Why we need to stop microlearning

In the past decade countless companies have begun using a new training method: microlearning.

The idea behind microlearning is to give employees ‘bite-sized’ training which is easy to consume and use. Instead of sending staff to a classroom for a day where they learn how to use tools or comply with some new legislation, they access relevant training on a digital platform that they can consume at their own speed.

It’s an interesting concept and has a lot of promise. Unfortunately, it often disappoints. What exactly are the problems with microlearning – and how can it be improved?

Defining microlearning

Microlearning can be defined as: “short bursts of content for learners to study at their convenience. Content can take many forms, from text to full-blown interactive multimedia, but should always be short”.

If you have ever use a microlearning system, you will be aware of the kinds of mediums used. It includes things like short videos, quizzes, how-to guides, walk-throughs and gamified modules.

You normally access microlearning through a learning management system (LMS), although it can also be delivered via the company intranet, or even by email. Some companies opt to use an external LMS – things like LinkedIn Learning, Skillshare, Coursera and similar platforms.

The idea of microlearning is to provide training that fits around the workday. If you have a spare 20 minutes, the idea is that you log onto a system, learn something new and therefore become a more productive employee.

3 problems with microlearning

Despite its popularity in recent years, microlearning does not always solve company training issues. Here are three key reasons why:

  1. Unrealistic expectations of staff motivation

Microlearning is predicated on employees doing self-directed learning. It assumes that whenever staff have a spare 15 minutes or so, they will log onto your LMS, find a course and study something new.

But let’s be realistic: how many staff will actually do this? If your employees are busy and stressed and they see they have a few minutes spare, the majority will use that time to decompress – going to get a coffee, taking a stroll or reading an interesting article. And these are not ‘bad’ things – they help your staff tackle stress and, in the long run, be more productive by avoiding burnout.

Of course, there will be occasions that people do log onto an LMS, especially if they have a couple of hours free. But this kind of self-direct learning is relatively rare – and probably does not justify the cost of an entire microlearning system.

  1. Requires people to know what they’re looking for

Microlearning requires your staff to actively seek out information on your LMS, LinkedIn Learning or somewhere else. This therefore requires that employee to think about what they don’t know before seeking it out. But intuitively this makes little sense. We are rarely conscious of our own knowledge gaps until the moment they are exposed.

What is more, microlearning systems assume that when someone knows they have a knowledge gap they will head to the LMS and seek out training on that specific problem. But this raises all sorts of issues: Will they know what to search for? Will they know that a video on this topic is available? And, if they don’t have time to search through your LMS right now, will they realistically do so later?

  1. Not how people learn

Perhaps the greatest problem with microlearning is that it just doesn’t reflect how people learn in the real world. Most people learn to perform processes and use technology by doing. However, if someone consumes content on your LMS but doesn’t immediately put it into practice, it is fairly unlikely they will remember how to complete the task when the need arises a few weeks later. As a result, the investment in the LMS – and the employee’s 15 minutes of learning – will be wasted.

We need to focus on context

Do the three problems outlined above invalidate the entire microlearning concept? Not necessarily. There are many clear benefits to microlearning, and it should not be immediately discarded. Instead, we need to think about how to improve microlearning’s delivery to address these problems.

Contextual microlearning is the answer. This approach builds on the foundations of microlearning – short, useful video and text guides – but delivers that content in the flow of work, when people need to learn.

Whenever someone experiences a knowledge gap and is unsure of how to do a task, complete a process or enter information, a contextual microlearning provides guidance on how to do so. They can open up a dialogue box with guides and walkthroughs right in the page they’re viewing and put that learning into action right away.

This approach provides several key benefits:

  • You no longer need to seek information out because it is delivered to you
  • You learn by doing, which means the learning is a lot more ‘sticky’
  • It is a pragmatic solution – it reflects the fact that staff are short on time and are unlikely to ‘go out of their way’ to learn

Put context into your microlearning

Microlearning is an important innovation in the field of business training and comes with many clear benefits. However, we need to recognize that it has several serious limitations too, and, in its current delivery model, just isn’t working.

And this is why contextual microlearning is so important. It takes the best parts of microlearning, then provides that help at the moment of need.

Have you tried microlearning at your organization? And has it worked for you?

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