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Microlearning is one of those terms that seems to crop up time and time again as an example of the Next Big Thing in e-learning, usually as a predicted trend for yet another new year’s post. But is there any substance behind the hype?

Microlearning, or at least its set of underlying principles isn’t exactly new, in fact some of the pedagogic theory behind it dates back to the nineteenth century. What is new is the way that it’s packaged, and the promises that are made about its effectiveness.

The on-demand and bitesize nature of microlearning is attractive to employers for a number of reasons. Firstly it feels natural to learn in this way, accessing made to measure training materials as and when needed. It gives the impression that workplace learning is an organic and continuous process.

Secondly, it’s cost effective, or at least relatively low-cost. This is obviously popular with increasingly cash-strapped businesses who are keen to avoid paying for expensive courses, away days or face to face training.

It’s also, to a certain extent, easy to monitor and guarantee the quality of the content, certainly more so than if your workforce have to independently research problems on Google or YouTube. Properly designed microlearning content at least has the advantage of being auditable.

The problem comes when employers hear the buzzword “microlearning” and think they’ve found a panacea which will cut costs and improve engagement while boosting results.

This can lead to an expectation that microlearning is the most appropriate tool in any training situation. We’ve all heard the phrase “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. It’s dangerous to make the assumption that if a three minute video can train you to assemble a widget, it can also train you to manage a production line, refine a brand strategy or invent a market-beating application.

Another issue with on-demand bite-sized content is that it tends to produce adequacy, rather then expertise. If learning only takes place at infrequent junctures to solve a specific problem, or get over a particular hurdle, this can lead to a very “small picture” mode of thinking about the competency at hand. A lack of knowledge about the broader context in which a problem might arise severely limits the potential responses and stymies the generation of innovative solutions.

Furthermore, this means that learning can come to be seen as part of a toolkit, useful for solving problems as they occur, but “learning for learning’s sake” is implicitly discouraged. This can be damaging to the culture of a workplace and can reduce creativity and inventiveness, as well as leading to entrenched systems of thinking which can often prove to be a weakness commercially.

So, is microlearning a waste of time? Unless it’s properly implemented, then yes, it probably is. The key to microlearning being an effective part of an overall learning strategy is in how it is integrated with macro learning – that is, the more traditionally formatted courses and training sessions with which most workplaces are familiar.

If workplace learning programmes are centred around a formal structure, for example by using an LMS to plan and deliver the necessary training , then the constituent parts of this programme can also be made available as microlearning items.

So for example, a structured health and safety course can be undertaken in a linear manner, with a follow up assessment, but equally the content which makes up the course can be accessed on a just-in-time basis. This provides the advantages of convenience and access associated with microlearning, but with an underlying structure in place to track learning objectives and outcomes.

Microlearning can’t just be a pick and mix style content bag which is accessed solely at the learners’ discretion. We still need input from an expert, whether that be through course design, interstitial assessment and feedback or simply periodic guidance. Like with a restaurant menu, choice is important, but we also expect some expertise behind the selection of available options and the order in which they’re served.

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