We've all heard a lot about "microlearning." What is it, why is it, and does it work?
Over the last few years we've seen a growing use of the term "microlearning." While there is no clearly agreed-upon definition of this term (and there are those who doubt its very existence), I think it might be boiled down this way: it is an approach that utilizes mobile platforms and sophisticated multimedia to deliver training in brief, condensed pieces. While the optimal length of a microlearning session is debated, the most ardent proponents of the method seem to prescribe learning sessions that are less than 5 minutes--though I've encountered claims that millennials can only focus for 90 seconds! Most common is a range of 3-20 minutes, but a kind of conventional wisdom has emerged that the most effective length for current attention spans is less than 10 minutes. Proponents also tend to favor video as the most effective medium.
Much of the attention has been fueled by a few academic or market studies (one of which we discussed in our last blog post on distracted goldfish and millennials), but interest in the term also arises from the ubiquity of handheld devices and the need for training to keep up with the pace of change in the workplace. When we hear a pitch for a microlearning approach, it tends to be framed by the assumption that attention spans are rapidly diminishing, and thus instruction needs to adjust to reduced capacities. One graphic that seems to have been influential in the wide acceptance of the term was produced by Josh Bersin, of Bersin by Deloitte. Click here to see its web prevalence. What I find interesting about the rationales for microlearning (and by the Bersin graphic) is the fairly pessimistic assumptions about workplace culture and the effects of technology on human behavior. Is it wise to embrace a learning strategy that responds primarily to a dim and overly generalized view of work culture? And, does it makes sense to recommend mobile technology as the solution to a problem that we claim is caused by our use of mobile technology?
It seems unlikely that there is a direct correlation between increased use of digital media and decreased human ability to focus (and even less likely that using more digital media would solve that problem). Rather, what we are observing is an excess of available digital media of mediocre quality or interest, to which many consumers of that media respond by clicking away--and clicking away quickly.
Additionally, much of the hype about microlearning appears to be based less on precise connections to specific research than on terminology resembling science--and specifically, neuroscience. Terms like “neurolearning” and “brain science” and even “neurology” appear in rationales for microlearning, reflecting the popularizing of of the prefix “neuro.” Steven Poole has called this phenomenon “neuroscientism” and, more amusingly, “neurobollocks.” Whatever we might choose to name it, the hype around microlearning participates in this same trend.
Despite this, we see usefulness in the basic method of microlearning, without assuming the worst about learners' attention spans. And, we’ve known for decades (long before the ubiquity of digital media) that long lectures to passive learners are ineffective, for reasons that have nothing to do with deterioration of focus. If applied as a tool in the service of the array of methods we’ve been covering on this blog (interleaving, spacing, variability), microlearning can be effective. Pushing instructional content to mobile devices at optimized intervals could be a simple application of spacing and variability, for instance.
So, while we are a little skeptical about the microlearning hype, we are confident that it’s a critical tool that can help implement effective learning strategies--no matter how many times a day learners check their smartphones.
Morris Davis, PhD, is an Associate Professor at Drew University and Senior Learning, Performance, & Design Consultant to Ontuitive. Twitter: @morleydj.