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Microlearning: What’s Old Is New Again

Let's have a talk about new methodologies before we introduce yet another approach.
Old way written inside top arrow; new way written inside bottom arrow

I’m going to start this column by sharing my bias. Our industry is full of jargon and too attracted to the shiny penny.

If there’s anything my 35-plus years in the learning field have shown me, it’s that we like to make stuff up, give it a name, talk about it at conferences and stuff it into our toolkit way too quickly. We quickly jump to new approaches before we fully vet them against how we are currently doing things.

There’s a long list of examples to prove it. From the laserdisc player (that’s right, I was around when that technology hit the learning radar) to gamification, we often put modality ahead of methodology. It has not served us well.

Before you start sending hate mail, let me be clear. I’m not saying gamification or any of the newest trends don’t have merit or aren’t worth your time. I’m saying we need to be careful and analyze these approaches before we throw them into the mix.

Learners are already overwhelmed by the options existing today. Adding one more is not always the answer and if we decide to do it, isn’t it time we retired a few? Our love of shiny new pennies isn’t matched by a desire to get rid of dull, old modalities that don’t complement approaches we’re introducing. More is not always better.

Bob Mosher, senior partner and chief learning evangelist, APPLY Synergies.

Enter microlearning. I have to admit when I first heard that term, I rolled my eyes and thought, “Is this informal learning all over again?” There is such a thing as informal learning but the category is too broad to get our arms around. It means everything from conversations around the communal coffee pot to sophisticated electronic support systems. How do you design for that?

Thankfully, as the dust settled we heard less about informal learning and more about specific disciplines and modalities which help us better serve learners. It has also helped us develop scalable design methodologies to serve the many areas of informal learning.

One thing that has helped me recognize an effective, well-defined discipline has been the response from our industry or the learners we serve. If you can’t explain with a one- or two-sentence answer, you’re in trouble. Virtual instruction, e-learning and instructor-led training are easy to explain. Does microlearning pass the test or do you end up explaining with other modalities such as, “It’s a lot of videos on our server” or “We’ve made a lot of smaller e-learning modules.”

As an industry, we must have the all-important conversation about a new term or modality before we inflict it on learners. I’ve experienced this frustration in my own work in performance support. Gloria Gery did a brilliant job of introducing us to this discipline as far back as 1991 yet I continuously see our industry’s effort to blur the lines with yet another buzzword or approach.

Every time we arrive at a label and methodology, a conference speaker or vendor throws out a conflicting term. Not only is this frustrating for learning professionals, it clouds the landscape for learners and those who pay our salaries.

So what is microlearning? New? Old? Window dressing on existing approaches? How do you design it in a scalable way and measure effectiveness? How does it complement existing approaches? What technologies enable it effectively?

We are obligated to answer these and many other questions if we’re going to introduce yet another approach to the already crowded learning and support ecosystem. I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions. But I would like to have the answers before investing already over-stretched resources on building it and explaining to clients what purpose it serves.

I’m not a pessimist but rather a realist. In more than 35 years in this industry, I’ve seen many new and effective learning and support methodologies and technologies. Each has had a profound impact on what I do and how well learners ultimately perform on the job. My reservations come from my own experience and the many black eyes I suffered when rushing to an approach ahead of its time.

Let’s not do the same with microlearning. Whatever that is.

Bob Mosher is a senior partner and chief learning evangelist for APPLY Synergies, a strategic consulting firm. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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