When time is money, spending time away from the job on learning and development isn’t always a high priority. Short, bite-sized bursts of learning offer an alternative for busy professionals.
“Think about it like vitamins,” said Dave Basarab, independent learning consultant and former learning and development executive. “You take one a day. Can you find time to leave the office two days to go to class? No. Can you find 20 minutes to learn something new? Absolutely.”
Basarab began using microlearning, or learning bursts as he calls them, when he headed up sales training at Pitney Bowes. The 20-minute or less, self-administered bits of learning were designed to balance the desire of sales managers to get staff into the field with the need to get them trained. The sluggish economy and mass layoffs compounded the problem, giving remaining workers more to do with less time for development and growth.
“[Microlearning] gives the participant an opportunity to learn on their own without having to disrupt their daily work flow,” Basarab said.
Basarab’s learning bursts are designed to be accessed from mobile devices such as a smartphone and consist of an eight- to 10-minute audio track featuring a conversation with a subject-matter expert along with a workbook of supporting material. Each unit can be combined with others in a sequence to equate to one or two days of traditional classroom learning.
Microlearning: The Sweet
The idea is to provide learning on demand at the time of need in a flexible and repeatable way, Basarab said. That approach comes with advantages:
• It’s mobile and can be taken anywhere. Workers can take courses during their downtime or on their commute. “It’s whenever I need it versus when the learning department says it’s available,” he said.
• Content is flexible and focused. Single topics can stand alone or make up units in a larger course like finance for non-financial managers, marketing 101 or performance management. Added back together, they form part of sequence. “So if there were 14 of these micro-bursts that make up a finance course, I could just go in and take No. 7 without having to take one through six,” Basarab said.
• No new technology needed for development. “All you need to do to record the audio is have a subject-matter expert, two headsets plugged into a PC and some open-source software to create an MP3 and edit it,” he said. It can then be put up on an LMS, sent out in an email or posted to a website.
• Saves time and money. Basic entry courses delivered in person and requiring travel and time away from the office can be replaced with microlearning. Instructors can follow up with team-based learning via webinars or simulations afterward to check understanding.
Microlearning: The Sour
There are drawbacks to using this approach, Basarab said. It works well for fundamental knowledge — such as safety rules and regulations, principles of marketing or finance — but not for teaching a topic requiring practice and application.
“If you’re trying to get someone to learn how to coach employees, it’s probably not a good idea,” he said.
Basarab also cautions CLOs to consider the needs and learning style of particular learners. Some learners respond better to visual or textual information as opposed to audio. But the biggest drawback, he said, is the lack of a tracking or evaluation mechanism common to many other learning methodologies, such as e-learning.
“If you hand people 15 learning bursts and say go complete this … most people don’t complete it,” he said. “They’ll start and they won’t finish.”
Some companies set up a virtual cohort to overcome those shortcomings. Learners are given microlearning as an independent assignment and are then brought together with a group afterward to discuss and apply the knowledge.
Microlearning is a useful tool in the CLO’s toolkit but it’s not the answer to every need.
“If it’s a small amount of people, you’d probably be better served doing it in traditional ways,” Basarab said. “But when you have large amounts and it’s a repeatable process and the content is static … it lends itself well to that.”
Microlearning is effective for information-based kinds of training. While simulations and follow-up activities can be used to overcome some of the limitations on its use for skill- and application-based training, it still may not be the perfect solution.
“Don’t think it’s the answer to all problems,” Basarab said. “It’s the answer to some of the nagging problems.”
Mike Prokopeak is editorial director of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at mikep@CLOmedia.com.Filed under: Learning Delivery