short course specific to the nature of the issue can help to remind employees about expected behaviors and prevent further violations. In the compliance world, this is sometimes referred to as “remedial training,” but that carries some negative connotations, so you may not want to tell learners that they’re being asked to do “remedial training.”
Microlearning lends itself well to this. For example, it can be useful to offer quick training following a cybersecurity breach. Cybersecurity threats follow trends and it is common for an organization to be targeted with repeated threats of a similar nature. Once a trend has been identified, a short course on phishing or malware can be a powerful reminder to employees about what to watch out for and help protect your organization from a costly information security breach.
3) Learners need to know this – right now!
We use microlearning for just-in-time training in our daily lives all the time – whether it’s a video tutorial on cutting your own hair or a two-minute read about not giving your dog raisins. So, it’s no surprise that microlearning works for just-in-time learning on the job, too.
Often called “pull training,” this is where learners access courses themselves, when they need them. With an easy-to-use learning management system (LMS) and courseware with a mobile-first design, learners can access their training anytime, anywhere, and on any device.
By “learning in the flow of work,” employees identify a knowledge gap, gain knowledge, and put it to use in one continuous process. Skill transfer and performance improvement are immediate.
When learners identify their own knowledge gaps, they have intrinsic motivation to learn. Just-in-time training does not need to explain or convince the learner. In fact, the shortest possible route to the learning outcome the better.
A use case for just-in-time microlearning is personal development on a topic such as preventing procrastination. When an employee catches themselves procrastinating, a course like this catches them in the moment. And if you can’t spare a mere 60 seconds to complete some training when you’re putting off a task – then when can you?! Short training on common personal development topics are the perfect remedy.
4) Learners have different knowledge gaps about the same topic
L&D interventions often target a group of employees within the organization and focus on a specific topic or skill set. This can come about due to a change in business priorities or via knowledge gaps revealed from employee pulse surveys. Examples include communication skills for first-time managers, risk management training for project leads, or finance skills for non-finance managers.
When designing training for a group within an organization, individuals within the group often have different learning needs, which creates a challenge for L&D. Nothing turns off adult learners faster than training on a topic in which they are already proficient. Microlearning can help.
Rather than assigning long and comprehensive training on a given topic, bite-sized learning modules can be grouped together to create a learning path, program, or journey. Paths can be individually tailored, based on an employees’ knowledge gaps. Alternatively, learners can choose the courses they will complete from a collection of bite-sized parcels, based on their own self-assessment.
A use-case for microlearning in this scenario is creating a personal vision statement. This will be very specific to each individual and something they may not have previously thought about. Delivering this in a long course would be time-consuming, when all the ideas and creativity should come from the individual – all they really need is the catalyst of a 60-second skills course to prompt them into action!
Microlearning for meaningful results
As an L&D professional, it’s easy to get distracted by the buzzwords and flavor-of-the-month concepts in organizational development and corporate training. While keeping up with trends in our industry are part of being an informed professional, the hype around new ideas can sometimes side-track us from the core job at hand.
Let’s not forget the strategic role of L&D is to manage the development of people in a way that helps our organizations stay competitive and at pace with rapid social and technological change. Now that’s something worth buzzing about!