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Demystifying a Learning Trend: All About Microlearning

Microlearning is a term that has recently gained a lot of attention in the corporate world. Yet, amid all the buzz and enthusiasm for this seemingly revolutionary way of learning, how many people fully understand what microlearning is?

The concept at its core is quite simple: microlearning is a training event that teaches one complete lesson from start to finish. Have you ever gone to You Tube to figure out how to diagnose an issue and fix your broken appliance, or watched a short video on how to make chicken coq-au-vin? Or maybe you have signed up to receive the word of the day. These are examples of microlearning. Microlearning isn’t really learning at all, but rather training events that you use once and forget, or you refer back to again and again (watch for more on the difference between Training and Learning in an upcoming Harbinger blog).

While many companies have been quick to jump on board with this supposedly new and revolutionary concept, many misconceptions have arisen surrounding microlearning. These include …

1.   “Microlearning events must be between X and Y minutes long.”

In reality, it does not have any defined length that it must follow in order to fall under the umbrella of microlearning. The length of your training event should not adhere to some arbitrary definition and, instead, should be based upon other factors, such as content, audience, or good solid instruction design practices, etc. to make it as effective as possible.

2. “Microlearning is the newest innovation in learning!”

While the term microlearning may be all the buzz, its fundamental principles have existed for a very long time. To explain, consider the following two examples:

  1. Think about a situation where an employee is struggling with a task, perhaps how to enter something into a database. They call over one of their colleagues who gives them a quick and concise lesson on how to input their information. The steps taught are a complete lesson. This could be considered a microlearning event, albeit an informal one.

  2. Think about a quick reference guide (QRG) that outlines how to complete a specific task, such as logging into the new ERP system or approving a Purchase Order. When an employee picks up this guide, digests its information, and proceeds to complete their task, they have completed a microlearning event.

With these two examples, it’s clear that microlearning is not a shiny new concept. These types of training materials have been present in workplaces for decades.

3. “Microlearning is chunked learning that leads to an overall end goal.”

This common definition of microlearning can be very misleading. Microlearning is not a series of learning chunks; a microlearning event is a complete lesson from start to finish. While multiple microlearning events may work in conjunction with each other to help build one’s knowledge, each training lesson fulfills a single, focused and complete objective.

4. “Microlearning is needed now more than ever because millennial workers have shorter attention spans and have a heavy reliance on technology.”

Unfortunately, too often, microlearning has been justified solely upon the myth that millennials are unable to focus for a long time and are addicted to technology. The myth of the short attention span—often equated to that of a gold fish—has been regularly disproven. The reality is its not “millennials” who are addicted to technology or have short attention spans—many people across all age groups fall into these behaviours.

Furthermore, the need for microlearning because of technology is a false correlation. As mentioned above, microlearning events can exist with and without technology; they are not inherently tied together. Similarly, traditional learning can also exist both with and without technology.

At the end of the day, microlearning is simply another way to deliver training and should be included in any good learning program if possible. It should follow all the same tenets and principles of instructional design, meaning if you are going to include microlearning in a learning program, it should have the learner as the centric focus of the event. It still requires the same rigor in its planning and development to achieve successful knowledge transfer.

So, when should microlearning be used or not used? There are situations where microlearning and traditional learning differ in their benefits. Transactions or activities that have lengthy or complicated processes aren’t well suited to microlearning. For example, in the case of ERP implementations where the whole organization is impacted and much of the learning is end-to-end process focused, you need to consider that what you are teaching is not going to be accomplished in a one-shot event. You really need a holistic view of how all the changes knit together and connect to each other and therefore require multiple training sessions or follow-on training. There are exceptions such as Purchase Order or Service Order Approvals where the transaction is 3-6 steps and is a complete activity—perfect for microlearning. But in many enterprise solution transactions, the user must know how all the puzzle pieces fit together, making traditional, multi-part learning more effective.

While microlearning may be the latest trend, it is important to understand that it’s just another form of learning that can be developed and deployed with the same overall principles. Whether it is used to quickly learn a new skill in your personal life, or a quick training for those simple but complete tasks at work you only do occasionally, microlearning can be an effective method of learning when designed correctly.


The author would like to express their gratitude to Gregory Roth and Krista Schaber-Chan for their expertise in developing this article.



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