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microlearning (microtraining)

What is microlearning?

Microlearning is an educational strategy that focuses on learning new information in small units. This approach to learning breaks down topics into short-form, standalone units of study that the learner can view as many times as necessary, whenever and wherever they need.

Microlearning gives learners access to short bursts of new information that's engaging and digestible, as opposed to one large chunk of information that might be difficult to remember. The convenience of microlearning, from both the learner's and the educator's point of view, has made this type of instructional delivery popular in corporate learning environments.

This approach can improve knowledge retention while also empowering employees by letting them build new skills without having to take time away from their jobs to attend training.

Microlearning instructional modules are designed to be consumed in about five minutes and address one specific skill or knowledge gap topic. The learner can complete their training when it best suits their schedule.

Although microlearning is most often associated with independent learning, modules can also be combined to create guided learning experiences for individuals or small groups. The small chunks of instructional content can be tagged with metadata for easy search, access and reuse.

How does microlearning work?

Microlearning is based on the concept of the Hermann Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, which states that as the amount of information being learned at one time increases, information retention degrades. Microlearning avoids the forgetting curve, enabling learners to break down information into smaller pieces of content while enabling them to revisit that information over time.

In any given microlearning module, the learner is typically given three to six minutes to learn one specific objective by consuming content items including the following:

  • Watching a short instructional video and answering a question.
  • Playing an online learning game designed to teach a specific task.
  • Reading an executive summary and answering a short series of questions.
  • Viewing an infographic and answering a short series of questions.
  • Using virtual flashcards to prepare for a quiz.
  • Virtually participating in a scenario-based simulation.

Microlearning modules are most often accessed as the need for knowledge arises, but they can also be assigned as part of an employee's monthly or quarterly goals. Instructional modules, which are tagged with metadata that describes the module's learning objective, are typically stored in a library the learner can access through a mobile app, learning experience platform, public website or proprietary online knowledge base.

This process is separate from the concept of macrolearning, which focuses on learning the entirety of a topic. This process is commonly referred to as a massive open online course (MOOC). In corporate settings, MOOC content is often video-focused and the content is delivered through a learning management system overseen by the organization's human resources department or chief learning officer.

A table comparing microlearning to macrolearning.
While microlearning focuses on learning about a specific topic in a short amount of time, macrolearning focuses on learning about the whole of a subject in a longer timeframe.

Macrolearning requires more of a time investment compared to microlearning. The main difference between the two is that microlearning focuses on the whole of a subject, while microlearning focuses on learning smaller amounts of content over time.

Advantages of microlearning

Microlearning offers the following benefits:

  • Flexibility. One of the biggest advantages of microlearning is that the student can conduct a learning session at any time, from anywhere, using any computing device, including mobile devices.
  • Easier to retain information. In the past, many e-learning initiatives were built around a macrolearning format -- MOOC. While long-form presentations seemed to work well for high-level introductory material, employees often found it challenging to retain the information they received during marathon training sessions.
  • Easier to update. Short-form content is easier to update. Having the ability to easily update learning modules is an important concern for educating employees in highly regulated industries such as finance and healthcare because information in these two industries is changing. When educational content is created in small, bite-sized modules, it can easily be updated to reflect new laws and regulations.
  • Efficiency. Employees can set aside smaller segments of time to learn new content, including information relevant to their jobs.
  • Better engagement. Shorter learning content increases the likelihood that an employee will complete the training. It's a good way for those with short attention spans to commit to the training. Training can also be delivered in different interactive forms, such as videos and short quizzes.
  • Cost. Microlearning courses require fewer resources and instructors, making this training less expensive to produce when compared to macrolearning.

Disadvantages of microlearning

Microlearning does have disadvantages, however. These include the following:

  • Complexity. Though microlearning is an effective learning strategy for reinforcement and retention, it's an inefficient approach for learners who need to gain mastery over a broad topic in a short period of time or acquire knowledge about a concept that can't be broken down easily. In this type of learning scenario, a microlearning approach might even be harmful, especially if the learner lacks the necessary background to supply context and relate one learning objective to another. Consider a university-level course in organic chemistry, for example. If every learning objective was broken down into lesson chunks of 10 minutes or less, many students would likely struggle to master the material.
  • Requires expertise. Depending on the subject, it might be difficult to condense learning content into quick, easy-to-learn material. These subjects might require expert knowledge of the material itself to properly segment the learning content.
  • Difficulties balancing content. Finding the right balance between short and engaging while also informative and detailed can be a challenge.
  • Requires maintenance. Although it's easier to maintain microlearning content when compared to macrolearning content, the material still must be updated periodically to account for technology or procedural changes.
  • Scalability challenges. If the content is personalized per learner, then scaling up the microlearning process will require more effort.

Microlearning software

The following are examples of software platforms for developing enterprise microlearning training programs:

  • Code of Talent. This software as a service (SaaS) microlearning platform is designed for brands and retailers. It's built to be manager-assisted, self-paced and to include gamification aspects.
  • ConveYour. ConveYour is a cloud, SaaS and web-based tool that lets businesses of all sizes create microlearning courses and offers automation tools for their delivery. It provides training via webinars, videos or documentation.
  • EdApp. EdApp is a free mobile-first microlearning platform that lets organizations create content that can be used during onboarding, training and on-the-job learning. EdApp features include spaced repetition, push notifications and gamification.
  • ExpandShare. The ExpandShare software platform is designed to help restaurants produce and publish microlearning content for their employees.
  • Gnowbe. Gnowbe is free mobile-first, web-enabled microlearning software designed to provide employees with interactive and group-based microlearning courses. It offers features such as push and email notifications, gamification, offline access and personalization.
  • Myagi. The Myagi cloud-based microlearning software can be used as a sales enablement tool. It offers live online training, documentation-based training and video-based training.
  • Qstream. Qstream is an enterprise microlearning tool that can be used in multiple industries to deliver personalized learning experiences for employees.
  • Sponge. Sponge's interactive microlearning products can identify gaps and check for knowledge retention.

Where to find free microlearning modules

Free microlearning modules can be found through the following resources:

  • Microlearning software such as EdApp, Gnowbe or 7taps.
  • Short learning-based content on YouTube.
  • Short TED talk lectures.
  • Free online courses from Khan Academy.
  • Learning applications such as Duolingo.

There isn't one best way to implement microlearning in an organization. Learn about 10 different microlearning strategies that can help with continual learning processes.

This was last updated in October 2023

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