Defining Microlearning?

Last week on the #chat2lrn twitter chat, the topic was microlearning. It was apparently prompted by this post by Tom Spiglanin which does a pretty good job of defining it, but some conceptual confusion showed up in the chat that makes it clear there’s some work to be done.  I reckon there may be a role for the label and even the concept, but I wanted to take a stab at what it is and isn’t, at least on principle.

So the big point to me is the word ‘learning’.  A number of people opined about accessing a how-to video, and let’s be clear: learning doesn’t have to come from that.   You could follow the steps and get the job done and yet need to access it again if you ever needed it. Just like I can look up the specs on the resolution of my computer screen, use that information, but have to look it up again next time.  So it could be just performance support, and that’s a good thing, but it’s not learning.  It suits the notion of micro content, but again, it’s about getting the job done, not developing new skills.

Another interpretation was little bits of components of learning (examples, practice) delivered over time. That is learning, but it’s not microlearning. It’s distributed learning, but the overall learning experience is macro (and much more effective than the massed, event, model).  Again, a good thing, but not (to me) microlearning.  This is what Will Thalheimer calls subscription learning.

So, then, if these aren’t microlearning, what is?  To me, microlearning has to be a small but complete learning experience, and this is non-trivial.  To be a full learning experience, this requires a model, examples, and practice.  This could work with very small learnings (I use an example of media roles in my mobile design workshops).  I think there’s a better model, however.

To explain, let me digress. When we create formal learning, we typically take learners away from their workplace (physically or virtually), and then create contextualized practice. That is, we may present concepts and examples (pre- via blended, ideally, or less effectively in the learning event), and then we create practice scenarios. This is hard work. Another alternative is more efficient.

Here, we layer the learning on top of the work learners are already doing.  Now, why isn’t this performance support? Because we’re not just helping them get the job done, we’re explicitly turning this into a learning event by not only scaffolding the performance, but layering on a minimal amount of conceptual material that links what they’re doing to a model. We (should) do this in examples and feedback on practice, now we can do it around real work. We can because (via mobile or instrumented systems) we know where they are and what they’re doing, and we can build content to do this.  It’s always been a promise of performance support systems that they could do learning on top of helping the outcome, but it’s as yet seldom seen.

And the focus on minimalism is good, too.  We overwrite and overproduce, adding in lots that’s not essential.  C.f. Carroll’s Nurnberg Funnel or Moore’s Action Mapping.  And even for non-mobile, minimalism makes sense (as I tout under the banner of the Least Assistance Principle).  That is, it’s really not rude to ask people (or yourself as a designer) “what’s the least I can do for you?”  Because that’s what people generally really prefer: give me the answer and let me get back to work!

Microlearning as a phrase has probably become current (he says, cynically) because elearning providers are touting it to sell the ability of their tools to now deliver to mobile.   But it can also be a watch word to emphasize thinking about performance support, learning ‘in context’, and minimalism.  So I think we may want to continue to use it, but I suggest it’s worthwhile to be very clear what we mean by it. It’s not courses on a phone (mobile elearning), and it’s not spaced out learning, it’s small but useful full learning experiences that can fit by size of objective or context ‘in the moment’.  At least, that’s my take; what’s yours?

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