There’s no formal guideline for the length of a “microlesson”—they can range from one to 15 minutes, with eight minutes a common target or maximum. Even so, Diane Elkins and Tanya Seidel, of Artisan eLearning, agree that microlessons have several defining characteristics:

  • Brevity is key. “‘Short’ has a wide variety of definitions; and obviously the content is going to play a role in how short something can be,” Seidel said.
  • “It’s not as much about length as it is single purpose,” Elkins said. “Short and to the point, and targeted.”
  • A primary goal of microlessons is reducing information overload, “getting to the point really fast,” Seidel said. “It’s more ‘need to know’ information versus ‘want to know.’”

In addition to being short, microlessons are “easily repeatable,” Seidel said. Comparing a microlearning module with more traditional eLearning, she observed, “If you’re doing something on a complex task that takes an hour and a half to get through, well, you’re not going to sit through an hour-and-a-half course right before you go into a sales meeting. But if you have short topics in a microlearning format that is easily repeatable, you might take a quick little three-minute course on how to negotiate pricing right before you go into a sales meeting, if you’re feeling a little bit uneasy about that part.”

Elkins continues the thread: “It can also be refresher. You maybe went through an instructor-led training program on your sales techniques. You need some time to process all of that; you’re going to forget some of it; some of it you’re going to try and realize you don’t really have the nuance you need. So you want to go back and get some refresher training that will restate what you’ve already learned or maybe go a little bit deeper.”

Chunked eLearning is not microlearning

Along with describing what makes up a microlesson, Elkins and Seidel are clear about what a microlesson is not. For openers, taking a three-hour course and chopping it into three- or five-minute chunks does not turn it into a series of microlessons. And microlearning is “not designed for, in my opinion, foundational knowledge,” Elkins said. “If I am learning to be a project manager, there is so much I have to know that I’d have to take 104 microlessons to get what I need, and that would be maddening.”

A common misperception, Elkins said, is that the driver of shorter eLearning—microlessons in particular—is the notion that people have shorter attention spans. Though this has been thoroughly debunked, the myth persists.

“We don’t make our staff meetings six minutes long; we don’t make blockbuster movies six minutes long,” Elkins said. “If it’s meeting a need and relevant and engaging, people will pay attention. Yes, we do have to care about people’s attention, but we need to care more about their time. It’s not that I can’t pay attention—it’s that I have things to do.”

The training format and length has to match the training need, Elkins said. “I don’t care what your attention span is; I cannot teach you lab safety for a biochemical engineer in five minutes,” she said. “Can I make it in small portions? Yes. But some would argue that that’s not microlearning. Just taking something big and putting it in small pieces isn’t a bad strategy, but it isn’t typically microlearning,” she said. “But if it’s, ‘We had a safety incident in the lab, and it’s because people aren’t really clear on the labeling of biohazardous waste,’ can I push out a five-minute refresher on that for everybody? You bet. Or maybe it’s an upgrade,” such as teaching learners who have completed their training about a new or updated tool or product.

Microlessons create learning opportunities

Their brevity makes microlessons mobile-friendly, which, Seidel said, creates new opportunities for learning. “Microlearning is perfect for mobile devices,” Seidel said. “I’m not going to watch a one-hour video on my phone unless it’s the only thing I have when I’m stuck on a plane.” But shorter content is a different story, and presenting information in that way allows learners to learn more efficiently.

“You’re in your car, you’re on a train, you’re on a plane, you’re waiting at the bus stop—whatever it might be, you know you have a piece of microlearning that’s only a few minutes long—you can engage in it, and you can engage in it fully, in that short amount of time that you are waiting or sitting or flying or doing whatever it is that you’re doing. Whereas if that were an hour-and-a-half-long course, I know, at least from my perspective, I wouldn’t even start it.” Seidel said. “I’m not going to start it, forget what I started, and go back to it another time. So I’m just not going to do it at all. Microlearning offers an opportunity to at least do something in that time that you may not use otherwise.”

Create a microlesson

Instructional designers, eLearning developers, and training managers who are convinced that microlessons can solve some of their training problems are invited to roll up their sleeves and get creative. Join The eLearning Guild for DevLearn 2017 Conference & Expo, October 25 – 27 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Seidel and Elkins are presenting a pre-conference BYOL (Bring Your Own Laptop®) workshop, “Make a Microlesson in a Day,” on October 24. Workshop participants will build a microlesson, from concept to finished product, during the seminar. Registration is open now!