Learning Delivery

Making the Most of Microlearning

Shrinking attention spans and the need for speed mean microlearning plays a growing role in learning strategy.

When it comes to dwindling attention spans, images of teenagers may be what come to mind but the reality is we’re all becoming more impatient.

Amazon found just one extra second of load time on their website costs the company $1.6 billion in sales per year. Customers want things now and won’t stand for anything less. It only makes sense that learning organizations respond in kind. Short bursts of learning — what has become known as microlearning — is growing as a learning trend, said David Wentworth, principal analyst at Brandon Hall Group.

With less time at work for learning and dwindling attention spans, few deny the potential benefits of microlearning. But is it any different from what companies have always done?

Not Just Shorter Learning

The idea that microlearning is simply a condensed version of traditional training is a misconception, said Alex Khurgin, author of a new e-book called “The Art & Science of Learning That Sticks.” It’s not realistic to merely break longer pieces of learning content into bite-sized chunks.

“What we’ve learned the hard way from seven years of doing this is that you can’t just chop up content, call it microlearning and expect people to change,” said Khurgin, who is also director of learning innovation at Grovo, a learning technology company.

Effective microlearning requires a more thoughtful and deliberate approach that takes into consideration the context of what is being learned and what the desired outcome is. “It isn’t so much about breaking down the original content but instead providing these quick, relevant, learning experiences that can refer back to more original [content],” Wentworth said.

Khurgin said microlearning works best when learning designers break down larger behaviors or knowledge into component parts tied to related content.

“Every lesson we create is focused on a specific thing you’re supposed to do,” he said. “So we have a learning track for feedback. Feedback is a big behavior. Let’s break it down into microbehaviors and teach people a little bit at a time so they can gradually build up mastery.”

Making Microlearning Work

Microlearning plays a growing role in the learning strategy of Publicis Groupe, an advertising and public relations company, but it took time for its learning department to determine how best to use it.

“While we were building this culture of learning, [we realized] using microlearning techniques here and there wasn’t cutting it,” said Nathalie Szwagrzyk, Publicis global HR director, learning and development.

Publicis expanded their approach and integrated microlearning into larger learning modules with short videos. In particular, Szwagrzyk said microlearning works well for management training and topics that can be tailored to self-directed learning.

“People are more proactive in their learning,” she said. “They’re not waiting for their managers.”

Activities, games and short videos are some of the ways that microlearning is being used in part because that is how people consume information in their lives outside of work, said Brandon Hall’s Wentworth.

“[Short videos] give people the opportunity to get information much the way they would in their everyday lives,” said Wentworth. “They think about something. How do I do this? I don’t know how. They’ll Google it and find a how-to video.”

Whatever format they choose, Khurgin said there are specific things a company should do to make microlearning more effective, such as getting people to reflect and think differently about what they’re learning and telling people stories to give them examples. One of the most effective microlearning techniques is giving people a call to action.

“If you have a really short learning experience that ends with some application where you get to actually transfer what you just learned to the real world rather than just sitting there for another 30 minutes learning,” he said. “We’ve found that’s really effective.”

Marygrace Schumann is an an editorial intern for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

Corporate Learning Network

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