Digging into Micro-Learning

Earlier this month, I felt I didn’t have enough perspective on Micro-Learning to deepen my analysis of the Learning Postcards project. Learning Postcards let Experts, Tech Leads, and Coaches deliver their Knowledge in a convenient snackable learning experience. As such it qualifies as a Micro-learning Experience.

I did some research to collect some insights on what are microlearning and what are their benefits. It’s my journey across blog sites, articles, ebook and webinars I share here. It’s not a summary of those but a step by step construction of a definition, collecting advantages, and requirements of microlearnings.

Microlearnings are becoming hotter and hotter with every new day. This post uses half the material I had last week. Meanwhile more came in, so it’s clear a single post will not let you get our head around the topic. You will have to come again to this blog, for the part 2, to drill even deeper in microlearning and see the real value of it.

First encounter

I discovered Micro-Learning during a #PKMChat in 2015 with Tom Spiglanin. Tom followed with a post. In his post, Tom quotes Wikipedia’s definition

Microlearning deals with relatively small learning units and short-term learning activities. Generally, the term “microlearning” refers to micro-perspectives in the context of learning, education and training.

and restates it.

Microlearning refers to an activity (learning) dealing with small learning units (products).

Don’t miss my comments below Tom’s posts. The idea of Learning Postcards was already nascent.

I took away that micro-learning are short but longer than micro-videos or a few tweets. Micro-Learning are above all autonomous learning experiences. Best learning design practices suggest that they include:

  • Learning objectives: Why you made it and what you expect from it.
  • Bite-sized content like a short video or a short explanation
  • Short assessments
  • Practice exercises to stretch further.

Second experience

Later I saw examples from Grovo . I think Grovo is more focused on growing a vast catalog of micro-learning and sell them as ready-made then to extend the use-cases of micro-learning. They design each episode according to high-quality standards. The target is the common denominators of organizations: onboarding, security, office work, compliance. It’s opposite of the Learning Postcards market: Just in time, specialized, directly from the experts learnings.

In our case, knowers will design themselves the experience. They will bypass the Instructional designer. It will rarely be of-the-self packages because it’s new knowledge and specific to the work. The goal is to design an experience in 30 minutes. Our mission is to shorten the time between knowledge formation and on the work application. It aims at supporting agile iterations and progressives enhancements.

So I took my explorer stick again and went on searching, reading and ideating.


I came, by chance, across a post on the topic from Donald Taylor on LinkedIn. It was only 15 days old.

Donald’s definition of Micro-Learning:

Micro learning is learning from content accessed in short bursts, content which is relevant to the individual, and repeated over time to ensure retention.

A nice addition to our early definition

“Without structured repetition and personal relevance, this is simply another way of putting lipstick on the pig ..”

Personal Relevance is a key requirement to ensure a good ROI of Micro-Learning for the Expert (the designer) and for the learner. I wish to make it a key part of the contract of Learning Postcards passed between the knower and the learner.

It ensures the designer did his homework. He defined learning outcomes, chew and distilled his ideas to the essential bits. It’s a good answer to the question I raised here: Why should an expert use a Learning postcards instead of a blog post?.

The existence of this implicit contract is the base of the motivation of the recipient. It encourages him to give it a high priority. He can get to it at the first occasion in his schedule. He can use transition times such as waiting for a meeting to start, waiting for printing, waiting for a backup, waiting to retry a call.

There is an interesting discussion in the comments below. Here are some ideas:

From  Eric Kammerer

“the learner’s obligation to revisit, repeat, reflect and scaffold multiple learning objects over time. This requires discipline and commitment from the individual and a job design and environment that supports doing so.”

This requires that Micro-Learning should exist in a place where the learner can go back to them. In the case of the “Learning Postcards”, the learner will find them in his box. He can organize them in decks at his convenience. It could be offline. Flip cards in decks will be possible as well as swiping them around. He can also review them all and sort them by advancement, time spent, or last view. The pleasant UX will make it stimulating to use. It’s based on the same technology as Facebook, Netflix, and Slack. Everything that could level the discipline required is welcome. Microlearning is learning cast into habits. Increasing ability will reduce the need of discipline as described in Hooked by Nir Eyal.

Disruption ahead

Since Donald mentioned Shakleton-Jones views, I went to his blog and took a look. The title “Micro-learning: the next big bad idea” suggests that he’s taking the opposite stance. Never bad to read contrarian views. What makes it even more valuable is that Nick gained his experience in companies well known for their use of Knowledge Management. KM is the center of my interest.

The content does not become more useful by breaking it into smaller pieces. This is the problem with ‘micro-learning’

I have to agree micro-learning shouldn’t be about chunking. It was my initial guideline for Leaning Postcards authors but as I tried to design some I realized my error. Microlearning is first about making the load minimal.

I made this example taken from my real life this week: Designing a microlearning about Webpack. I discuss this concept of first extracting 5 main ideas and building around them. Something Nick advocates as well in:

what are the top 5 questions you would want to ask Fred?

Yet I disagree to reducing a microlearning to a single nugget. That would be mouth feeding the learner. A continuous flow of ideas without the perspectives to make sense and take options for the next bite. Together with microlearning comes the idea of maps and learning paths.

Nick goes on comparing the need of a global map of knowledge and microlearning. For me, microlearnings are like the stations of his subway map. they should offer enough indications to make sense of where we are and why we should continue learning. They serve as a persistent hub toward more resources or heading to another microlearning. It’s like exiting the station and exploring the neighborhood or taking a connecting journey.

BTW, connecting and discovering new microlearning is equivalent to “what are the next 5 top questions you want to ask Fred”. Step by step microlearning extract knowledge from the expert. Why not giving the expert a way to enter this conversation directly? This led me to the idea to offer a conversational interface, bot-like to the Learning cards design.

Tons of interesting comments on this post too.

I liked the comparison of Microlearning with jigsaw pieces. I take it as pretty positive. Giving just enough indications to connect one microlearning with another. Avoiding to overload the learner at once. If a piece is missing, it’s a new microlearning required.

Interesting too, this comment from Bernice Stangenberg. . I know the topic so I can confirm this is a good and viable solution.

For instance, lets say I am designing a course on SQL Server. I would structure it in such a way that the learner would be given a concept or SQL construct, see it in action or application, then be able to practice it, maybe even master it, before moving on. Each piece could be viewed and reviewed at any time that the learner desires. However, each bit of training is a small step in the overall learning of SQL Server. Mostly to be followed in a linear fashion but not always.

This goes in the way of the following requirements: Offer perspectives for self-directed learning. Persistence of the content.

Interesting technical comment from  Alex Khurgin from Grovo

First, content certainly does become more useful by breaking it into smaller pieces if what you’re doing is respecting the limitations of working memory. Smaller pieces are easier to process and can be spaced out over time. Nothing precludes a designer from making these pieces affective stories, challenges, experiences, etc. And nothing precludes a vendor from building a library out of them.

Kirstie Greany has an interesting broader view of micro-learnings

I see it as a series of challenges that are personalised, and build up competency over time. More of a learning through regular stretches and exercises

Nick, in an answer, gives some details on the distinction to make between learning, resources and plain content dump. I don’t agree with this dichotomy. In my job, most of the technology or marketing knowledge is shared directly authorities, yet it can be relevant, clear, specific. Surely this requires more discussions.

if the source material for micro-learning is ‘content’ from an authority, then it is probably content dumping. If, instead it has been derived from an analysis of the performance context, talking to the audience, and is intended to address specific tasks, then it may be a resource.

Looking at more comments I realize major advantages of microlearning are not mentioned:

– They are shorter to build.

– Design can be done outside of L&D, directly by the experts. If they produce something poor from pedagogy POV it’s easy to fix.

– They can be available very quickly and fix a missing gap.

– It introduces true modularity in the learning experience, something common in many other domains like software, manufacturing, design.

– They introduce agility and reactivity to the learning framework.

Imagine a new regulation, a new modification to a machine bottling line occurred during the weekend. How long before a typical L&D department can unroll their workflow to update a course? With a microlearning is easy to produce a quick patch. Experts and craftsman on the field can be encouraged to contribute videos, and material using their devices. Beyond it can be a simple packaging. The software industry doesn’t act differently with hot patches to ensure this uninterrupted service we like so much.

More key advantages have not been uncovered. Part 2 is coming soon.

Which ones did you see or which to see explored? Share your comments, questions, and feedback below.