Curated Insights: Seeking a Practical Definition of Microlearning

By JD Dillon
(Cross posted from Axonify’s The Knowledge Blog)

Microlearning seems to have taken the lead from virtual reality and big data in the “2017 L&D Most Popular Buzzword” competition. The term is popping up more and more in industry publications and conference presentations. Carla Torgerson just published what appears to be the only English-language book on microlearning on Amazon. Stakeholders in a variety of industries are reaching out to solutions providers looking for microlearning. But does everyone who wants it really understand what it is? Has the industry defined microlearning sufficiently to ensure everyone gets the most out of this prevailing workplace learning strategy?

This month’s curated insights explores the ongoing hunt for a practical definition of microlearning and offers both suggestions as well as application ideas from prominent industry thought leaders.

Definition of MicroLearning by Will Thalheimer

First up is Will Thalheimer. In this blog post, Will provides his own suggested definition of microlearning, which focuses on the flexibility of the concept to support learning in a variety of ways. He goes a step further in offering a set of use cases where microlearning can either replace or augment existing strategies, such as courses or just-in-time learning.

I’m not the first to suggest that Will’s definition is a bit lengthy. I don’t fault Will for this at all, as he’s trying to find meaning in a buzzy term just like the rest of us. The challenge comes from the way L&D often tries to cram complex principles into smaller, more easily-shared categories. This categorization can make it near-to-impossible to offer a simple definition for what is a high-potential but equally complex concept. Hence, we end up with a 54-word definition that may not make this whole “what is microlearning” dilemma much more clear. But it’s a start!

Micro learning: advance or fantasy by Donald Taylor

Now it’s Donald Taylor’s turn. Donald’s LinkedIn post brings the definition down to 21 words and focuses on the need for spaced repetition to ensure retention. He then relates this idea to his foreign language study strategy in the 1980s, reiterating the point that “microlearning” isn’t a new idea at all. Donald also shares a bit of his industry research to show the growing conversation around microlearning, especially in the US.

I agree with Donald—and with Donald Clark by proxy. The more we get stuck on the term “microlearning” without understanding the foundational and well-established principles at play, the less likely we are to realize the benefits of this strategy. These ideas helped Donald Taylor learn Turkish in 1988. Why has it taken almost 30 years for this to become the subject of wide-scale L&D conversation?

Podcast: Micro learning, or the advantages of slapping a label on good ideas from GoodPractice

Let’s stay in the UK but shift from written to spoken content. In this podcast episode from the GoodPractice team, Owen, James and Ross struggle to define microlearning while referencing the articles from Donald and Will. They ask if microlearning is really new at all, or if it is a collection of poorly-understood but powerful principles. It’s a fun 32-minute conversation between 3 smart L&D practitioners. I recommend subscribing to the GoodPractice Podcast if you enjoy loose but insightful L&D chatter.

Micro-Learning is Bigger Than You Think … and Not Just for Learning by Gary Wise

Gary Wise digs into some of the most popular questions around microlearning in this blog post. Many L&D pros are looking for direction with regards to “how long” microlearning should be as well as when it should be used for maximum effect. Gary unleashes the often loathed but equally true answer “it depends” and explores what this could mean with regards to microlearning. He subsequently relates microlearning to performance support, referencing Mosher and Gottfredson’s Five Moments of Need to align content to purpose. Overall, Gary’s insights provide a great example of getting past the buzzword to dig into the potential for point-of-work learning and support.

Microlearning is just learning that fits. That’s it! by JD Dillon

Of course I couldn’t let this conversation get going without adding my two cents! In this somewhat ranty post from my Just Curious Blog, I offer a 3-word definition for microlearning: “learning that fits.” I then go on for several hundred more words to explain what “fit” means because, like my peers, I believe microlearning is a high-potential but complex topic that can’t be distilled to a simple definition. Rather, my suggested definition focuses on the need to align learning and support strategy with the context of the work. From there, we are free to leverage a variety of resources to help someone do their job better.

So … do you now have a practical definition of microlearning? Maybe it’s good that we don’t have a definitive answer quite yet. After all, it’s up to each L&D pro to determine how these concepts apply to their organization to meet the needs of their employees. For microlearning to escape trend status and become a meaningful topic of industry conversation, we must get past the term itself and make the effort to understand the foundational principles that make this strategy so potentially impactful within a modern learning ecosystem.

Thanks for reading my monthly curated insights on the Axonify KNOWledge Blog! For more curated content, visit my Flipboard mags, where I post new articles—big and small—on a variety of workplace learning topics every day.

If you’re interested in reading more about this, we also have a great whitepaper that details the 8 components of an ideal microlearning platform, which you can find here.

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