Our Definition of Microlearning

Microlearning is getting a lot of attention in eLearning circles. But, the thing is, even the people who create it and use the term vary widely in how they define it — and even how they spell it. Micro-learning, micro learning, micro training, micro courses and micro lessons are common ways to refer to a particular type of learning: Learning, primarily eLearning, content that is short and narrowly focused. 

Microlearning is often, but not always, online. And, as the name indicates, microlearning is generally short — eLearning content that is absolutely as short as possible and no shorter, in the words of Microlearning Evangelist Dan Belhassen.

But there’s more to microlearning than its length or format. We'll take a look at some of these aspects as we work to deliver a detailed, but digestible, definition of microlearning.

Our definition of microlearning starts with: "Learners are not goldfish"

Image of a surprised goldfish on a black background.
Pictured: Not a learner.

A persistent myth cited to explain the microlearning explosion is that learners’ attention spans are shrinking. Millennials, in particular, are the target of this myth, and fake research comparing people’s attention spans to that of the average goldfish — and painting the goldfish as the winner — is referenced far too often. 

People pushing this myth insist that training content has to be short because otherwise, people won’t or can’t complete it.

Procrastination is real

It’s true that people procrastinate and take all kinds of extreme measures to avoid doing their required training, including paying their kids to do it. Or they click through it as fast as possible, not pausing to read a single word.

But that’s not because their attention spans are too short!

Why does procrastination occur then?

It has to be said: The reason many learners put off training or fail to engage with training, is because the training is poorly designed, irrelevant, redundant or boring. Or all of these. Not because it’s too long.

People watch 3-minute videos and 3-hour movies. They read 600-word blog posts and 600-page books. If people are interested in the topic or need the information — and the material is clear, focused, relevant and engaging — they engage with the material all the way through, whether they are looking for information as consumers, as learners or as employees.

Why turn to microlearning?

The reason to use microlearning is not that you have no choice. Bite-size learning is not the only training option that works. It’s not the only thing that millennials will use or that busy learners can absorb. 

The reason to use micro training is simple and compelling: Microlearning is the best choice for some types of content and for some learning goals.

Microlearning mimics how we solve problems today

It fits the way people search for and use information. Faced with a question, a problem, a forgotten bit of trivia, today’s digital consumers whip out their smartphones and search for a solution in the moment. 

These digital consumers are your employees — and they behave no differently at work. When they have a question or need to know how to do something, they don’t want to sign up for a 90-minute eLearning course. They want an answer — now.

That is the real purpose of microlearning: Meeting employee-learners where they are. It delivers focused, easy-to-find answers to them at the moment they need it. Microlearning in business is short enough that it doesn’t interrupt the workflow, yet it's complete enough to solve learners’ problems.

Where does "bite-size learning" fit into our definition of microlearning?

A pile of mulitcolored toy bricks.

While there’s no set length for a microlearning unit, it has to be useful. Each micro-sized training unit should generally stand on its own, answering a question or solving a problem. 

Each unit of bite-size learning might also be part of a larger, more comprehensive body of training.

Do micro courses use only video content?

While many people, even eLearning designers, believe that microlearning is always video, that’s simply not the case. Much microlearning is in video format, but a micro lesson can be a fact sheet or an infographic; it can be a podcast or an interactive video or a branching mini-scenario.

It’s possible to create microlearning using an eLearning authoring tool — or using a word processor or PowerPoint. Text-based chatbots, which answer questions or quiz learners, are also considered forms of microlearning.

Microlearning must be useful

Microlearning is defined less by its format than by its functionality: It answers a specific question. It delivers needed information at the precise moment the learner needs to know. Microlearning reminds workers of something they know they’ve learned when they are not confident that they remember every detail. 

In other words, a micro unit solves a specific problem for a specific learner at a specific time, without interrupting workflow.

Our definition of  microlearning doesn't stop at "chunked content"

Another myth is that microlearning is just short content. That’s easy, people think. We can just break up this two-hour eLearning course into a separate unit for each section.

Chopping a long eLearning course into small learning nuggets does not mean you’ve created microlearning, though. It's possible to turn longer-form learning, such as a comprehensive eLearning course, into microlearning. However, each unit of micro training must be designed to stand on its own.

Microlearning needs to have clear, measurable goals

That means each unit has to have a clear — and measurable — learning goal. In addition, each bit of bite-size learning content has to be coherent, clear and useful to learners all by itself — without the context of a longer course and additional supporting material.

Microlearning needs to have flexibility for the learner

Dozens — or even hundreds — of individual micro units can band together to form a more comprehensive course. Learners might complete the entire microlearning series, over time, to master a complex topic or body of related information. Some learners might review individual micro study units over and over. Others might complete a dozen units in a single sitting. It’s flexible.

Microlearning needs to give learners control

A common microlearning example is using eLearning to learn a language. Using micro courses offered by Duolingo or Babbel, learning occurs when the user chooses to engage. The timing and duration of learning is completely within their control. Learners can spend a couple of minutes a day, do an entire level at once or review vocabulary on the plane on their way to a foreign vacation.

Our microlearning philosophy

Close up of the statue of Plato against a blue, partly-cloudy sky.

It is possible to arrive at a microlearning meaning by identifying essential characteristics or a “philosophy” of microlearning. Defining a microlearning philosophy should include these key characteristics.

  • Available on demand – Learners do not have to schedule a time and plan ahead to complete microlearning.
  • Easy to search – Learners can find what they need using a conversational, common-sense search.
  • Flexible – Learners can use microlearning in a time and place of their choosing.
  • Useful – Rather than covering a broad or deep topic, microlearning is narrowly targeted at solving an immediate need for a specific piece of information.

Defining microlearning by way of principles

The microlearning philosophy might encompass these principles:

  • It is easy to use.
  • Learners can find the information they need anywhere, on a mobile or desktop device, whether they are online, offline, commuting, in the break room, on the factory floor or at a retail counter helping a customer. 
  • Microlearning offers a strong search feature so learners can find what they need — fast.
  • The emphasis is on creating something usable and useful. Microlearning does not have to be flashy or filled with gorgeous graphics. 
  • Microlearning can take any format, such as text, infographic, video, audio, games or gamified training content, text chat, etc.
  • Microlearning answers a question, solves a problem or reminds the learner of something they don’t quite remember. It accomplishes this without interrupting the learner’s workflow or requiring them to schedule time to learn or jump through a lot of hoops, like registration, prerequisites and plowing through a lot of unnecessary material to get what they need.

What is microlearning and why care about it?

In short, our microlearning definition describes concise, clear content that answers an immediate need. As implied by the term "micro," microlearning content is brief, but the content needs to be able to stand alone as a single unit of learning. Defining microlearning further, the content must be available when, where and in a format that meets the learner’s needs.

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