. . . and Why We Need It
How will microlearning impact your training plans? Here’s a comprehensive definition of microlearning and its implications for your business.
At first glance, the definition of microlearning is simple. Microlearning is an approach to training characterized by brief learning modules comprising bite-sized learning activities delivered over mobile devices and designed for quick consumption. They are built in chunks, between three and ten minutes long — short enough to keep a learner’s attention focused from beginning to end. And they are served up just in time at the point of contact — exactly when and where they are needed.
Brief. Bite-sized. Chunks. Just in time. There they are, four simple ideas that will appear in any definition of microlearning you’re likely to find. But they are deceptively simple. In reality they represent a systemic change in how we think about every component of our own organization’s learning enterprise. Microlearning
- changes the way we approach the analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation of our learning programs;
- demands that we master new technologies to give our learners a potent, concentrated experience in a simple, timely, and cost-effective way; and
- forces L&D professionals to rethink who their clients really are — and even what their own jobs should really be.
Why We Need Microlearning
Today’s more complex jobs require your employees to retain a daunting volume of working knowledge. It changes so fast that it’s no longer possible to teach it in periodic classroom courses. And e-learning courses, which have long development cycles, go out of date almost immediately upon release.
Even if we could conjure learning programs by waving a wand your employees wouldn’t have time to take them. Way back in 2014, Deloitte found that the average employee already answered 110 emails per day, but couldn’t spare more than 24 minutes per week for training. That’s precisely one per cent of a 40-hour workweek.1 The modern workplace is fundamentally incompatible with every 30-minute e-learning course.
But microlearning doesn’t simply get your training across in a busy world. It also offers L&D organizations a new operating model, which makes it possible, at last, to both drive business results and demonstrate them to business leaders. Find out more about how microlearning and training reinforcement are a business imperative no company can afford to ignore.
Our old, familiar working environment has vanished, transformed along with the accelerated pattern of our lives. What caused it, and how can we, as L&D professionals, conceptualize this new world we live in?
The modern workplace is fundamentally incompatible with every 30-minute e-learning course.
When the World Goes Mobile
Google to the rescue. Their Think with Google initiative characterizes the new business environment as a fundamental shift caused by the world going mobile. It’s worth hearing what they have to say2:
“As mobile has become an indispensable part of our daily lives,” they write,
we’re witnessing a fundamental change in the way people consume media. What used to be our predictable, daily sessions online have been replaced by many fragmented interactions that now occur instantaneously . . . .
. . . We call these ‘micro-moments,’ and they’re game changers for both consumers and brands. Micro-moments occur when people reflexively turn to a device — increasingly a smartphone — to act on a need to learn something, do something, discover something, watch something, or buy something. They are intent-rich moments when decisions are made and preferences shaped. In these moments, consumers’ expectations are higher than ever.
The biggest challenge this new reality poses to us as learning professionals comes when we try to serve our younger workers.
Meet Generation Z, The First Post-Millennial Generation
In the United States in 2016, the Millennials passed the Boomers to become the largest generation in the labour force, and they continue to grow as a percentage of corporate employees.3 But organizations have now had 20 years to figure out how they tick. In 2019 the oldest Millennial is 38, and is probably a vice-president in your company.4
A new cohort of young people is chasing them into the workforce at a gallop. Above all, we know that the members of Generation Z are very different from their predecessors.5
In place of Millennial confidence, assertiveness, and, some would say, a certain sense of entitlement, their successors come to the world of work with a more practical approach to life. They are more open-minded and they expect to have to work hard to earn their right to be here. These young people have never known a world without the internet, and social media has dominated their formative years.6
One side-effect of their technological upbringing, it has been said, is that their attention spans have been known to flash by and vanish into the ether. But even if that were more than a stereotype, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
They are the masters of multitasking. The speed at which they can parse large volumes of changing information is breathtaking. And their native ability to communicate it in highly-concentrated forms is unprecedented. It’s mesmerizing, if you’re paying attention, to watch a post-Millennial shoot a video, edit it, and integrate it with other sources of media with just a few swipes on his or her smartphone. It’s fascinating to experience the fluency with which they participate in and consume real-time data streams, to see them generate continuous pulses of multimedia that operate simultaneously across several distributed platforms.7
For Generation Z, every moment is a micro-moment.
Find out how one Fortune 500 auto company used microlearning to prepare 10,000 salespeople for a high-stakes new product introduction. See the first in our upcoming series of case studies, Let’s Make a Dealer: Examples of Microlearning in Action.
The Implications of Microlearning
What does this mean for us, taking our first steps into this new frontier?
We have to rethink our concept of a learning session. Our learning content must be the right size to occupy a micro-moment whenever one opens in an employee’s day. They pop up unpredictably and don’t last long. If we’re not there when one opens, something else will fill its place. And when we do get there, we had better deliver something meaningful before it closes.
Ready means being ready on mobile. Micro-moments have a bad habit of hiding away when you’re sitting at your desk. But they eagerly approach us on the bus, in the coffee line, in the elevator, during lunch breaks on the factory floor, and while waiting to pick the kids up from school.
Ready means being ready to compete. That is, to compete with the heightened expectations of the most sophisticated generation of creators and consumers of media experiences in human history. Generation Z is the hardest nut to crack. If we can compete with the consumer experiences they are used to, the rest of our learners will follow. The challenge is to offer learners a cohesive variety of experiences that must be easy to develop, smooth and fun to use, and simple to measure.
Chopping up an eLearning course into pieces and calling it microlearning never works. We have to repurpose our old, but still useful, learning material — extract it from its present housing, update and refocus it, and redesign it into several microlearning formats, each honed for a different purpose. They can include well-written quizzes designed for evaluation, knowledge retention, or diagnostics. Flash cards for self-testing and memorization. Short microlearning courses containing new or repurposed content. Training reinforcement to follow classroom programs, coaching and gamified exercises, and any other media that will run on a mobile device.
Get the technology right. The right technology strategy begins in the user’s hand, with a native mobile app. There are two shortcuts that will get you a partially functional “mobile app.” The first is to use web technology to create a website that looks like an app. The second is to use commercial software tools to generate the app code for you.
But only a true native app, written in each operating system’s native language using only the manufacturer’s native software frameworks, give you full control of the user experience on every possible device. Responsive web sites, which flow differently depending on the screen size of each device, always provide an unpredictable experience. They are also unable to bring every single feature of your advanced devices to bear on microlearning. Only a native iOS app, for instance, can co-opt Spotlight, Siri, location services, the full range of touch gestures, built-in artificial intelligence, the iOS machine learning engine, and even offline mode, to deliver a superior learning experience when connected or disconnected from the network. And only native apps are instantly compatible with every new and wonderful hardware and software capability the manufacturers will release in the future.
Microlearning is driven by data. In traditional elearning we pull reports to find out how employees behaved when they interacted with our elearning courses. This information is important when we upgrade or redesign that course. Did they all close the course when they reached the same page? Is one of the test questions too difficult?
Microlearning generates masses of data, far beyond what standard learning management systems can manage. It happens in real time, whenever an employee interacts with the quizzes, microcourses, and other formats of your microlearning program. The data stream is used to train an adaptive microlearning platform — the other half of that right technology strategy — which knows what each learner understands, the help they need, and what they struggle with. The platform then chooses what to offer each learner. It removes some modules from their experience and inserts others to help them master their targeted competencies in the shortest possible amount of time. In microlearning, platform and content are deeply intertwined, far more tightly than an LMS and the SCORM courses it houses.
Microlearning doesn’t stop. We’re accustomed to learning sessions that take a day or two in the classroom, or an hour or two with eLearning. You can use microlearning to prepare learners in advance of a course, by sending them primers to get them ready, and for training reinforcement afterward, using simple best practices. But learning, by nature, has no limits. So why should it stop?
Microlearning is a critical element of an emerging model of learning and development called the continuous learning model. A continuous learning model is an ecosystem that includes much more than training. It encompasses recruitment, onboarding, coaching, mentoring, on-the-job training, opportunities for lateral and vertical career moves, education of managers, redefining L&D roles, redesigned bonus and compensation schemes, and a new model of constantly curated content being fed continuously to the learning population. Microlearning that never ends plays a key role in this new way of looking at employee development.
Are you ready to capture your employees’ attention? Get some practical advice. Read about the 7 Do’s and Don’ts of Microlearning.
A New Definition of Microlearning
What, then has become of our original definition of microlearning? With all that we’ve now learned let’s try again:
Microlearning is a learner-centric approach to training designed for the new global workplace, which the mobile revolution has created. It is characterized by mobile delivery of a cohesive variety of learning activities, made from versatile microlearning content formats. When designed as self-reinforcing programs, microlearning imparts rich training experiences that can meet the expectations of a new generation of sophisticated media consumers.
The best microlearning uses native mobile apps and an AI-powered adaptive microlearning platform. It prescribes personalized learning experiences for each learner in real time, based on its assessment of their prior progress. It gives them an optimal path to reach their targeted competencies in the shortest possible amount of time. Microlearning experiences are highly efficient, capable of delivering complex learning outcomes within the three-to-ten-minute duration of a micro-moment, dozens of which open and close repeatedly during every employee’s workday.
When built on a sophisticated native app architecture, microlearning is future-proof. Only native apps give you complete control over your user experience use. Only native apps can leverage the full range of features offered by mobile devices. Only they will remain compatible with new versions of the device manufacturers’ operating systems. And only they can guarantee that you will be able to harness every future advancement in mobile technology to enrich your current learning experiences, and to invent innovative new ones.
Accelerated business in the mobile age places new demands on your employees. They have to retain increasing volumes of knowledge that changes constantly. Classroom courses are expensive and e-learning takes so long to build that it’s out of date before it hits the pavement. And e-learning is boring — it inspires avoidance and escape strategies instead of learning.
Microlearning transforms how we analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate training. It gives your learners a potent, concentrated experience in a simple, timely, and cost-effective manner. Microlearning slides seamlessly into the micro-moments that appear unpredictably every day. It suits younger employees, especially the incoming Generation Z, with their practicality, their willingness to work hard, and their almost magical ability to absorb, process, and communicate information in sophisticated forms, using only their smartphones.
Microlearning isn’t only more effective: it makes everyone’s life easier. That’s something we can all use.
Todd Tauber and Wendy Wang-Audia, Meet the Modern Learner: Engaging the Overwhelmed, Distracted, and Impatient Employee, Research Bulletin 2014, Bersin by Deloitte, 4, https://legacy.bersin.com/uploadedfiles/112614-meet-the-modern-learner.pdf.
Sridhar Ramaswamy. How Micro-Moments Are Changing the Rules, Google (April 2015): 2, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/marketing-resources/micro-moments/how-micromoments-are-changing-rules/.
- Richard Fry, “Millennials Are the Largest Generation in the U.S. Labor Force,” PEW Research Center, April 11, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/11/millennials-largest-generation-us-labor-force/.
Michael Dimock, “Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins,” Pew Research Center, January 17, 2019, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/.
Dimock, “Defining Generations.” An earlier version of this article stated that demographers had not yet settled on a name for the immediate successors to the Millennials. Naming a generation isn't an exact science. But, according to the Pew Research Center, the momentum shifted decisively in 2018. Several major trendsetters, including Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and even the Urban Dictionary, a popular online source of contemporary youth slang, now endorse the term “Generation Z” to identify the cohort born beginning in 1997.
- Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us (New York: Atria Books, 2017): 310–311.
Marshall McLuhan, the popular prophet of electronic media, argued that generations to come would reclaim a lost legacy of our preliterate past. The culture that began with Gutenberg’s press in Europe, he explained, had flooded our world, especially in the West, with so much print that it caused the phonetic alphabet — a static string of sounds coded in a visual format — to dominate all other forms of communication. It changed the structure of the Renaissance brain, prioritizing information sensed through our eyes, causing our visual sense to dominate, and impoverishing all the others.
But electronic media is more holistic. It engages our aural and tactile senses in addition to sight. McLuhan's new trailblazers, he said, by their mastery of electronic media, would communicate through immersive experiences, just as our preliterate forebears once did in their villages. Village life was a cornucopia of sights and sounds, spaces, textures, smells, and tastes, all melded into a unified experience invested with deep meaning. The new generation would restore this holistic sense-experience, but they would do it on a worldwide scale.
Here they finally are — the native citizens of McLuhan's global village. They have tremendous potential to transform your business. But are you ready for them?