Microlearning: Short and Sweet

Are you interested in microlearning but need a guide to help you? If so, the ATD Press has published a new book written just for you: “Microlearning: Short and Sweet,” by Dr. Karl M. Kapp and Dr. Robyn A. Defelice.


Want to order the book? Click here:

Recently Dr. Steven Just, the CLO of Intela, conducted an interview with Karl and Robyn. The transcript is below.

Steven: Robyn and Karl, congratulations on the publication of your new book “Microlearning: Short and Sweet”. What gave you the idea to write it?

Robyn: A few things, but mainly the disparity of understanding that was/is held by practitioners and those requesting it. It’s like no one could agree to disagree or agree in a way that demonstrated equally understanding, let alone a vision of what it could be or could not be.

Knowing that it has the potential to be an effective performance-support tool made me want to see clarity given to the topic so folks could go forth and do great things with this trending approach.

Karl: One thing that I kept running into in my consulting work and teaching was that there was no standard definition for microlearning. Lots of different people had lots of different approaches and ideas. So, one of our goals was to try to bring together these different definitions, ideas and concepts related to microlearning and present them in one place. This would allow folks to make connections between the various elements of microlearning without look in many different places. Also, to establish or reinforce the fundamentals of good design for microlearning. Taking all that into mind, the book explores the instructional theories, approaches and ideas related to creating effective microlearning.

Steven: Robyn, Karl is well known in learning circles. Tell us a little about yourself.

Robyn: Well thanks for making it tough right out the gate. <grin> I’m the nerd that sits around asking 100 why’s a day about the problems our field faces. The research I do around how long it takes to develop training is probably what I am best known for. It’s a passion project because it’s helping instructional designers, stakeholders, etc. make more informed decisions. Like this book on microlearning, some folks have already tried out ML and have felt the sting of an unsuccessful execution, while others are still scratching their head or debating the characteristics of it. I’ve been rewarded and challenged throughout my 20-year consulting career in this field and working on projects such as these are an opportunity to give back to my profession.

Steven: Karl, you are best known for your work on gamification. What do you see as the relationship between gamification and microlearning?

Karl: When I was working with gamification, I kept noticing that the instructional content related to gamification was almost always in the form of microlearning. So, I started to think that the two really do tend to be approached together.  As a result, I have come to view the gamification elements of instruction as the motivational aspect and microlearning as the instructional aspect.  Organizations need the instructional aspect and they need to do it right, thus the impetus to write a book about microlearning.

Steven: Robyn, what do you see as the biggest problem instructional designers have with microlearning?

Robyn: Two current issues I have seen ID’s face is, 1.) Helping their stakeholders envision microlearning in the larger learning framework and 2.) Defining what microlearning can look like for their organization or for their client.

ID’s that are internal to an organization need to be able to articulate its benefit and propose ways in which this method can be piloted or incorporated. When the ID is outside the organization, such as in the vendor role an ID is going to need to know if they and their vending organization have the chops to execute to a microlearning need. Also, will either an internal or an external want to be proficient in all formats? For example, maybe it’s natural for the vendor to produce mobile ML because they already do mobile eLearning, but they choose not to pursue infographics because it’s easier to outsource.

Steven: Robyn and Karl, how is implementing a microlearning project different from or the same as implementing a traditional training project?

Robyn: Karl knows that I harp on this aspect of ML quite a bit when discussion turns to project management aspects; implementation needs a long runway. Because an ML initiative is typically not just one ML product it’s important to think about the whole of all ML products and how they will be disseminated. Additionally, the nature of ML is performance-based and is more than likely being instituted in an effort to improve a KPI (or two). This probably means that there is an evaluative plan that also needs to be executed along with the implementation.

If either aspect incorporates new technology or a different level of effort from key human capital then implementation and evaluation create additional project timelines that are almost as involved as the execution of the ML project alone.

Karl: I agree with Robyn, she harps quite a bit…all joking aside, I think that microlearning needs be thought of as only a single part of a learning ecosystem—part of a larger system of organizational learning. This makes it different in that it is not often a solution in-and-of-itself.  Microlearning is a piece of what a person needs to know but not everything.

For example, microlearning can be used to support someone in their work, as a follow up to other instruction or as a reinforcement for concepts and ideas employees need to effectively perform their job. Because since it’s implemented as part of a larger ecosystem, you need to consider how it interacts with other elements and that’s not always the case with other learning initiatives.

In terms of how it’s similar, microlearning needs to be built on strong instructional design foundations, you need to remember all the basics of what makes instruction effective and apply that to microlearning. We can’t throw out all we know about creating good instruction just because we want to make it short.

Steven: Robyn and Karl, when you look at unsuccessful microlearning initiatives what are the biggest mistakes training departments make?

Robyn: See answer above. Lack of planning and implementation. Those occur because a microlearning strategy has more than likely been omitted from the analysis and planning phase. I would also hazard that there is not a common comprehension of what microlearning is and/or that those that are in positions to review or approve the products know what to expect of an ML product.

When new initiatives, such as ML, lack a champion internal to the organization what you can wind up getting is a good start into ML that quickly swerves in direction to full blown eLearning. Because, inevitably, someone along the way of reviewing it starts to “throw back in” everything that is “missing”. Because, they do not realize that the item they are reviewing has a singular intent/learning purpose.

Karl: What I see often is people chopping up larger training sessions—sessions designed originally to be a long session—and then break them into smaller pieces based on an arbitrary time frame. I call this the shrunk’n head approach and it doesn’t really work. Another problem, is that microlearning is often undertaken with the belief that it’s not hard to create and it doesn’t take very long. But it does take time and effort to create good microlearning.

Steven: Robyn and Karl, when you look at successful microlearning initiatives what factors make them successful?

Robyn: A known outcome that is being purposefully executed with a full plan, including evaluation. The data is being used to not only measure performance success, but value to the organization. In turn that provides insights and opportunities to perpetuate or refine the ML strategy for the organization.

Steven: Robyn and Karl, as you are both probably aware, our field is prone to faddism. Every few years a new training methodology or technology comes along and everyone jumps onto the bandwagon, until the next methodology comes along and then everyone jumps onto that bandwagon. Is microlearning the latest fad? Will it endure? Why?

Robyn: I think it has a fad-like quality, but it really is an effective method for those that value performance outcomes. Our entire industry is viewing itself now, more so as learning and performance specialist than instructional designers. Given the focus on learning for performance this gives encouragement towards the idea of this methodology actually growing roots and enduring. Not to mention the type of data that can be gained from this methodology, we are more closely aligning our evaluations with the overall strategies of the organization based on performance, not just recall. Which is another example of why there is potential for the approach to be enduring and not just in-demand.

Karl: It’s a fad in that the term “microlearning” is a new term or newer term. It’s not a fad in terms of the fact that good designers of instruction have created small pieces or chunks of learning for decades if not longer. Short, targeted instruction to meet a specific learning or performance goal is not a fad. What has made it “explode” recently is the convergence of mobile devices, ubiquitous Internet access and a rediscovery of the power of spaced practice and spaced retrieval.

Steven: Robyn and Karl, any final thoughts?

Robyn: This book gives the subject and methodology a platform from which to be viewed equally by practitioners, academics, researchers, and so on. What this book cannot do is be definitive to all benefits and opportunities. We will only discover this through continued discourse on the subject and the ability to examine ML in action and in design and development.

Karl: Good instructional design does not go out the window just because something is short. As my grandmother used to say, “I don’t have time to write you a short letter, so I am going to write a long letter.” What this means is that thought, time and energy is required to create short, targeted and effective learning.  What we’ve done is this book is to create a framework, template and guideline for anyone who wants to create effective and meaningful microlearning.

Steven: Good luck to you both. The book fills an important need and will certainly prove popular.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s