Microlearning Challenges: Proving Its Effectiveness

No new technology is without its challenges — including microlearning. A key challenge microlearning faces is convincing stakeholders in corporate learning that microlearning is effective and engaging.

Microlearning challenges are training challenges

Training has evolved from exclusively instructor-led courses to a mix of eLearning and face-to-face training. Even so, there’s still a mindset that says that learning is separate from working and occurs in scheduled blocks of time learners cover a comprehensive curriculum. 

Microlearning must face down this challenge as it brings learning into the flow of work. 

It’s already succeeding. In just a few short years, the novel training strategy that emphasizes brevity and narrow focus have won over countless workers, managers and executives. Microlearning has proven itself as both a training solution and knowledge retention or job support tool. This is largely thanks to the many advantages microlearning offers, including measurable effectiveness.

Overcoming microlearning challenges by benefiting learners

Among the benefits microlearning offers to learners are:

  • They control when and where they learn. Microlearning is available on demand. It’s nearly always compatible with a variety of mobile and desktop devices. It can be available online or offline. It can include formats, like podcasts, that let people learn while they drive to work or to meeting sites.
  • Short micro units fit easily into their busy day. A key training challenge is finding time to schedule hour-long — or longer — training courses. Many workers resent setting aside blocks of time for training that includes a lot of irrelevant material — so they avoid it. Microlearning meets these challenges by offering short, focused content. It allows learners to get the information they need and get back to work, all in a few minutes. They can do it on their breaks or between meetings or while waiting in line for their lunch order.
  • Microlearning is fun. Many microlearning platforms come with built-in gamification, using games, quizzes, chats, and other engaging formats to make learning enjoyable. Some platforms support teams and competition so, for example, sales teams can win prizes for learning about new products faster than competing teams.

Microlearning challenges managers and developers to adopt new forms of training

Training designers and developers, as well as training managers, understand the advantages of continuous learning using engaging, up-to-date materials. Microlearning offers advantages for managers and L&D teams as well as for learners. These include:

  • Managers can see the effectiveness of microlearning far more quickly than they can measure the results of conventional training. 
  • Microlearning improves worker effectiveness. Employees use microlearning to get exactly the information they need at the moment they need it. Then, they get back to work, applying that information to boost their performance.
  • Developers can easily keep training materials updated and add new information. Instead of waiting until the next annual training season, they can deliver new or corrected material to learners right away.
  • Training administrators don’t have to track who is registered and who has completed annual training. Managers no longer have to chase their employees to get them to do annual training. 

As stakeholders see the benefits, microlearning is winning them over. Key microlearning challenges of moving learning into the workflow and changing an entrenched approach to eLearning are slowly dissolving as the obvious benefits are seen.

Teaching complex content is a key challenge microlearning faces

A woman looking thoughtful, touching her hand to her chin as she looks to the left. A series of charts, graphs, equations and other representative graphics are overlaid.

Like any learning technology, microlearning has its advantages — and disadvantages. One disadvantage is that microlearning might not be the most effective way to teach some things. 

Complex content poses challenge to microlearning

A complex procedure, especially one where there may be safety considerations, is a poor candidate for microlearning. In this situation, a video, a simulation or an immersive experience might be best for initial training. 

However, microlearning then rises to the challenge.

After the initial training is complete, deploying microlearning to refresh the learning and improve retention is an effective and obvious strategy. 

Microlearning challenge: Encouraging peer interaction

If reflective learning or significant, in-depth interactions with peers are major components of learning, microlearning might also disadvantage learners. 

In these cases, discussions and simulations might be used to present philosophical ideas and facilitate the relationships among learners that are critical to the course and to the employees’ work performance. Then, a microlearning platform excels at offering additional resources as a performance support. Them the use case grows ten-fold with software that uses spaced repetition to help remind the learning to refresh key points and drill factual elements of a larger course.

Despite these challenges, the key advantage of microlearning — its flexibility — wins out. Whether in a starring role or playing a supporting role, microlearning has much to offer as part of the training cast. 

Compare to the effectiveness of other training

Advantages and disadvantages aside, microlearning is effective. Since it’s a relative newcomer on the learning stage, not a lot of published research on microlearning’s effectiveness or impact exists. What does, though, is promising.

Increased effectiveness through engagement and retention

A paper presented at CHI, the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, in May 2019, describes the success of a QuizBot learning system for university students. The chatbot app was significantly more effective than a more conventional flash-card app in helping students recognize and recall information. QuizBot students got scores close to 20 percentage points higher than their flash-card-using peers. The QuizBot students also spent more than twice as much time using the app as their peers spent using flash cards. The increased engagement used a form of gamified learning which the students found appealing, thus usage of the app increased organically.

Often, the first step in creating any sort of knowledge retention strategy, is to look at the engagement response. Are your learners engaging with the training content? Spending more time reviewing training materials usually means learners remember more of the information, which is why training developers care so much about engagement. Most managers — or executives looking for a strong ROI on their training dollars —  would be delighted with such a large increase!

Microlearning challenges age-old training mindset 

A white pawn overtakes a black king on a chessboard.

A key factor in microlearning’s effectiveness is that it fits seamlessly into the workflow. Ironically, this is a key sticking point in convincing managers to try microlearning. There is still a strong mindset that sees training and working as separate endeavors.

Microlearning offers adaptation to the modern learner

Modern learners do not see learning as separate from working: They learn all the time. They use mobile, on-demand information sources to answer questions when they are shopping, dining and hanging out with friends. In the same way, when they are at work, employees want instant, targeted answers to their questions and solutions to their problems.

A report from O’Reilly media, “The new technologies impacting on-demand learning,” makes this point: “Performance-adjacent learning tools can encompass many workflow types as long as they minimize friction by making it easy to access information and quickly return to the job at hand.” These performance support tools are cost-effective and scalable, the report said, because they do not need to be customized to a specific workflow or technology.

Workers appreciate flexibility and focus of microlearning

In other words, microlearning makes workers more efficient by keeping them focused on their work. And because it’s so flexible, it saves money that would be spent on dedicated tools and technologies for training. Training that would take workers away from their jobs! 

Learning in short pieces

Non-linear approach an advantage for microlearning

The O’Reilly report highlights an additional microlearning advantage — that microlearning is not linear. Conventional eLearning is linear: Learners go through the course in a specific order. Often, learners are supposed to complete the entire course, even if they only need a small fraction of the information it covers.

Rather than requiring learners to read an entire 25-page document, watch a 30-minute video or click through a 90-minute eLearning course, microlearning consists of small “micro-sized” learning units. Learners can search for and use a specific unit of information in only a few minutes.

A library of short learning nuggets 

Each microlearning unit might be part of a library of short learning nuggets, 3- or 5-minute videos, short documents, and more. Together, the entire library might take a few hours to complete. But learners never have to do that! 

Instead, learners jump in and out, using a single lesson or resource when it answers their immediate question. They might go through several related units in a single sitting if they need to learn more. But they get to decide how much content to use and in what order.

Requirements for microlearning platforms

By creating content specifically aimed at this type of on-demand, focused use, a microlearning platform meets learners where they are and offers them useful tools. That means it has to have certain features:

  • A microlearning platform needs robust search capabilities, for example, to allow learners to search within content items, rather than only by title or topic. 
  • It increasingly needs voice search and response abilities, to offer a hands-free experience that mirrors what learners expect based on their use of smartphones.

Overcoming microlearning challenges

A look at microlearning history and trends shows that the greatest challenge microlearning has is convincing managers that training doesn’t have to cover everything in one long annual course. As managers and training developers adjust to the way people learn and use information in other areas of their lives, they will come to appreciate the advantages and effectiveness microlearning offers. 

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