Microlearning: Move Along Folks. Nothing To See Here

I’ve yet to hear a consistent definition of microlearning. More than that, I haven’t heard a clear definition. I personally struggle with the name as it is because once again “learning” (an internal, individual process) is being used to describe some “thing” that may promote or aid in that process. I’ve had my own take in “Smaller, Faster Training Is Not Going to Move Us Forward” and “The Best Example of Microlearning is Us“. The first spoke of the desperation in it all and the other, how we’ve really been microlearning for eons. Well, there’s been another microlearning conversation flare up this time on LinkedIn and I jumped in to see what the latest was. Go check it out if you want to kill some time and walk away still scratching your head. From what I read “microlearning” is something created and tangible and yet most will provide information where to use “it” but no clarity on what “it” is or what “it” isn’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter? Let’s back up.

We often forget that the Microlearning concept was really born long ago when someone extracted a “learning object” from a larger course to use again and/or in different training vehicles. Remember THAT term… “reusable learning object”? Well THAT was microlearning before it was repackaged as Microlearning. History aside we are now wondering, in the age of digital and social, is it about learners and their need to access information quickly? Is it about an ID’s ability to create it quickly? Is it about size of the content or speed of creation and delivery? Is it formal or informal? No disrespect for those doing their damnedest to define this but it’s all still a bit muddy even with decent definitions. Take this one by JD Dillon:

“microlearning is a way of teaching and delivering content to learners in small specific bursts.”

Succinct but then this definition points to it being squarely in the formal content space and it’s also a system of delivery. Words like small, specific, and bursts don’t really help clarify. What’s small? What’s a burst? I get to decide I guess. Dr. Will Thalheimer said he couldn’t find a good definition but I’m not sure his definition adds any more clarity for me. To his credit he does include the maximum of 60 minutes for a duration (yet that varies too, no?) but I’ve seen etraining… errr, I mean elearning courses with an estimated length of 60 minutes. Are those then Microlearning too? A lot of what he does include speaks to spaced-learning opportunities in or closer to the flow of work and that seems to resonate for me some. Frankly, it might just be time to chuck the whole labeling effort which is forcing content, activities, delivery, etc under a convenient ill-defined umbrella. So if it’s a prompt, call it that. If it’s just-in-time to help complete a task, let’s just tag it the far less sexy “performance support” it’s always been known as. If it’s a conversation in a social tool, then social learning has worked now for a while. And if it’s a short learning interaction, that sure sounds like a “learning object” to me and we were fine with that 15 years ago.

So, I’m done with it. Let the battle rage on but until someone can concretely state something is and something else is not microtraining…errr, I mean microlearning, I’ll just roll my eyes when I hear the term. There’s nothing to see here, moving on.

4 thoughts on “Microlearning: Move Along Folks. Nothing To See Here

  1. I really have a problem with the whole elearning thing. I am a retired industrial/cost accountant, and received my degree because I worked in accounting departments and went to class at night, or studied at home. There was no “e”. I worked my buns off, studied and wrote exams….for five years.

    I was fortunate enough to have worked in the offices of actual manufacturers. My first look at a computer was a 32K Honeywell housed in a large room. I was starring at the future in computational ability, but its power was tied to a deck of 80-column cards. I actually held the future in my hand. I learned, in smaĺl steps, how to control the power of programming, process engineering, logic and systems applications. All of these were tied to the principles of accounting.

    Other experts (?) spoke about the new artificial intellegence at our doorstep. Dumb! If we didn’t turn it on, it was just a brick. The intelligence is the result of the questions we alĺ asked. We all came to the collective conclusion: If we tell it everything, then we can ask it any question. This is where the decks of 80-column cards came in; they contained the program for drive 1, the data for drive 2 and the question for drive 3. Press GO, and wait.

    What does any of this have to do with micro learning? Absolutely nothing. How can a person learn the concepts of “why” or “how” in small/micro steps? What you need to learn, is how to correctly ask the correct questions. Is that micro-learning?

    Now the challenge is; what do you do with the answer? Is it true? Is it correct? How do you know? If you understand the concept of, and the environment within which both the question and answer lives; the answers are yes. Bingo, you learnred something. Is this micro learning?

    If you want to learn how to drive a towmotor, then get on it and do it. A cartoon cannot teach this. B.

    1. Hi Brian, thanks for chiming in. I appreciate your history within this and frankly reinforcing the often “lost in the tech” fact that we learn in and through each other most of the time. Conversation (Q&A rich with context and emotion) and experience are the human way and the best tech supports this and maybe even encourages it. Charles Jennings once wrote Real Learning is Experience, Practice, Conversation and Reflection. Most “e” learning does well with the first two of these elements but it’s on us to build understanding with others and pause to consider it all. I wrote about similar a while back in “Smaller, Faster Training id Not Going to Move Us Forward“. As far as AI, yes! Some of the critics of what is being touted as AI echo your sentiment (see Roger Schank) when you say “If we tell it everything, then we can ask it any question” – Sure sounds like Google, eh?

  2. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for this latest post … having spent a day at the “Learning Technologies” (nouns?) expo in London last week I agree. This feels like another commercial opportunity to slice and dice the magic “thing” on to a new, time poor market.

    Head back upstream to where the real problems are starting out!

    Keep going, I really enjoy and am inspired by your writing


    1. Thank you Paul, I appreciate the encouragement. Far from trying to change the industry, I seek conversations like this to inform me better. And yes, as you can see I agree and this tends to go against the grain of many but frankly I think L&D, by doing this, continues to separate itself from the businesses it supports – a very dangerous game.

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