Microlearning is just learning that fits. That’s it!

What's old is new again comic strip
Microlearning principles aren’t new. L&D is just now seriously toying with them.

Microlearning seems to be THE popular topic of conversation right now. While L&D pros are debating about it and organizations are saying they want it, very few people seem to understand what “it” is. It’s also getting more and more difficult for curious L&D pros to get past the noise as vendors and solution providers jump onto the microlearning bandwagon.

So, as a practitioner who has been working with “microlearning” (note the ” “) for many years, I figured it was time to join the conversation and try to help out. But first, let’s take a step back …


L&D and Our Definitions

You see, as an industry, L&D isn’t very good with definitions. Have we figured out what “eLearning” is yet? Do we even have a consistent way to spell it? How about mLearning? Social learning? All of the other xLearnings? The list goes on. Why are we so bad at coming to a consistent understanding of the concepts and tactics that define our work. Maybe its because …

  • Workplace learning and performance are complex, highly-contextual topics that don’t fit nicely into simple executable models.
  • We’re a rather disconnected industry. This is likely due in part to the fact that a large percentage of practitioners (including myself) didn’t engage in formal study on this subject and therefore weren’t indoctrinated into consistent practices.
  • Like many fields, we’re easily distracted by trends and therefore often move on to the “next big thing” before fully vetting the last concept, especially when it comes to the role of technology in the workplace.
  • There’s a pile of marketing language layered on top of common sense ideas to make them sound exciting and new but without solid foundational details.

These observations help to explain the current state of the microlearning. Once again, the industry is struggling to fit a “new” concept into a simple, shiny, easily-sold package. And, if we’re not careful, marketing will dominate the conversation and define the concept in the most convenient way possible, leading to half-baked application, wasted resources and minimal business impact.

It’s time to reclaim the concept of “microlearning” (there are those ” ” again) for what it really is. So … what is it?


What is MicroLearning?

Multiple definitions have been offered of late. Here’s on from Will Thalheimer. Here’s another from Donald Taylor. And here’s a bit more of an in-depth analysis from Gary Wise. I’d also like to offer my own definition:

Microlearning = learning that fits

That’s it. 3 words. No heavy scientific principles, content modalities or time durations. Pure and simple – microlearning is the ability to fit the right learning solution alongside the individual’s need.

But wait a minute! That doesn’t sound like a new idea! EXACTLY!!! “Microlearning” isn’t new at all. It’s not even really a thing. It’s a buzzword that’s being used to pull together a variety of learning and performance principles into a more easily-marketed package. This explains why I was doing “microlearning” for so long without realizing it. I just didn’t need a word to conveniently combine the multiple strategies I was applying to support my employees. Therefore, to realize the benefits of “microlearning,” we first must eschew the term in favor of a deeper understanding of its foundational principles.

So then what does “fit” mean? Ah …. That’s where the popular “it depends” comes into play. Like I already mentioned, learning and performance just don’t fall into neat, pre-defined boxes. So, if you’re looking for an easy answer like “modules that are under 3 minutes spaced evenly 6 times between first exposure and knowledge application,” you’re never going to find it. And if someone gives you an answer like that, they’re probably full of crap (and trying to sell you something).


Providing Learning that Fits

“Fit” speaks to the need to contextualize learning opportunities to the individual in order to achieve the desired outcome. To maximize potential impact, modern workplace learning must fit the …

  • Goals of the organization
    This is priority #1 when establishing value for L&D. There must be clear alignment along with the ability to measure the impact of a right-fit learning solution, not just completions and scores.
  • Needs of the user
    Assuming the user’s role aligns with the goals of the business, this should be a logical next consideration. However, rather than the one-size-fits-all, maximum coverage approach L&D has historically applied, right-fit learning leverages ideas like adaptive technology and robust data profiles to better personalize the user experience.
  • Realities of learning science
    People can only retain so much information, and fluffy extra details distract from meaningful information. Again, these aren’t new ideas. However, we now have the ability to reduce the load we place on employees, especially during overwhelming periods like onboarding, thanks to evolved learning technology and design approaches. This helps us break topics down, space out content, target resources based on demonstrated knowledge and behavior gaps and provide repeated practice to ensure long-term retention and application.
  • Context of the work
    When, where and how is the work to be completed? Our learning solutions must fit this context in both practice and application so we can provide contextualized training along with support in the moment of need. For example, if the employee works in a busy retail store and must be on the floor supporting customers at all times, we should train for behavioral execution in that same environment. We should also provide support resources that can be easily accessed and used on the retail floor rather than materials that must be viewed in isolation. Yes, this means a job aid can be an example of effective “microlearning.”
  • Flow of the work day
    This is where considerations like duration and motivation come into play. People are constantly learning – regardless of formal training support. L&D must enable and leverage this continuous learning by providing opportunities that can be easily experienced within the workflow. Sure, we will still identify right-fit solutions that require an employee to step away from the work and attend an event or complete a more lengthy online module. However, these should be meaningful exceptions rather than the rule. And no, there is no set magic duration. You must consider factors such as the message, the receiver’s ability to consume and retain that message, their engagement/motivation and the time/focus they have available within their typical workflow in order to architect a right-fit learning experience.
  • User’s established behaviors
    How are we asking people to engage with the resources we provide? Rather than attempt to retrain people on how to learn at work, we must leverage established behaviors, such as searching for and sharing information within a network, that better fit into the employee’s day-to-day experience. This requires a user experience design that promotes simplicity and a push/pull balance that aligns to user engagement.
  • Limits of our resources
    We won’t always have the perfect technology or content at our disposal. Therefore, we must work within the limitations of our resources. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try new things or stretch the boundaries a bit. However, we can’t allow the user experience to suffer because we tried to execute a great idea with the wrong tools.

Yes, that sounds like a lot to consider in order to effectively deploy “microlearning.” And that’s absolutely the case. Just like any quality L&D strategy, “microlearning” must become an integrated component of your overall learning and performance ecosystem. Therefore, it requires time, effort and practical understanding to get right. I strongly encourage all interested L&D pros to connect with experienced practitioners to discuss the potential for “microlearning” within their organizations. Don’t just go with the “microlearning” vendor with the best sales pitch. Ask for proven business results and an overall experience architecture that applies the seven points above.

And, in case you’re wondering, I am a microlearning vendor! My team at Axonify has been applying the foundational principles of “microlearning” for years – well before the term became another example of oversaturated industry marketing speak. Sure, we talk a lot about “microlearning” in our materials and presentations to align to the larger conversation. But, unlike some other vendors who shall not be named, we’re helping customers move past the trend and apply right-fit learning and support techniques that have real-world business impact.

I hope my definition and supporting points give you a bit more to work with as you explore the potential for “microlearning” within your organization. And, as always, let me know if you’d like to learn more about how Axonify helps organizations create learning that fits within their evolved ecosystems.


Is your L&D team interested in “microlearning?” How would you define this concept? What other considerations are essential for providing learning that fits? 

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