Microlearning is not the answer.

Like any tool, microlearning is an answer; it excels at some tasks and is a poor fit for others. The skill, then, lies in deciding when to use microlearning and when a different approach is appropriate.

First though, it’s a good idea to define microlearning. This is not such a simple task: In a Guild Research report, The State of Microlearning, a group of eight eLearning experts struggled to describe microlearning. There was consensus that it is “learning that fits”—fits the learner, fits the goal, fits the delivery method, fits the task at hand. Above all, like any eLearning, microlearning has to be useful.

The experts also agreed that there is a time element in the concept of microlearning, but no hard-and-fast length limit. “We’re talking about small things that take small amounts of time,” said Tanya Seidel of Artisan E-Learning.

As such, there are times that microlearning is an ideal solution. In other scenarios, instructional designers should choose a macro—or longer-form—approach.

Micro or macro?

Various models posit five, or as many as nine, “moments of learning need.” These moments, or stages, provide an excellent framework for choosing when to use microlearning and when to provide more comprehensive “macro” eLearning.

  • Prior to learning: Before learners even know they need to learn or as they are preparing to learn, a microlesson is an ideal way to introduce the topic and provide the all-important answer to “what’s in it for me?” Letting learners know why they are doing training can motivate them to engage with the impending training—whether micro or macro—and retain more of what they learn.
  • Learning something new: When teaching a new topic or skill, particularly one with any complexity, going deep might be necessary. Microlearning is likely to be a poor fit here, unless it’s possible to break the new topic down into small, discrete lessons, as some language-learning programs have done.
  • Expanding knowledge: Adding to a body of knowledge could go micro or macro; again, this depends on the complexity of the topic and the necessary level of mastery.
  • Reviewing material already learned: This is a place where microlearning truly shines. Microlearning can take the form of drills, text chats, short games, or refresher text-based or video lessons—the possibilities are endless. These micro-reviews should be narrowly focused and easy to find and access.
  • When learners apply new knowledge: The moment of applying newly acquired skills or information is another moment where microlearning excels. The learner neither wants nor needs to dig back through the entire long-form course or review a 30- or even a five-minute video. She needs a microlearning tool that enables her to easily find the single fact or process she’s struggling to recall so that she can minimize the disruption to her work.
  • Problem-solving: Similar to reviewing training, problem-solving is likely to demand that a learner recall a seldom-used skill, process, or piece of information. Easy-to-search microlessons shine here, too.
  • Changing processes or information: Akin to studying a new topic or skill, learning a new way of doing something is likely to require more than a short lesson. IDs can go micro here if they can break down the new material into focused, discrete lessons, but this is probably a moment that calls for a deeper treatment, supported by microlearning reminders and refreshers. That review is especially important if learners need to swap an ingrained, familiar process for a new set of steps.
  • Teaching others: Colleagues use microlearning to teach one another skills all the time. It’s usually not called that (or called anything), but any time your next-cubicle neighbor asks you “How do I …” and you answer him, you are providing microlearning. Microlearning can capture institutional knowledge and facilitate knowledge transfer, too. It’s easier to get an expert to explain one concept or process than to document an entire department’s work. Creating microlessons that transmit critical information and preserve it for future employees can boost performance across an entire company.

These “moments” describe most situations where eLearning, training, or performance support might be needed and offer insight as to when to use microlearning—and when not to. Once an ID decides that microlearning is a good fit for the moment, the learner, and the goal, the next mission is designing good microlearning. To prepare for this challenge, register for the Microlearning Design Summit, a one-day workshop where participants will design and create a microlesson. The summit, on October 22, 2018, is co-located with DevLearn 2018 Conference & Expo, October 24 – 26, 2018, in Las Vegas.