History of Microlearning

Several years of reports and statistics show that employees feel they have little time to learn at work. If we dig into this a little bit, though, we find some interesting information that explains the emergence and need for microlearning

A look through microlearning history shows how and why this form of concise, clear eLearning content emerged to answer an immediate need.

Trends that shaped microlearning on the way

  • Learners “don’t have time” for training that they see as cumbersome, not useful to their jobs, boring or redundant.
  • They dislike being required to complete large chunks of online training, such as conventional 60- or 90-minute eLearning courses. They procrastinate and avoid it.
  • And busy employees resist having to schedule training and be pulled away from their work or daily routines to attend training or access eLearning courses.  

Despite all of this, workers constantly learn — on the job, off the job, online, offline. They turn to Google whenever they have a question or are just curious. They learn from each other, interact with chatbots to solve problems, look things up.

Employees actively learn, at work, all the time, using informal, self-directed, social and collaborative learning sources and materials. It’s not learning that’s the problem; it’s long, dull or irrelevant training.

History of microlearning: searching for the “right kind” of training

Image of a silhouetted telescope against a starry blue and yellow sky.

One response to learners’ resistance to long-form eLearning and other training is microlearning — moving small, focused learning nuggets into the flow of work. Digging into the history of microlearning requires going back a bit farther, though, to look at the history of learning and training.

The microlearning approach to training

The first thing you notice is that microlearning is the modern reworking of an age-old approach. Learning step-by-step, bit-by-bit is not new; the microlearning philosophy of learning in increments uses a natural process. 

The phenomenon known as modern microlearning is what happened when a thirst for learning that is as old as humankind bumped into — and benefited from — modern technology. 

History of microlearning runs parallel to mobile technology history

Nearly everyone has a smartphone or a tablet. And even little kids know how to do a Google search. It’s getting easier and easier to use simple, conversational text to look for specific information. Or to just ask your device a question, talking to it like you’d talk to a friend. More often than not, you’ll get a reasonable answer. 

People are learning all the time, everywhere, as they go about their lives, shopping, hanging out, working. Microlearning reflects this new culture of continuous, on-demand learning. 

The first PCs play a part in the history of microlearning

Birth of electronic or computer-based learning

The first experiments with mechanical training are eons old. Computer-based training started back in the 1960s when a computer filled an entire room, and only experts could use them. Modern eLearning — electronic or computer-based learning — didn’t really get going until many more people had access to computers and felt comfortable using them. 

Scalability allowed eLearning to flourish and grow

When PCs became common office tools in the late 1980s, the idea of CD-ROM-based training took root. This training, though expensive to produce, could easily and inexpensively be scaled up to add more learners. 

This was a big improvement over instructor-led in-person training, the primary option of the day, which was expensive to create and not easily scalable. In-person, instructor-led training costs almost as much per-learner when you’re training 100 or 1,000 learners as when you are training 10. 

In addition, in-person training can be difficult to schedule, since so many learners have to be available when and where the instructor could teach. Finally, instructor-led training pulls multiple workers away from their work for the entire training session. 

Early eLearning addressed some of these issues, making training large numbers of workers more cost-effective.

Introduction to networks and SCORM

In the early days, computers weren’t networked, and each learner ran their own copy of a program. That meant that nothing was tracked. As PC use and networking became more sophisticated, the SCORM standard emerged, and basic learner tracking became possible. 

With SCORM, managers could find out who had done the training, how much time each learner spent, what their quiz scores were and maybe a few other details. The term “e-learning” or “eLearning” came into vogue.  

Early eLearning and the LMS

A tiny, white wood school desk and chair sit atop a large keyboard.

Learners, especially at work, found their eLearning courses in a central library called a learning management system (LMS). The 1990s were the decade of the LMS and online “universities.” Learners could look through vast catalogs of online courses. They might be able to look for specific courses by title, or they could look for courses on a particular topic, but they couldn’t browse inside a course to see any actual content.

The eLearning courses tended to be lengthy, generally consisting of multiple sections or chapters. The course content was made of text, still images and eventually video. Courses might include quizzes or other text-based exercises for learners to complete at the end of each section.

Advancements in eLearning continue at pace with technology

As computers became more powerful and offered more features, online or eLearning courses became more sophisticated. Authoring tools emerged that made creating professional-looking courses, with integrated activities, graphics and quizzes, easy. User interfaces became more attractive and easier to use. Designers added games, matching exercises and videos to make eLearning courses more fun or engaging.

However, the courses still tended to follow a similar format to in-person training, which generally emphasized comprehensive courses with multiple sections or chapters. These covered an entire body of content, introducing perhaps dozens of concepts, and could take an hour or more to complete. 

Technology pushes microlearning as a concept to the forefront

Technology changed rapidly in the early 2000s, and mobile devices became common. Google, which launched in the late 90s, became a dominant force in internet searches by 2005. 

As Google and Internet searching became commonplace, consumer behavior changed. 

People became used to learning about specific things in short bits. They developed the habit of looking up information and seeking answers to questions through a quick, narrowly focused internet search.

But eLearning designers and developers were slow to respond. The model of in-depth eLearning courses remained the norm in corporate training, even though learners were less and less engaged and far from delighted.

Technology makes microlearning possible

The early 2000s brought several phenomena: 

  • YouTube fueled huge growth in the use and consumption of video content. 
  • Twitter and the iPhone changed how people communicated. 
  • MOOCs revolutionized online learning. 

Many LMS and eLearning vendors, though, continued doing what they’d always done — producing long, comprehensive eLearning courses.

Smartphones become vital to microlearning success

As smartphones flooded markets worldwide, equipping consumers with better and better cameras, virtually everyone became a video publisher and consumer. Short video content popped up everywhere through social media platforms and video sharing services. The change was inevitable; yet long eLearning was still the norm. 

Short, on-demand learning means microlearning is inevitable 

Consumers, especially teens and young adults, took to short video content and text-based chats in droves. People thirsting for information increasingly turned to  searches and short forms of communication. 

As consumers and lifelong learners, people turned to short-form online learning for many tasks. These ranged from keeping in touch with family and friends and sharing information to getting their questions answered immediately and solving problems. People used short-form, on-demand online information to plan vacations, shop, and learn how to do anything and everything — from planting tomatoes to fixing their washing machines. 

On-demand online short-form learning was and is everywhere. By the time Khan Academy exploded onto the scene in 2008, bringing short, video-based learning to anyone who could get online, microlearning was all but inevitable. Since then, it has made its way into schools, universities — and corporate learning departments. But, microlearning’s history doesn’t stop there.

Where does the term nano-learning come from?

Early on, short, focused eLearning went by a different name: nano-learning. Elliott Masie of the Masie Center called for applying “the art, science and technologies of education to the world of nano-learning” in a 2006 article, writing, “Nano-learning can honor the fact that learning can and must happen every day — not just when we have the time to attend a class or take an eLearning program.” 

The term ‘microlearning’ emerges

“Sometime around 2009,” Josh Bersin wrote in a 2018 article, “the word micro-learning was coined, and this new paradigm started to take hold,” with early vendors including Grovo, Axonify, Degreed, Pathgather and Edcast emerging in 2010-2013. These vendors pioneered short eLearning content that bypassed the LMS and claimed to offer a “modern learning experience.” 

Microlearning takes the spotlight

An often-cited infographic, “Meet the Modern Learner,” published in 2014 by Bersin by Deloitte, stated that the average employee was spending only 1% of their work time, or 24 minutes a week, on learning. 

This statistic emphasizes the need for microlearning. Employees in many industries and job roles need to constantly learn new skills and update what they know. They need to learn how to use new technologies and adjust as parts of their jobs become more automated. 

Again, it’s not that people are not learning on the job — they are, constantly. It’s that they don’t have large blocks of time to set aside specifically for training. With the need for constant learning crashing into the apparent lack of time, microlearning is a natural solution that is getting more and more attention.

Microlearning offers a natural solution & takes its place in history

Josh Bersin described the growing demand for short, fast learning content in a 2016 CLO article: “This new world is called microlearning, and it represents one of the biggest and most important changes coming. It will stress our design principles, force us to refine content, and give us the opportunity to get closer to employees’ needs. We can now produce content that immediately teaches what we need to know, that inserts itself at the time of need, and is so interesting that we remember it after only a few minutes.”

Less than two years later, in mid-2018, Bersin called microlearning a key learning format, part of an overall trend toward learning in the flow of work.

Microlearning moves learning into the workflow

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A primary reason microlearning is so popular is that its philosophy and approach are so different from conventional training. Microlearning meets learners them where they are and provides what they need — performance support in the flow of their work.

Four key differentiators responsible for microlearning's success are deeply ingrained in the microlearning philosophy:

  • Instead of long, in-depth courses that cover a huge topic, microlearning answers a very specific question or supplies the exact piece of information the learner needs at a particular moment.
  • Rather than requiring employees to block out time to take a long course — time that takes them away from work — microlearning gives them the answer in the workflow, minimizing the interruption.
  • Instead of demanding that workers use a specific computer system to access training, microlearning is available on their smartphone or tablet.
  • Rather than requiring learners to follow a specific format, learn things in a particular order or all learn in the same way, microlearning offers content as text-based chats, as graphics or text or in audio or video formats. Content is available on-demand and as needed.

Writing the next chapter in the history of microlearning

As the popularity of microlearning continues to grow, microlearning history will continue to evolve. According to eLearning experts, the need for microlearning has never been greater: The top-rated challenge in the 2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report is learning, largely due to “evolving work demands and skills requirements.”

People’s jobs are changing. Technology is changing. People need and want to learn. “We anticipate that business and HR leaders will need to seek out opportunities to integrate real-time learning and knowledge management into the workflow,” the report’s authors wrote. 

“With cloud-connected mobile and wearable devices becoming almost omnipresent, and the introduction of augmented reality devices, organizations will be able to explore new approaches to virtual learning in which learning occurs in small doses, almost invisibly, throughout the workday.” 

Microlearning has a bright future

By taking a deep dive into microlearning’s history, we can discover patterns to predict the directions modern microlearning will go. Meeting the learning needs of today’s employees requires an adaptive, personalized and gamified microlearning platform like OttoLearn. Flexible, on-demand and self-directed learning is no longer the way of the future. It is here, now. 

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