The rise of microlearning
If you’ve had anything to do with university teaching and learning in the last two years, you’ve probably been caught up in discussions about remote and emergency online learning, blended learning and similar topics. Central to many of these discussions is the need to craft engaging learning experiences for students. That’s where microlearning (Hug, 2007) comes in. You’ve probably already seen materials created using tools like Genial.ly, Quizlet or H5P- these can all be examples of this growing phenomenon.
More and more of us have access to powerful mobile devices. One way we use them is to consume ‘bite-sized’ chunks of knowledge. Torgerson (2021) describes this as a grass roots approach to learning, which is gradually moving from our personal lives (for example, YouTube videos on how to unblock a sink might be an example of microlearning) into workplace learning programs, and now, into the school and tertiary education sectors.
This is partially in response to the lack of time many people face in their day to day lives – such as the ‘sandwich generation’ (Miller, 1981). This is already causing many universities to rethink how they might offer courses to people engaged in full time work as well as caring responsibilities. It is also in response to what Torgerson (2021) describes as our desire to remain in contact with each other: social connectedness, which is facilitated through mobile technologies and especially social media.
What is microlearning? One of the most common definitions of microlearning is Khan’s (2019, p. 276)
“Microlearning can be viewed as a single objective‑focused, outcome‑based, stand‑alone, meaningful, and interactive learning unit delivered in bite-sized snippets (i.e., a short modular format) either digitally (i.e., via computer, tablet, or mobile phone) or non-digitally (i.e., as via a flashcard or booklet).”
While the exact definition of microlearning is still debated, there are some principles common to much of the discussion. Firstly, microlearning is short. Thalheimer (2017) calls it a short engagement in a learning related activity, and this follows on from Kapp and Defelice’s (2019) definition that it is a short engagement instructional unit. Of course, this begs the question: how short is short? Some have suggested that it should be less than half an hour. For Torgerson (2021), it’s 5 minutes or less – but best measured by the question: ‘Would you give up time in your day to learn this?’ If the answer’s yes, then that’s an example of microlearning.
There are some significant benefits to this bottom-up approach to microlearning. Malamed (n.d.) suggests that it’s a form of informal learning, but the benefit of microlearning is that it is ‘like riding a bike: the rider chooses the destination, the speed and the route’. This is the personalisation aspect of microlearning. There are some other factors that contribute to the benefits of microlearning: because of its brevity, it needs to be focused on being both efficient and effective. This is also a potential drawback, of course. Not everything taught at university might be suitable for microlearning. Rather, it’s up to the educator to think carefully about what might be leveraged into a microlearning opportunity. In addition, microlearning has the benefit of repeatability and scalability – one object can be watched many times, and it can be shared with 10, 100 or even 1000 students with no more effort than sharing it with one.
Six best practices for designing microlearning
So how can educators make use of microlearning? Fortunately, much of what we know about good examples of microlearning already conforms to our understanding of best practice approaches to teaching and learning. Perhaps this is not that surprising; after all, micro teaching has been a staple of many courses for a long time. As you would imagine, microlearning relies heavily on the use of technology and multimedia assets, and thus Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning (2005) is pertinent. In particular, the following ideas are worth keeping in mind:
- Be very clear about what the purpose of the microlearning is, and how learners will achieve this through the learning process.
- Include images, rather than having only written representations in microlearning objects.
- These images should add to or help explain the information presented, not distract from it.
- Make use of automated feedback – but make the feedback descriptive!
- Make it clear how users can interact with the microlearning object through careful design of elements like buttons and links.
- Show ways that students are progressing through the learning such as percentage completed (from Tufan, 2021).
Hug, T. (2007). Didactics of microlearning. Waxmann Verlag.
Kapp, K. M., & Defelice, R. A. (2019). Microlearning: Short and sweet. American Society for Training and Development.
Khan, B. H. (2019). Microlearning: Quick and meaningful snippets for training solutions. International Journal of Research in Educational Sciences.(IJRES), 2(2), 275-284.
Malamed, C. (n.d). Informal Learning: An interview with Jay Cross. http://theeleanringcoach.com/elearning2-0/informal-learning-an-intervew-with-jay-cross
Mayer, R. E. (2005). Cognitive theory of multimedia learning. The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning, 41, 31-48.
Miller, D. (1981). The ‘Sandwich’ Generation: Adult Children of the Aging. Social Work 26, 419–423.
Thalheimer, W. (2017). Definition of microLearning.
Tufan, D. (2021). Multimedia Design Principles for Microlearning. In Microlearning in the Digital Age (pp. 58-79). Routledge.