Buzzword: Micro-learning

Post Type: 
Blog post

I was introduced recently to a new buzz word making its way across the learning & development industry: Micro-learning.

If you’re like me, you’re probably starting to get a bit tired of people adding their particular spin to learning – all in search of the holy grail that is the “right way” to make learning happen.

It doesn’t exist.

But having got that out of the way, it is worth looking at these ideas to see if there’s anything we, as learning professionals, can learn from them.

As a term, “micro-learning” has been around since about 2004, when it was put forward in a PhD thesis by Gerhard Gassler.

Basically, micro-learning describes a method of learning, whereby concepts and ideas are presented (or retrieved) in very small chunks, over very short time-scales, often at the point of need, or at the point of maximum receptiveness.

Examples include:

  • A lesson of the week on the back of the toilet door (as done at Google)
  • Catching up on what my Twitter network are sharing, whilst waiting for a train
  • Picking up a couple of recent blog posts or videos from my RSS reader whilst eating lunch
  • Finding a quick video about how to replace a light bulb in my car
  • Looking up the best way to buy a rail ticket from the UK to Germany

As can be seen from the examples above, micro-learning is generally pulled rather than pushed. ie. the learner dictates when they learn.

Some people do talk about sending text (SMS) messages to learners – perhaps a question or a brief statement of fact/opinion. But, unless this is something the learner has asked for, it’s unlikely to make much of a difference, and may even just be ignored.

Micro-learning can be based on any type of media, but the key thing is that the media should be in small chunks. A one hour video, with a piece of useful learning somewhere in the middle can be painfully difficult to use in a micro-learning context. But a pack of videos put together in a Youtube playlist is perfect – as each video is individually addressable, and can be linked to.

Similarly, there’s no point just giving someone a 60 page PDF document. You need to be able to point them to the particular page, or even paragraph, in the content that will help them at their point of need.

HTML, and its close relative XML, is an ideal container for text-based micro-learning content, as it allows you to create machine-readable structures. It can even be used to structure other media, as long as the audio, video or other files have already been chunked up.

Once the content is in an XML format, then applications can be built on top which pull the chunks out in a variety of different ways, and provide a range of interfaces for users to navigate or search them.

RSS is a great example of this. For many years, my RSS reader, and the feeds that I subscribe to, have been my primary mechanism for keeping up with developments across the L&D and Technology industries. RSS, itself, is a standardized XML format – with containers for things like Title, Description, Author, Date published etc. Even with this, very simple, format, it’s possible to then display, and navigate, the data in different ways.

Similarly, many data providers (such as the UK National Rail Enquiries service) give access to their data in XML format (see: Rail Live Departure Boards web service). This then allows developers to create innovative “mashup” applications which combine data from multiple sources and present it in new ways – often, but not exclusively for use on mobile devices.

It’s the same with learning content. If we could put our content into a machine-readable format, in small chunks, we can then create applications which allow learners to find that content when they need it. Combine that with data about the individual, their particular network of contacts, their previous learning and searching history, and you then have an extremely powerful application providing personalised learning – in a similar way to how Amazon seems to know exactly what you are thinking about!

Micro-learning is a perfect fit for the 70:20:10 guidelines which many organisations are now adopting as a more cost-effective approach to learning & development, and, even though I may not like the term, on reflection I’ve realised that I’m like Elliot Masie (PDF), in being an inveterate micro- (or even nano-) learner.

Additional resources: 70:20:10 framework

This article was authored by Mark Berthelemy, a Customer Account Manager at Xyleme, Inc.