Chris Russell

3 min read

Human Resources

Microlearning Is Just In Time Learning

If you needed to add a video to your business presentation you wouldn’t sign-up for a course on PowerPoint. You’d search for a “how to” online to learn just what you needed to accomplish the task.

That’s the difference between traditional corporate training programs and what’s come to be called microlearning. 

Microlearning is the delivery of task-relevant learning in small bites. It’s been growing as a tool of corporate trainers since the late 1990s. But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that it took off, as learning and development professionals recognized its value in giving workers just the information they needed – and no more — when they needed it.

What is Microlearning?

It’s “a way of teaching and delivering content to learners in small, specific bursts,” as the Society for Human Resource Management describes microlearning. It makes learning more meaningful because it is “just in time.” And studies that began emerging in the mid-2010s showed microlearning improved retention.

Corporate trainers have long been frustrated by the twin challenge of getting workers to retain what they’ve learned in instructor-led training sessions, and convincing managers to free-up workers for training and reinforcement.

Research about retention confirms the fundamentals of Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve: We begin forgetting what we’re taught within minutes of learning it. So routine reinforcement is needed. But getting managers to give up workers for even an hour, let alone half-day training is a constant battle.

Meanwhle, trainers also have to contend with a diminishing worker attention span. Pointing to a Microsoft finding that the human attention span is now shorter than a goldfish’s, a team of researchers found that “microlearning becomes more and more important because it emphasizes short learning duration.” They maintain the internet and the ready availability of data “affects how people view their time and how they learn.”

“In the workplace, people are used to have information at their fingertips, finding the answers they need within minutes. This has dramatically changed people’s expectations of workplace learning,” they write.

Microlearning solves these problems. By leveraging the internet and the near ubiquitous availability of desktops and portable devices, corporate L&D teams are making short bits of information readily available. In a survey conducted three years ago, the Association for Talent Development found “four in five respondents use microlearning at their organizations to reinforce or supplement formal training. Microlearning also was used as a just-in-time learning tool by 75 percent of participants.”

If that survey were conducted today, the numbers would undoubtedly be significantly higher. The Covid shutdowns and the subsequent limit on gatherings propelled microlearning from trend to established practice.

Socially Distant Microlearning

“COVID-19 has forced workers to learn in a socially distanced and often remote environment, making instructor-led training (ILT) less popular,” says a blog post on Topyx, a vendor of corporate learning technology.

“The COVID-19 pandemic did what competition and the productivity race could not—it tipped the scales towards blended learning and corporate training instead of instructor-led education,” says another blog post.

An article in Industry Training magazine says 2020 “broke traditional corporate training” by placing resource constraints on companies and causing workers to be more reluctant than ever “to take on anything outside of their normal job activities.

“Forward-thinking L&D professionals are adapting to this environment by implementing just-in-time training strategies.”

As valuable as microlearning is, it shouldn’t be thought of as a replacement for other types of learning, including instructor-led training. Consider it another tool in the L&D toolbox – a powerful one for sure, but not a replacement. 

 In the book Microlearning: Short and Sweet, authors and learning experts Karl M. Kapp and Robyn A. Defelice, caution that microlearning “Is not always the best solution for learning needs because not all of what individuals need to know to be successful can be taught through microlearning strategies.”

Yet, as the demand for worker training continues to grow, microlearning will play an increasingly important role. 

In 2022, more companies will embrace microlearning techniques, creating short instructional videos and leveraging other technologies like AR and VR. By one estimate, the market for microlearning content will grow by almost 14% in the next two years, topping $2.7 billion.

Looking ahead, Finance Digest says, “agile, flexible microlearning holds the key to extracting the full potential out of our workforces.”

Contribution by John Zappe

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