What Is Microlearning?

What Is Microlearning?
(5 Questions Answered for Business Training in 2020)

***Disclaimer: This is intentionally a long read. However, for your ease of use, there's a video just below the intro 👇 that sums up this content.

Introduction

Along with "What is microlearning?", people might also ask, "What does microlearning look like?" I'll address this here, so that by the end of this article (or video), you're going to be able to answer these 5 questions about Microlearning:

1. What is microlearning?

2. Why should I use microlearning?

3. Where should microlearning be used (and who uses microlearning)?

4. What is the process for developing microlearning?; and

5. What should I look for in a microlearning platform?

On top of answering these questions, I'll also give you FIVE BEST PRACTICES.

Before you continue, determine whether to read the article, listen to the article, watch the video, or do all three.

Here's how to decide:

-If you're here to get a quick understanding of microlearning, and don't want an in depth review of microlearning, WATCH THIS VIDEO 👇 (it's less than 10 minutes).

-If you want a deeper dive that lists examples and processes, while dabbling into ConveYour's philosophy of microlearning, read the article (it has the information from the videos with additional infographics, and pop-culture references (Gilmore-isms (if you don't know what a Gilmore-ism is, look it up (hey, can you put parenthetical statements inside other parenthetical statements?)))).

-For those who don't like to read, BUT WANT THE DEEPER DIVE, we are releasing these five questions on our podcast one week at a time. Here's where to listen to our podcast.

-Or do all three to see how content can drive participants to other content.

As a side note, all three formats (Article, Video, Audio) can be considered microlearning, even though they differ in length...more on that in the next section!


Question #1 - What is microlearning?

To understand what microlearnig (mL) is, we will compare a lexical definition with a much more functional definition. Here's the lexical definition from Microlearning: Short & Sweet by Karl Kapp & Robyn Defelice.

"Microlearning is an instructional unit that provides a short engagement in an activity intentionally designed to elicit a specific outcome from the participant."

This can be summed up better with a more concise definition from Shannon Tipton, a mL expert (incidentally, it serves as an explanation of the lexical definition while being an example of mL).

"Microlearning is short content to solve a specific problem."

Shannon gave a parameter to clarify what she meant:

"By the time they finish reading the checklist or watching your video, they'll be able to do 'the thing'."

(👇 At the bottom of this page is a resource section with videos by Karl Kapp, Shannon Tipton, and others who are cited in this article. )

What does that mean?

Unfortunately many people focus on the "micro" part of the word, "microlearning". They think mL means that the content has to be short or limited in length. This isn't necessarily true. Microlearning isn't focused on time restraints, but on teaching a specific thing. Your job is to discover what the "thing" is. Let me give an example.

Oil Change

A perfect case of mL is when someone goes to YouTube to find out how to change the oil on their 2005 Honda Accord. This is "just-in-time" learning that attacks a problem, helping the inquirer to find a solution.

Here's what I found.

oil change image 1

The first video that came up in my search was by DIYGuys. It's very short... just under 2 minutes (1:50). It also solves a problem. So you would think it would have more views than the other options. Wrong.

oil change image 2

Robert DIY has a video that's nearly 11.5 minutes solving the exact same problem...but his video has 10X MORE VIEWS. Which one is more successful? If we rate it by views, Robert DIY wins.

(These videos are listed below in the Resource section.)

Now I should be clear: both videos are examples of mL, because they both solve a problem. However, "short" and "micro" is relative. In fact, 91,000 viewers thought Robert DIY's video was short enough for them to take the time to watch it. As well, there are videos that are longer than Robert's and have significantly more views.

The point of this is: if you offer a service that people want, time is relative. Because of this, when asking about mL, remember that the focus is on "learning", NOT "micro" (one of the reasons I've lower-cased the 'm' and upper-cased the 'L' in 'mL').

This is why when Tipton is asked about mL's length, she says it should be:

"[Microlearning is] as long as necessary and as short as possible."

In other words, mL is concerned with accurately and clearly solving a problem, prior to dealing with the time or mode of delivery.


Best Practice #1: Your microlearning content should answer the question to a problem.


Question #2 - "Why should I use microlearning?"

Do you want the short answer? Of course you do! But you're not watching the video, remember? So we will take a little more time here. However, I don't want you to feel like I'm leaving you hanging, so let me give you the simple answer: YouTube is why you need mL.

I could explain by talking about the advance in hardware (mobile devices) and the software that they use. I could also talk about the cultural shift toward utility that has taken place since the Industrial Revolution (I'd speculate about how we are batteries as Morpheus told Neo).

But the fact is, I don't have the time to delve deep into philosophy or psychology here. Further, why we have YouTube is a conversation for people much smarter than I am (I wish Lorelai and Rory had bantered about this topic!).

The point of saying you need mL because of YouTube is that YouTube is here, and it's here to stay. And with it, comes an overload of knowledge and information. According to Stephan Thoma, the ex-CLO (Chief Learning Officer) of Google,

"Knowledge has always been locked up in heads of people...and finding mechanisms to operate in that world is a key determiner for the success, and contribution, and impact of learning functions in the future."

YouTube's Impact

So what does Stephan's quote mean? Simply put: your employees, followers, clients, and potential clients, are continually looking for information about everything—things like information about your company and your processes, and things like "how to bake at high altitudes" and "SEO integration".

People need a "mechanism" to access this knowledge...which is why Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Quora, etc. exist. Thus, information is a resource...or as Stephen Rhyne (president and founder of ConveYour) stated in ConveYour's podcast:

"Information is a commodity."

Craig Weiss, the CEO of FindAnLMS.com, has also declared:

"Content is a commodity."

Now, because of mobile devices, and platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, Wistia, Quora, Stackoverflow, Wikipedia, etc., answers are only a click away. This is amazing!

But it has potential problems.

One problem is that if you don't have easily accessible information for your people—your employees, followers, clients, future clients—you run the risk of being inefficient at best, and out of business at worst.

If information/content = commodity, and your employees/clients/future clients don't have your information, they will be driven to find information somewhere else. And the one who answers their questions becomes the expert, while you fade to the background. The bottom line, it will reflect in your profitability.

In other words, YOU'RE LOSING BUSINESS AND EFFICIENCY if you don't have a streamlined way to get your information to your people.

So if mL is needed, where exactly should it be implemented? Well, that's what we're about to discuss.


Best Practice #2: Your microlearning content should be easily accessible for your people.


#3 - "Where should microlearning be used, and who uses it?"

To answer this question, we have to look again at the need of the culture. The question we might ask is: "Aside from searching for entertainment (like Michael Scott), why do people get onto YouTube or Google?"

We've already discussed the answer (remember the Oil Change Example above?). But let's dig a little deeper.

Are people looking for the answer of how to change oil so they can become mechanics? In rare instances, sure. But 99% of the time...No.

People search for tutorials in order to get a quick solution. These searches exist in order to get themselves out of a jam, to save money, to look smart, or to compare services, prices, and products.

This isn't an exhaustive list, but it shows us that people are looking for immediate solutions to problems or pain points. In businesses, most of these occur at the point of sales, marketing, and customer service...the places where you're trying to drive the DNA of your company in order to change, develop, or reinforce behaviors.

But here's the interesting thing. If someone searches for how to change oil, and has access to this video every time she needs to change her oil, eventually, she becomes an expert in changing oil. She may not become a mechanic, but she CAN become an excellent oil changer.

What's more is that she also learns where to go to acquire information to learn new things. So if you have a way to push your information to people, they can begin the process of learning how to do nearly anything you want them to do.

This means that wherever you're trying to reinforce or create behaviors, mL should be used.

Places like: Training, On Boarding, and Skill development

Skill Development

Since we're here, I should focus briefly on the philosophy of skills-based training with an example. Do you remember when Darryl Philbin in NBC's The Office used to be a warehouse guy for Dunder Mifflin?

Yes, I'm using The Office as an example...hold on a moment and follow me. By the end of the series, he had become the Vice President of Athlete Relations for Athleap*.

How did this happen? He developed expertise as a warehouse foreman, which translated into marketable skills. If only Dunder Mifflin had realized his potential sooner!

While it's clear that not everyone will be so successful, imagine if you were able to identify talent within your ranks. The right type of training locates people with skills because the right people go looking for opportunities to advance themselves.

What if your Darryl Philbin is working for you right now, but he's Googling "how to become a sales rep" in his spare time?

Are you going to lose a gifted employee because you don't have information readily available for him? This is one of the powerful products of correctly implementing mL.

Perhaps this is why Craig Weiss says:

"More than simply compliance & role based training...you NEED skills based training."

By the way, while Darryl Philbin is a fictional character, Ramona Hood (pictured below) is not. It might serve you well to know that she is a real life example of someone moving from a lower-level position to the highest one in a company. You can read an article about her journey from FedEx receptionist to CEO in the first link in the resource section.

So Who Uses mL?

Companies with a high focus on developing people, that's who.

Given the example above, we ought to consider that mL is being successfully utilized by Fortune 500 companies (and universities, international corporations, private businesses, and more). Click on any LMS or e-learning platform, and look at the businesses that are employing mL.

While mL didn't necessarily make Fortune 500 companies profitable, you can guarantee that smart companies invest in methods to get their information to their people. Many of these methods include mL technology...and they don't use it for "trending" reasons.

I can hear you say, "But they have the resources."

That might be true.

But let me ask a couple question: Are you currently paying people to do training? Is it possible you have content and processes in place, but are delivering them poorly? And how much does mL cost? Would your company have more resources if it was more efficient in this area?

Here's what we should consider: long before they have the resources, successful companies develop or adopt processes that set them apart. I'll submit that if you wisely funnel information to your people, and people to your information, resources will follow**. This is where mL can help, and this is why we will talk about the process of mL next.

The caveat to resources following is that your product has to be something people want and/or need. It isn't necessarily, "If you build it, they will come."


Best Practice #3: Your microlearning content should be used to create and reinforce behaviors.


#4- "What is the process of developing microlearning?"

Here it is:

1. Make your budget (finances, bandwidth, team members, IT, stakeholders)

2. Determine an outcome (and a way to measure/assess)

3. Turn this outcome into a logical, actionable, step-by-step process

4. Develop content around each step in the process

Let me start by saying we have a video series in the works that breaks down developing content for microlearning. We will add it here when it's finalized.

CAVEAT: Failure Is An Option (if you don't have a plan)

According to Karl Kapp, you will fail without planning on how to roll out your mL experience. In chapter 6 of Microlearning: Short & Sweet, he tells a true story of a company that didn't count the cost before jumping into mL (he changes the company's name in his video & book).

**The video is listed in the Resources section at the bottom of the page 👇

Step One: Make Your Budget

Making your budget is difficult and has many nuances depending on your role as a trainer. Also, by "budget", I'm not exclusively talking about money.

A better way to say this might be: take inventory of what you have. But "budget" is a better word because you need to know if you have the capability or bandwidth to manage all the different areas (money, time, energy, equipment, content, and people). This is an ongoing process, and will become more clear at the end of these steps. For starters, take these two things to heart:

  • -- Don't overspend (time, energy, etc.) on production value.
  • -- Evaluate and Re-Evaluate your budget regularly

Overspending and Evaluation

Because microlearning often uses mobile devices, and people are accustomed to consuming material on these devices, your content might go a long way if it matches current user experience (to some degree).

So think about the oil change videos above, how-to videos, or even Vines, TikToks, and Instagrams. People consume them for the primary function of learning and entertainment. They aren't looking for polished content.

What I'm driving at is that you don't necessarily need a studio, a $10,000 camera, fancy graphics, and paid actors. If you have a team who does this already, that's fine. If you don't, feel comfortable making a selfie video in your office (with bright, natural light, decent sound, and no interruptions).

And when it comes to evaluation and re-evaluation, start getting used to mapping out your processes. You can't check cost (whether energy cost, or financial cost, etc.) if you don't know where you're spending resources.

To help with this, here's an idea of what you might do when (re)evaluating.

Your (Re)Eval Process

First, take inventory of who and what you currently have, and who and what you currently need. You'll do this with your entire Microlearning Development process over and over again.

Second, you will want a mL platform. Do some research to find out how much these services cost, AND if they are compatible with your IT department. But do this after you go through our answer to the Question: "What should you look for in a mL platform?" further down this page. 👇

Third, budget your equipment and software. You might need cameras, lighting, microphones, cables, computers, software to edit, a blog site, a podcast hosting service, and more (P.S. your iPhone is a camera/microphone/editor/etc.).

Fourth, you need the people to create, produce, and manage your content (and take care of you equipment). This includes writers, editors, presenters, voice talent, graphic designers, audio engineers, videographers, photographers...are you overwhelmed yet? Don't be. If you plan well, you can do all of these things. Also, we will show you what this looks like with our follow up video series on developing content (again, it is nearly done and will be out soon).

Fifth, budget a learning trainer/designer. If you're a small business, this is what I meant by budgeting bandwidth. If you don't have the ability to hire and train someone, determine if you can do it yourself. Otherwise, many companies already have HR, L&D departments, trainers, managers, and so on. This is why I said budgeting is nuanced. It depends an awful lot on your current role/team.

And if you've never done mL before, then you probably won't have a good idea of cost until after you've completed all of these steps. So again, don't think of budgeting as only step one, but as a recurring process behind every other step.

Finally, regarding budgeting, let me reiterate...DON'T OVERSPEND ON PRODUCTION.

Just like mL is not about length of time, mL is also not about high production value, meaning you don't necessarily need an expert to produce your content.

So what do you need? Well, do you remember the purpose of mL? It's about problem solving for the participant. You need focus on answering the question: what solution am I offering my people?

Step Two - Determine an Outcome

Remember mL delivers a solution to a problem. You're attempting to solve issues by creating and reinforcing behaviors. This means you need to focus on an actionable outcome. To do this, answer the question: What do I want my participants to do? Again: determine an outcome.

Are you asking your people to change oil? Learn data entry? Plug sales numbers? Grow as leaders? Fulfill compliance obligations?

Find your outcome. As you plan the outcome, you need to consider how to measure whether the outcome is accomplished, which brings us to the process.

Step Three - Turn the Outcome into a Process

After you have the outcome well defined, break it down into a logical progression. You move from "What do you want your people to do?" to "How do they do it?" I'm sure you understand what I mean when I say "logical progression", but let me "beat a dead horse" for a moment.

In the example of an oil change, would it be logical to put new oil into a car before you drain the old oil? Of course not. So make sure you clarify your process.

Also, only give pertinent information. If you don't, you'll rabbit trail. Here's what I mean:

In a video about an oil change, you don't need to discuss the history of petroleum production, the process of refining petroleum into oil and gas, or how petroleum is also used to create the rubber in tires...did you say "tires"? Here's how to change your tires.

Do you see what I mean? Get to the point.

(Have you noticed that many of the pop culture references have stopped now? It's because I want you focusing in on the material.)

After you have the logical progression, create actionable steps. Each step needs one—AND ONLY ONE—clear focus. Remember, you are reinforcing behaviors and solving problems. You can't do this if you don't have clear instructions.

Step Four - Develop Content

Turn your process—a logical progression and actionable steps—into content. Remember, we have a video coming soon that dives deeper into CONTENT CREATION.

But for now, let me simply state that your process can be displayed in one of five formats: audio, video, blog/article, infographic, and quizzes/tests.

(The reason we are creating the follow up video is to highlight how to do each of the five formats. You'll learn simple, low production ways to have your creative team develop material for people to access.)

Before you watch that video, consider this again: mL doesn't have to go overboard. Remember the oil change videos...they were shot on phones and GoPros, had poor sound quality, and lacked expensive lighting. Yet combined, they have 100k views, which I'm certain are far more than either of us have with our videos.

I point this out to reiterate that mL doesn't need to be focused on high production value...but high solution value!

Again, this means you shouldn't overspend on production, but on delivery.

Dwell on this as you look for a mL platform. I'll explain more in the next section. For now, here's my bulleted information (process) as an infographic (content):


Best Practice #4: Your microlearning content should be clear. This is done by budgeting, planning, processing, and developing content.


#5 - What Should I Look For In A Microlearning Platform?

Earlier I mentioned delivery as being a place where you spend money. Here's why.

YouTube has amazing benefits. It's easy to use for a consumer and a producer. But this leads to a problem: this "experience" is what your participants have come to expect when they utilize videos.

A mL platform can help here if it matches the intuitive functions of YouTube (or Vimeo, Wistia, Google, etc.).

Another problem is that YouTube can only deliver videos. You'll need a separate way to utilize audio, blogs/articles, infographics, and quizzing/testing. So make sure your mL service can be integrated with video, websites or blogging sites, while also assessing your people. You'll want to be able to embed videos, websites, audio files, and create quizzes.

Finally, with YouTube you can't motivate your learners. Why? Because you don't know who has watched your content, and you don't have a way to follow up with them unless they comment on your videos.

(Sure you could add them to an email service, but that's just one more thing for you to have to manage!)

Now because you can't measure them, it's difficult to motivate and reward them.

So along with a quality delivery system for your content, you need ease of use, analytics, and motivation. To help remember what you are needing in a mL platform, keep the acronym F.O.A.M. in mind.

Here's an infographic to help you remember!


Best Practice #5: Your microlearning content should be used in a platform that has Functionality, On-Par experiences, Analytics, and Motivation.


Wrap Up

So I wrote this article (and produced the video) because I'm a content producer with ConveYour, and it's been difficult to find resources on mL. On top of this, much of what you find is selling something. While I'm selling ConveYour, let me save the sale's pitch for another time.

For now, if you'd like to see what ConveYour offers, you can try the sample below 👇.


See How it All works

Try The Learner Portal Sample. Demo This Quick And Free Sample To Experience The Learner Portal.

Try Sample


In the meantime, watch our other content, read our other blogs, or subscribe to our Podcast— ConveYour: On Learning & Development.

With all that said, let me encourage you to take your time in researching mL, developing content for mL, and mL platforms.

And if you have questions, feel free to reach out!


Resources

Ramona Hood: Receptionist to CEO
👆 FedEx Employee, Ramona Hood's skill development journey

ConveYour: On Learning & Development
👆 ConveYour's Podcast - podcast.ConveYour.com

ConveYour Content Video
👆 *** COMING SOON ***

Information is a Commodity
👆 Stephen Rhyne in ConveYour: On L&D Podcast

Shannon Tipton
👆 Shannon Tipton at the LearningTechnologies trade show.

Karl Kapp on Failure
👆 Karl Kapp's failure example

Learning Mechanisms
👆 Stephan Thoma, ex-CLO of Google

Content is a Commodity
👆 Craig Weiss, CEO FindanLMS.com

Skill Development
👆 Craig Weiss talking about Skill Development

DIY Guys
👆 DIY Guys Video on Honda Oil Change (1:51)

Robert DIY
👆 Robert DIY Video on Honda Oil Change (11:26)


*Trivia: Did you know that in The Office, Athlead changed to to Athleap in 2014? The fictional company was fictionally purchased by Converse in 2015, and moved from Philadelphia, PA to Austin, TX.