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7 Microlearning Myths: Separating from Fad and Friction

14 minutes
Myths of microlearning

Table of Contents

Learning with micro efforts
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What is a myth? One of the shorter definitions is: "an unfounded or false notion." Let's start off by considering a novel etymology for the word mythology. It could be seen as a contraction of "my-thought-ology" (you may think something is the case, but "it ain't necessarily so").

And while microlearning has become a buzzword in the eLearning arena, there are also a number of ‘mythconceptions’ about what it is and is not.

As this post is based on a webinar hosted by iSpring with special guest speaker Shannon Tipton, the author of the book Disruptive Learning and owner of the Learning Rebels blog, we’ll start off with her comment that: 

“Microlearning has emerged as a solution to many industry challenges, and that’s why it’s one of the hottest topics in organizational learning right now. However, if you pause and critically examine some of the drivers powering the microlearning conversation, you’ll notice that several myths are used to support interest in microlearning.”

What Is Microlearning?

But before we get to what it is not, let’s briefly mention what it is. Ms. Tipton defines microlearning as:

“short bursts of ‘right sized content to help people achieve a specific outcome. Very, very targeted information, targeted towards a specific topic, towards a very specific audience – in order for it to be most effective.’”

She clarifies that it is: “a way of learning, not ‘learning’ done to you.”

Microlearning is good for things like:

  • A “refresher” or a “quick revision”
  • Just-in-time (JIT) learning
  • Converting policies and manuals into interactive multimedia presentations and online quizzes
  • Empowering employees at their convenience

As we can see from this short list, microlearning emphasizes focus, context, support, and outcome. Thus, minicourses are sprints, but they are action, and not distraction. And because they are brief in nature, we really need to focus on targeting our audience appropriately.

So, let’s look at 7 of the most common myths about microlearning:

Myth 1. Microlearning Is Time-Dependent – It Has to Be Brief

Yes, short is sweet, but there is no set limit to the duration of a microlearning module. It’s all about what works best.

The fact is that, in the current work reality, if you want to remain up and running, you also need to stay up and learning. Microlearning makes information accessible on a timely “need to know” basis without overwhelming our capacity to retain information.

And one reason we need “short” – which translates into “quick” – nowadays, is exemplified in  Josh Bersin’s “The Disruption of Digital Learning: Ten Things We Have Learned, where he calculates that “1% of a typical workweek is all that employees have to focus on training and development: 24 minutes a week.” 

The reality of lrarning today

Employees spend 1% of their time learning that is 24 minutes a week.

And within this 1% that is available, the learner needs to battle against loss of focus and lack of retention. But why do we lose focus and not remember what we studied? There are several reasons:

  • Interruptions by messages, phone calls, and colleagues’ requests. How many of us are chronically multitasking, whether intentionally or not, due to all the tech interruptions of texts, emails, calls – and even people?

    For instance, do you read an article from beginning to end? Or a web page, for that matter? How about watching an entire video? Didn’t think so. A study by the Nielsen Norman Group states that “On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.”

 A study by the Nielsen Norman Group

Chart showing the maximum amount of text users could read during an average visit to pages with different word counts.

  • As life accelerates,  it is generally accepted that people’s attention span is gradually becoming shorter and shorter.
  • Research (and probably your personal experience) shows that our capacity to retain information decreases as the duration of a study session increases. In other words, the brain needs periodic breaks.
  • Our memory is selective because it has to be. We are exposed to an incredible amount of visual, auditory, and informational stimulus in the period of a day and, in order to not go into overload, our brain discards the great majority of it to allow us to focus on what is most important, in a practical sense, or compelling. Do you remember what you wore or what you had for lunch 33 days ago? Of course not. Or have you ever had to reread paragraphs, pages or chapters from a book you were intent on absorbing? We all have. While recollection your day-to-day fashion or food is not essential to your productivity and effectiveness on the job, we generally read, watch or listen to content with the intent of absorbing and retaining it for future use, but the brain is not as “adhesive” or “velcro-like” as we might like it to be.

The point here is that we often need learning that takes a shorter amount of time, provides information that is relevant and useful, and is impactful so it is absorbed before we lose focus and/or are called away from the minicourse, for example, we were focusing on.

The info that microlearning brings is “sticker” – if prepared correctly.

Alright, so a sprint is smart. But how short is short? Although brief justifies the prefix of “micro-,” it also doesn’t need to be exaggerated. As Ms. Tipton states, 

“Your microlearning needs to be as long as necessary and as short as possible…. It’s right-sized for the moment.”

It’s not so much about duration as it is about focus. It is a matter of keeping the learner engaged for a period of time that is practical and effective for them to block out from their otherwise busy (and probably multitasking) schedule and tailored to avoid cognitive overload.

All that having been said, many proponents preach a 3-minute limit. However, if a video is very engaging and relevant, it could go up to 12 minutes – but no fluff.

Shannon points out that a study conducted by the BBC indicated that 94% of learners prefer microlearning modules under 10 minutes.

The bottom line here is that, as time becomes more precious each day that passes, we all need to use it wisely.

Myth 2. Microlearning Requires Technology – It Has to Be High Tech

The power of production is in your hands. Literally. It’s called a smartphone.

Gone are the days when one had to record video in an expensive studio and purchase specialized, pricey software that takes what seems like an eternity to learn.

And, although it’s nice to produce your eLearning material on a computer, a lot can be done with technology that is ‘at hand.’

How often have you stopped watching an online video because the audio was awful – not because the filming was less than perfect? Especially with the current trend of increased remote learning, less-than-cinematographic quality is quite acceptable. Just get the microlearning content out to those who need it, when they need it (remember just-in-time learning?), in a way that they will retain it.

In other words, ‘superproduction’ is counterproductive. Retention trounces perfection. Here, Ms. Tipton states:

“If you think about user-generated content, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfection is the enemy of production.”

She observes that the priority is getting the information to those who need it, when they need it, and it can actually be low tech – and usually is. So, don’t be put off by the idea of user-generated content. Ask yourself:

  • Does it get the job done?
  • Is it accurate?

 If it empowers the learner in the moment, then, yes, it gets the job done.

And if you’re concerned about the accuracy of the content, then contact the content generator; but if someone went to the time and trouble to generate the content, you have to take that into consideration. Of course, if someone in your company generated the content that they have expertise on, but they did it ‘on the fly,’ then there is probably no issue regarding its veracity.

Myth 3. Microlearning Has to Be Easy to Create

Content creation takes time and energy. Although microlearning modules will, by definition, be relatively short, the creation of that end product will not necessarily be a simple process. Consider this:

  • Editing what you have written often takes longer than the actual writing process
  • Designing an infographic will take longer than generating the ideas that go into it
  • Editing a video takes longer than the time it took to shoot it
  • Editing a voice over can take 3 to 5 times the time that it took to make the original ‘raw’ recording

So, yes, “the devil is in the detail.” Even with microlearning.

Keep in mind that content creation – if it is to be useful – requires planning and presenting the information in a logical progression or trajectory (beginning, middle, and end). As Ms. Tipton states, 

“A microlearning course should be a learning journey, and have a narrative to bring the user from point to point, ending with a specific application of knowledge. An overall structure is critically important and is as important as context and relevance.“

On top of that, the learning modules have to be concise: there is no time allowance for embellishment, as we are talking about just-in-time learning that is designed to be applied ‘on the spot.’ 

Myth 4. Microlearning Is a Fad

A fad is described here as “a short-lived trend that garners a widely shared enthusiasm.”

Microlearning has formally been on the scene since the 90s and one source states that the first published use of the term dates back to a 1963 work by Hector Correa entitled The Economics of Human Resources. But consider that the concept of learning in smaller, quick doses is part and parcel of the human evolutionary process, and has thus been with us for millennia.

Back to modern times, one could argue that smartphone apps are pure microlearning. And since it is only gaining in popularity, because of its effectiveness, it would seem that it is here to stay. Info refreshers and in-the-moment support content – often accessed with a hand-held device – are emblematic of our ongoing “need for speed.”

Couple that with the fact that the pace of modern life is constantly speeding up and showing no signs of slowing down – unless we all unplug from our tech (yeah, probably not). As Ms. Tipton puts it:

“Whether or not we’ve called it performance support, or learning reinforcement, or learning chunks, or learning nuggets, or bite-sized learning,… microlearning efforts have been around for a long time. And it’s going to continue to be around for a long time.

 Myth 5. Microlearning Is Just Chunking

Does microlearning just constitute chunks or nuggets, or can it be referred to more appropriately as eLearning in bite-sized pieces?

You’ll recall from Shannon’s initial definition, that microlearning modules are “very targeted information, targeted towards a specific topic…”

Unlike chunking, in which the ‘chunks’ are interdependent portions of information that are not standalone learning modules, microlearning units provide self-contained performance support content with a specific learning objective.

Whereas chunking of a larger body of information can be helpful in terms of breaking things up to better manage cognitive load, a set of ‘chunks’ will depend on each other to make sense. In the interest of illustration: the chapters of a book or a technical manual could, if separated, be regarded as chunks, as they depend on each other to make sense and typically need to be consumed sequentially to be of value.

Microlearning and chunking

Myth 6. Microlearning Is “One Size Fits All”

Microlearning is not a cookie-cutter panacea for all training needs. As it is useful for performance support and content reinforcement, it is more of an intervention that is useful in a specific moment for a specific purpose.

The modules can be bunched into categories and sent to someone in need of that type of information so they can pick and choose what best suits their need at the moment, but microlearning is not intended to be comprehensive in the same way that a long-term course – whether in-class or distance learning – is meant to transmit more content-heavy, complex subject matter.

A bundle of learning modules could all address “keywords to use so as to close a deal” or “how to sound insightful during a board meeting,” for example, and the receiver can select the ones in that collection that best suit their need and view them in the desired order. In that case, you just have to send the specific bundle that suits the person’s need at that moment.

Thus, although microlearning is “ready to wear,” it’s not “one size fits all.”

Myth 7. Microlearning Is Video Based

Shannon’s slogan here is “Content first, modality last.”

In the same way that video is a very useful medium in microlearning, other modalities can also be included, such as checklists, FAQs, and quizzes.

The point here is to generate content that serves the purpose at hand.

Ms. Tipton points out that, besides video, you can generate low-tech content like wallet cards, job aids, decision trees, infographics, or checklists. For example:

  • Infographics present sizeable chunks of information to learners in one visually appealing image
  • Audio clips allow teams to collaborate, creating a library from which future team members can learn
  • Decision trees allow people to work through problem solving issues

In case someone needs a refresher on how to operate a forklift, for example, video will probably come into play – even a user-generated video. On the other hand, an accountant might need more text-based content. A salesperson might find a checklist or an infographic to be handier when in the field prior to meeting with a client. And in all these cases, the employee might find that specific, focused audio recordings might fit their need during their commute to or from work. It all depends on the purpose of the moment.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, microlearning is about keeping the learning process ‘short and sweet’ – which translates into concise and focused. It has to get its job done ASAP so employees can get their job done on the spot. Now that you know some things that it is not, we hope your microlearning content creation will be more efficient and effective as a result.

Shannon Tipton

Learning Rebels, LLC

Shannon Tipton, the owner of Learning Rebels, LLC., is an expert at developing learning strategies and infrastructures through the use of learning technologies and microlearning. Shannon has helped businesses realize their full potential and make training cool again. Her blog “Learning Rebels” is in the top 100 eLearning blogs. Shannon was also named one of the top 100 eLearning “Movers and Shakers” by eLearning Industry. In 2015, she published her book, Disruptive Learning: Discover Your Inner Learning Rebel.

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