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Does ‘microlearning’ undermine opportunity for real learning impact?

“Microlearning” has recently become a topic of increased interest. In a nutshell, “microlearning” is breaking learning into very small chunks of information. The theory is that reducing the time requirements of a series of learning events makes the new content easier to learn and fits better within the constraints of constant time pressures.

The two premises underlying microlearning are:

  • People’s attention is so limited that they will only focus on something in short bursts of time
  • People’s time is so sliced that they can only work on something in short bursts

The first of these issues – a problem of limited attention – should sound familiar because it is very similar to the discussion of “gamification.” The underlying premise of both microlearning and gamification is that there is so much competition for attention that you must accommodate these limitations by creating smaller, more discrete chunks of content.

As we’ve previously argued about gamification, and we’ve demonstrated repeatedly during our work at Cerebyte, further fragmenting attention, as happens in microlearning, is exactly the wrong thing to do if you want to have a meaningful impact. We believe, as research studies support, that people learn best when there is a compelling purpose for learning. As humans we are actually wired to focus on something that is meaningful and, in doing so, will allocate a significant amount of attention to it. Unfortunately, microlearning strips meaning for the learning and therefore undermines learning.

However, what about the premise that time pressures reduce the time available to learn?

Microlearning is the idea that you can squeeze little bits of learning around people’s “day job.” We believe that this is really an artifact of the poor quality and irrelevance of most learning programs. With these programs, participants have to squeeze their learning programs around their day jobs because the learning has so little obvious value in actually doing the day job. Here too we have repeatedly shown that this is a false premise – just change the nature of the learning and it goes away.

In fact, if you strive to make the learning content highly relevant and the presentation of the content done as a real mentor would, then the problem with time slicing disappears. We’ve found that the best way to make the content relevant is to ask top performers how to be great at a function “in the actual messy real world.” The messy real-world part ensures that people see immediate value – and can use the learning in real-time. This erases the need for time slicing because the learning is so much a part of the day job that it is inseparable.

Gamification has largely receded in discussions, and I expect microlearning will disappear too, though only after organizations have invested far too much money in time trying to make it work for them.

Which direction is your organization going – reducing purpose through microlearning or enhancing the purpose of your organization?

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