Microlearning is a trendy buzzword and concept; so trendy, in fact, that people can’t quite agree on what it means. Some use microlearning to describe short, informal learning experiences that learners consume individually (rather than learning that occurs in formal course frameworks). Others see it as brief learning experiences that add up to a planned program to meet stated learning goals—in other words, taking that formal course and breaking it down into tiny little nuggets of learning.

Whatever your overarching definition of microlearning, however, some aspects of it are consistent:

  • Learning units are small, perhaps only a few minutes in duration
  • Microlearning can be delivered on mobile or online platforms (but does not have to be)
  • Each unit is narrowly focused
  • Format can vary—microlearning can occur through games, simulations, activities, video, reading … pretty much any format

Microlearning offers clear advantages

A clear advantage of microlearning for eLearning developers and designers is that they can produce small units more quickly, and often less expensively, than deeper courses. In addition, they can create new modules more easily—and update existing ones more quickly—than longer course modules. When tagged or indexed and located within a searchable framework—an LMS or database, for example—microlearning units can be easy for learners to access at the moment they need the information (facilitating and complementing a “just-in-time training” approach). It suits the way many workers have become accustomed to acquiring knowledge.

Not everyone is a fan

Microlearning has its detractors as well as enthusiasts. Michael Strawbridge, a blogger on the Learning Professional Network, decries the focus on duration and frequency and the allure of technology rather than a focus on content and results.

Other critics contend that this approach fragments learning, making it harder for learners to synthesize and apply what they learn to long-term learning goals. Microlearning units tend to cover a single learning objective, so delving into deep or complex topics is not really feasible within a single microlearning experience.

However, microlearning is well suited to learning that requires lots of repetition, such as study of a new language, or for introducing or refreshing knowledge of procedures. It also plays nicely with instructional strategies that emphasize spaced repetition and distributed practice, where learners practice a step or skill over and over before moving to the next. The small steps or skills build into a more complex process, so the microlearning units ultimately add up to mastery of a complex skill.