Is Micro-learning the Next Big Thing?

By Jennifer Gerves-Keen

According to a recent study by Bersin by Deloitte looking at the modern learner, only one per cent of a typical work week is available to employees to focus on learning and development. Contrast that to statistics from the Association for Talent Development, which estimates that the average time spent training is still over 30 hours per employee in any given year, and we can see that many people are being asked to spend time they do not have in training courses that may or may not be relevant or useful to them.

Learning to Adjust: Adjusting to Learn
A relatively recent addition to learning and development (L&D) concepts, the growth of micro-learning has in part been fueled by three primary factors: the ability to put training pieces on mobile devices, our shorter attention spans, and the lack of time available for most employees to dedicate to learning in today’s organizational environment.

Micro-learning also recognizes that our brains learn more effectively with smaller pieces of information over time, as opposed to ‘drinking from a fire hose’ at workshops and training courses that attempt to cram too much content into a confined duration.

What Exactly IS Micro-learning?
There are several definitions of micro-learning currently in the marketplace. It often involves a series of shorter, concise learning events that, when taken together, achieve a larger, longer-term and more complex learning goal. It is also seen as a self-directed, short and informal learning experience that learners can customize to make as relevant as possible to their own needs. This is particularly attractive to organizations who have access to advanced technology and can offer varied learning menus to their employees, regardless of their position or their location.

Moreover, micro-learning is for everyone. The growth in popularity of micro-learning has been linked to the increase in the Gen Y population in our workforce, but micro-learning is actually suitable and attractive to employees of all ages and experience.

Keep it Short, Sweet and Varied
Micro-learning can take several formats, but it has three consistent features, the first being that any micro-learning event is obviously short. There is no standard allotted time, but for example, certain industry practices use metrics like having videos less than four minutes in length. Due to the limited time, micro-learning pieces are also very narrow in focus, ensuring specific purpose and one topic or idea per learning piece. This makes micro-learning seem very do-able to busy employees as the learning is quickly digestible and it’s available and on-hand exactly when they need it.

From an instructional design perspective, the most interesting element of micro-learning is its diversity.  Although many organizations use video for the majority of their micro-learning, it can also be present in activities, discussions, articles, games, etc., allowing a certain freedom and creativity in L&D design that may not have been present in the past.

Learning How Our Brains Learn
While there is still insufficient research available to know whether micro-learning is effective in reaching long-term learning goals, I think we need to look at it as part of an effective learning program as there will be certain topics or skills that micro-learning will not effectively deliver as a stand-alone option.

What’s encouraging and exciting about moving in this direction is that it shows recognition in the L&D industry that we are finally taking into consideration how our brains actually learn. We are well past the time for organizations to still be designing and delivering full-day workshops, at least in the conventional sense. We are simply not built to learn effectively by sitting passively for six to eight hours at a time.

Caveats to Consider
There is obviously a downside to consider when promoting this kind of learning within an organization. Are we supporting the mentality of getting results with the least amount of effort? Are we taking away the opportunity for deep, reflective thought that may lead to behavioural change and long-term learnings? It’s hard to say at this point as we don’t have enough evidence to see what the long-term impact of this kind of approach will be.

It will also take an good amount of time on the front-end to decide on the focus of your micro-learning: which topics, which medium, the production of your micro-learning ‘catalogue’, the content updates that will be required (particularly for technology/software training) and the most important piece of all, how will you, as an employer, actually know that the learning has been completed and been effective?

We’ve all attended video training where we get an online quiz at the end, but that’s not the same as actually see the learning applied and measuring both its’ impact and long-term sustainability.

Micro-Learning From Others
There is definitely potential in using micro-learning to gain higher levels of engagement and interest in organizational learning, particularly when peoples’ available time is in short supply and often over-prioritized.

To see what it could actually look like, you can check out sites such as KnowledgeGuru, Axonify, Grovo, Coursmos and DailyBitsOf. Some of them offer learning platforms for you to upload your own content and build your own course library; others have micro-learning courses already available and ready to use. At the very least, employers today should consider micro-learning as an additional tool to assist in delivering a customized, relevant and time-conscious blended approach to their organizational learning needs.

Jennifer Gerves-Keen, MA, PCC is a coach and consultant focused on collaborating with her clients to develop people in effective ways that actually make sense.

(PeopleTalk Fall 2016)

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