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The corporate eLearning world buzzes with terms like “spaced learning,” “drip learning,” and, above all, “microlearning.” What do these terms mean? How might they be applied in association online education? Why is eLearning shrinking? This post covers the history of microlearning’s revolt against the conventions of corporate eLearning, and then considers how associations can apply microlearning principles to better engage professional learners.

eLearning is shrinking

Long and Boring: High Corporate eLearning

Once upon a time, round the turn o’ the millennium, eLearning became a thing. The term eLearning was meant to mark a transition from the previous CBT (computer-based training) moniker and was theoretically applicable to any learning happening over the Internet. However, eLearning came, in practice, to be associated with corporate HR and compliance training. For clarity, let us refer to this historical genre, with its associated conventions, style, and aesthetics, as High Corporate eLearning.

In High Corporate eLearning, organizations typically took the slideshows from their existing one-hour standup training sessions and converted them into one-hour eLearning modules. SCORM, a standard originally funded by the U.S. military to help move instructor-led training to online delivery in a scalable fashion, was a key enabling technology for these organizations. After several years of wrenching technical issues (The SCORM Wars, which we at Web Courseworks lived through), the SCORM standard eventually made eLearning more scalable and economical by allowing organizations to separate the content (the course) from the delivery platform (the LMS, or learning management system). Rapid development technologies like Articulate made it easy – perhaps too easy – to convert PowerPoints into eLearning, facilitating travesties like day-long training seminars converted into six-hour SCORM packages.

But there was a problem. After the initial buzz of actually watching your HR training on a computer wore off (which did not take long), employees became bored. One hour was too long to spend clicking through a slideshow on a computer. “Learners” started to disengage or, worse, avoid “eLearning” like the plague. High Corporate eLearning became synonymous with tedium.

The Solution: Enter Interactivity!

“Engaging interactivity”: the many variations of “click to reveal”

So how did High Corporate eLearning designers solve this problem of long, boring eLearning modules? Interactivity! eLearning theorists of the mid-2000s looked around for what would actually keep someone engaged with a computer for hours, and found click-happy casual games like Candy Crush. Perhaps eLearning could be less boring—but not less long—if it simply provided things for learners to click on?

Uh…strike that. Interactivity was too often reduced to, simply, requiring more mouse clicks to complete a SCORM course. Interactivity in High Corporate eLearning helped in occasional instances when it was judiciously designed, and the content and learning objectives called for it, but it was often just an annoyance.

The Solution (?): Enter Microlearning!

Me and my friends, we like to make our modules real small.

The obvious solution to being too long: be short. We’ll call it Microlearning! Where interactivity tried to fix the “boring” part, microlearning eschews adding excitement and just concentrates on fixing the “long” part. Instructional designers are now advised to break up their hour-long presentations into five-minute “chunks,” “drips,” or “pulses” of content.

Allegedly, and perhaps correctly, this diminution caters to how our brains want to receive information. We can’t “absorb” too much information at a time, we’re told. We need “spaced repetition.” These ideas are sometimes couched in terms of Internet-era short attention spans and transitory mobile yada yada yada. You get the drift.

Microlearning will probably not be a cure-all for boring eLearning. Like interactivity before it, microlearning is probably just fine as a technique used at the right time for the right purposes. But it’s being hyped as a solution to a problem in corporate training and development that probably doesn’t have a solution: a lot of mandated training is just about boring stuff. Perhaps, in theory, five minutes of boring stuff is better than 60 minutes of boring stuff, but I’ve got to admit: if someone orders me to endure five minutes of boredom, my attention span expires after about five seconds. (Idea! Five-second NANOLEARNING!)

Idea! Five. Second. Nanolearning.

So Why Should Associations Care About Microlearning?

The core audience of this blog is associations and other organizations offering professional development and continuing education. Association online learning has always been loosely inspired by High Corporate eLearning. That’s because association education departments work under conditions that share certain similarities with corporate training, but also differ in important ways. Some of the similarities: association learners are adults; association learners work at jobs (they’re not typically full-time students); associations are transitioning from a predominantly hour-long presenter-led modality to online delivery; associations use (perhaps because of lack of alternative options) many of the same tools for creating online learning content as corporations do.

Association education differs from corporate training in all kinds of ways: the learners aren’t employees, the education has to compete on the market, the content is often more specialized, and much more. But for the purposes of microlearning, here are two salient points:

  • Association content is not as boring as corporate content. In fact, to the association’s niche audience—its members, who have formed a community of practice around the knowledge and skills of their profession—the seemingly esoteric topics covered by the association’s education offerings are often downright exciting. Professional associations, by their nature, educate on topics at the cutting edge of their professions. Unlike corporate learners, who actively avoid thinking about the topics their employers foist upon them, association learners are thirsting for competency in the topics their professional associations teach.
  • Unfortunately, having professional learners thirsting for competency in your topics does not automatically mean those learners will engage with your content on that topic. Most highly educated professionals would love to gain competence in a huge range of useful new knowledge and skills, but the problem is time. Their demanding professional lives make it tough for them to find the time for, say, a one-hour SCORM package.

In short, then, the problem with association eLearning is not that it’s long and boring—all other things being equal, assuming the topics are well chosen, and the quality level is high; the problem is mostly just when it’s long. Microlearning clearly addresses this issue.

The Forms Association Microlearning Can Take

So, the argument for microlearning is a bit different for associations than it is for corporations. Microlearning is valuable not because it limits the pain, but because it provides ways for your professional learners to fit your already-valuable education into their busy lives. Here are some forms association microlearning can take that make it relatively easy for professional learners to fit it in:

  • Microlearning can take the form of a quiz question or scenario that is emailed to the learner, or pushed to their phone via an app. This might be a “case study” type of interaction that takes a couple of minutes to read, and then asks the learner to apply their professional competencies to choose the right course of action.
  • Microlearning can be a 15-to-20-minute video condensation of a particular speaker’s trademark session or workshop. (Note: don’t take that five-minute barrier too seriously.) An example of these from professional development in higher education is Magna Publications “20 Minute Mentors” training videos.
  • Microlearning can be a 15-to-20-minute audio condensation of a session or workshop. Note that audio is easier to fit into our lives than video: video requires your eyes; audio just your ears. You can listen to audio while driving or taking the train. You can easily download it to a mobile device and come back to it later.
  • Microlearning can mimic the form of shareable social media content: social posts, blog posts, listicles, quick videos.

How to Scaffold Microlearning with Your Existing Macrolearning

Real learning, of course, typically requires periods of extended, concentrated study (macrolearning!). High Corporate eLearning doesn’t talk about this much because they are not always so concerned with real learning – they’re often more focused on compliance – but your accomplished professional learners know it to be true. Microlearning should be thought of as a way to help professional learners find topics and content that would help them. Often this takes the form of helping learners curate their own learning plans. Here are some ways microlearning can do that.

  • Interactive microlearning, like those weekly case studies, should provide feedback with suggestions for macrolearning experiences that address any deficiencies in performance.
  • Short condensations of longer learning experiences should provide ways for learners to bookmark the longer learning experiences and come back to when they have time for concentrated study.
  • Microlearning experiences can provide ways to subscribe to related learning experiences – social accounts, podcast series, video channels – and receive notifications when new content is available.
  • Social-style features around the microlearning experience, such as commenting, rating, sharing, and following can help learners find relevant longer experiences – sourced from their peers.

Note well: barrier #1 to engaging professional learners is time. Barriers two and three are price and user interface hurdles (e.g., having to log into an LMS). All of the above approaches to microlearning are taking on a promotional role for your macrolearning catalog, and because they are promotional you should remove barriers to engaging with them. That means they should be free, and ideally, they would not require logging in.

Implementing Microlearning with Your Existing Technology

There are microlearning platforms—often mobile apps—but they are probably not worth your time unless you already have a thriving microlearning business. It’s one more system to manage, and it’s not as if your CMS or LMS forces you to upload a six-hour SCORM package. Consider using platforms like these:

  • Your LMS. Many LMSes have features can assist in creating a microlearning program for your members. For example, short learning experiences can be recommended based on past learning done by a learner or based on a learner’s current interests. You may be able to send weekly emails to learners with short blasts of information that is customized to the learner.
  • Your CMS (website). Many CMSes have their roots in blogging platforms like WordPress, and provide great tools for blogging, managing chunks of audio and video content, and allowing learners to subscribe to content.
  • Your catalog. Your catalog might be on your AMS, your CMS, or an eCommerce platform. If it’s possible to host content there, it’s a logical place for certain kinds of microlearning – the most promotional kinds, like short samples of longer-format courses.
  • Your association social accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. These platforms, of course, provide great functionality for reviewing, rating, sharing, and commenting. Your organizational accounts might be run by your marketing department, but marketing often hungers for real valuable content to drop into the feed. Your microlearning can be that content and can link back to your macrolearning content.

The National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners (NBOME) are currently using their LMS, CourseStage Health (full disclosure: that’s our LMS) for their CATALYST microlearning series. CATALYST is a “case of the week” program for osteopathic medical students. The learners are reminded to do their case studies through automated email notifications. Cases are delivered via the LMS’s assessment modules. Learners can take the test straight from their phone, tablet, or laptop.

Microlearning continues to change and grow. If you would like to learn more about how you can add microlearning into your eLearning business don’t be afraid to contact us. We will also be at ASAE Annual, booth 100 during exhibit hours with presentations that you won’t want to miss!


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