A microlearning approach can be really successful in helping your learners meet learning objectives. Three important considerations for creating microlearning are:
1. Making it a part of a larger learning strategy
2. Getting learning into just-in-time resources, and
3. How it can facilitate spaced practice
And of course, you need the right tools to actually create the content that supports these considerations. I think that PowerPoint could well be the only tool you need. No, wait, really!
Larger learning strategy
The thing that differentiates microlearning from chunking—chopping up one big course into lots of sections—is that each piece of content you create needs to function independently. Some instructional designers call this a minimal independent feedback loop. This means that each microlearning activity should be small (minimal), the learning should not be reliant on other activities (independent), and must give learners immediate feedback (feedback loop) so that they stay motivated and can reflect on their own actions—a crucial factor for learning.
But when you’re designing these independent microlearning activities, you still need to be in touch with the macrolearning going on: the big picture. Each piece of content needs to lead your learners towards a competency, move them towards a qualification, or get them aligned with a company initiative.
Whether you’re converting existing materials or designing your microlearning content from scratch, you’ll benefit from using a tool that can make graphic design quick, easy, and consistent. And that’s where PowerPoint comes in. You can make a whole host of content types in PowerPoint—from infographics, to videos, to interactive eLearning—and ensure that everything is consistent, created quickly, and can be easily repurposed. You can construct graphics using a huge range of inputs like images, icons, and different design styles.
One specific application of a microlearning approach is “just-in-time” training. Sometimes you need to know something for a specific moment in time. If the screen wash in your new car has run out and you aren't sure how to refill it, you might turn to the manual or an app from your car manufacturer to teach you how to do it. You learn the skill in the moment when you need to perform the task—“just in time”. And if the training is effective, then in a few months’ time when the screen wash runs out again, you'll remember what you've learned and get on with the task without the need for any training at all.
What makes effective just-in-time training? Humans have three types of memory: sensory, short-term, and long-term.
Sensory memory momentarily holds anything you see, hear, smell, feel, or taste. It isn’t that big a concern when designing learning experiences, except that you want to avoid habituation–getting used to something to the point you no longer notice. By using a microlearning approach you’re likely avoiding habituation in your learners, as you aren’t exposing them to the same teaching methods or ways of presenting information for extended periods of time. So, think about meaningful ways to differentiate sections to change up what learners are seeing, hearing, and doing.
Short-term—or working—memory has a relatively short duration and limited capacity, but is used pretty much constantly. It discards most pieces of information as soon as they finish being useful. When it comes to designing for short-term memory, you want to be sure not to overload it. Long lists of information are hard for learners to hold in their minds. By organizing the information you’re teaching into smaller chunks you can help to ease the burden on short-term memory and provide structure to your content.
Structure is important because getting anything into your learners’ long-term memory depends on structure and association. Schema theory is the dominant model used to describe how we store and retrieve information in our long-term memory. This theory says that all information in the long-term memory is grouped into meaningful categories, or schemas. When learning something, the new information is added to an existing schema—if it fits—or schema can be restructured or added to incorporate new ideas. So, if you want your training to stand the test of time, you need to make the relationships between pieces of information really clear.
Visuals are a really good way to depict frameworks and portray relationships. And when writing your microlearning scripts be sure to address how the content in one piece of microlearning relates back to the larger learning strategy and to other ideas, concepts, or skills the learner has already encountered. By tapping into learners’ existing knowledge of the content, or to related topics, you help them connect what they’re learning now with what they already know. And that makes a huge difference to long-term retention.
Good just-in-time learning will engage sensory and short-term memory. But GREAT just-in-time learning will also find its place in long-term memory.
We’re living in the age of "Just Google It". I’m sure you’ve experienced a scenario where you don’t know how to do something, and you go straight to YouTube and watch a short video that shows you how. You can create demo videos for anything your learners need to do with software really easily, using PowerPoint’s built-in screen capture capabilities. Or you can create infographics that could be shared as a PDF, poster, or even interactive microsite—all using standard PowerPoint functions. And again, the ability to update it and repurpose it quickly and easily is a huge boost to your ability to create effective microlearning in rapid time.
Another great feature of microlearning content is that it enables learners to practice. Mastery of a skill doesn’t just happen. Jimi Hendrix-level guitar skills don’t suddenly come to a learner overnight. They take time and experience to develop. Simply giving someone more information about a skill isn’t enough—you can tell learners all the chords you can think of, but they still won’t be amazing guitar players.
To master a skill, learners need to practice. But practice involves making mistakes, and no one wants to make mistakes in front of an audience. Microlearning content can include real-world scenarios. These allow your learners to practice their skills in a safe and low-risk environment.
Meaningful interactions provide encouragement and constructive feedback that help the learners understand their mistakes and build on their successes. So, practicing a skill in an environment where you can make mistakes and get feedback is important. But when should this practice take place? And how often?
Most of us believe that practice is better when it’s focused and repetitive: just keep doing one thing over and over until you perfect it. We think that this style of practice works because when we do it, we can see it making a difference in the moment.
But while the rapid gains produced by repetitive practice are often clear to see, the rapid forgetting that follows is not. Practice that’s varied and spaced out over time is far more effective for long-term learning. It might feel less productive, because between each practice session you have forgotten a bit, and you’ve got to work harder to recall what you learned. But this added effort actually makes the learning stronger!
So, how can you create some great content that enables your learners to practice, get feedback, and come back time and time again to take advantage of spaced practice? Well, fancy that! PowerPoint has some great interactive features you can use to build your own interactive content. You can create quick, informal tests using animations, triggers, and hyperlinks; with sophisticated branching to provide useful and relevant feedback to people. And you can even produce tracked surveys and quizzes in PowerPoint using Forms in Office 365. We’re not talking sophisticated testing here, but something that works well to support quick and informal testing and knowledge checks, to support spaced practice—all of which you can create in next-to-no-time.
To recap, microlearning is not a type of content but an approach that means that learners access content in short bursts, over time. You can make it a part of a larger learning strategy, develop just-in-time resources, and use it to facilitate spaced practice ... and you can do all of this using just the tools you have at your disposal. Namely, PowerPoint!
From the editor
Richard Goring, author of this article, will present "Create Effective Microlearning in Record Time with PowerPoint" on September 19 as part of The eLearning Guild's Microlearning Design Online Conference.
This session will offer practical techniques to create microlearning content quickly and easily using PowerPoint. See a real-time demonstration on how to use the tool in innovative ways. Learn to create rich multimedia content in PowerPoint projects using royalty-free images, icons, audio, and video.
In this session, you will learn:
- How to capture your audience's attention and maximize their retention of information in a tiny amount of time
- To create effective microlearning incorporating compelling visuals, engaging animation, and impactful multimedia
- To use PowerPoint to create your dynamic, visual microlearning quickly and easily
- Ways to output to video or HTML5 for easy distribution