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Microlearning design model

Bianca Raby, Founder/CEO, and Jay McGrane, K-12 Educator and Researcher discuss the microlearning design model.

microlearning design model

Even though microlearning content started to become popular in 2017, there are still debates around what exactly constitutes microlearning. The experts interviewed by the Elearning Guild for their Report on the State of Microlearning defined microlearning a few different ways:

  • “Learning and support designed to fit into the employee’s life as much as possible.” — JD Dillon, Axonify
  • “We’re talking about small things that take small amounts of time.” — Tanya Siedel, Artisan Elearning
  • “A way that people at work fix, solve, and improve issues and situations at work.” — Ray Jimenez, Vignettes Learning
  • “Searchability is key” — Roni Floman, GamEffective

None of these experts specify a length, but the Association for Talent Development (ATD) found talent professionals define microlearning as modules between 2-15 minutes in length. Since instructional design movements tend to come and go, is the microlearning design model on its way out?

The answer according to industry reports is definitely no:

The drive from the education industry definitely supports the movement to microlearning content, but here at Oppida, we believe that great design trumps any fashionable movement—no matter how popular. So, we decided to ask a couple of education experts talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the microlearning design model.

Today, you’ll be hearing from Oppida’s founder, Bianca Raby, who’s an experienced instructional designer and Jay McGrane, a K-12 educator with a love of research.

What’s your opinion on microlearning?

Bianca: I’m really excited by the idea that organisations are thinking about how people actually learn. Companies are realising that we live in a fast-paced world and we want to be able to access relevant information quickly. As a learning designer, though, I’m also extremely concerned. Just because microlearning advocates smaller pieces of learning doesn’t mean the content doesn’t deserve the same sort of consideration as a larger online course. Learners achieve more with a better understanding of what they’re accessing and organisations will succeed more when they consider what they want the learning to achieve.

Jay: I come from teacher training programs so the idea of chunking learning has been around since the 1940s and 1950s. The article, Chunking mechanisms in human learning goes over some of the scientific aspects. Any sort of mini-lesson methodology, such as Number Talks or Daily 5 or Writer’s Workshop, makes use of chunking learning theory. Microlearning design models use the same theoretical underpinning. So I don’t think of microlearning as particularly revolutionary, but it’s probably effective.

What are the strengths of microlearning?

Bianca: When it’s done well, microlearning can be super engaging and super fun. The nature of microlearning design models mean that content can be delivered very easily on multiple devices for learners to access it on the way to work, on the train for example. The microlearning trend changes the way we think about professional development. We can have a lot more interaction making microlearning content quite a social experience. People are learning and sharing across the organisation; whereas, in a one day workshop it can be hard for some people to feel comfortable enough to engage, but behind the screen, people may be more comfortable engaging.

Jay: No doubt microlearning has data to back it up. Check out Shift Elearning for some compelling numbers. At the same time, I tend to question these statistics. For example, one study, including the gold-standard of a control group, said microlearning improved student retention by 18%. However, the microlearning group used significantly more infographics. So I’m left wondering was it the microlearning or the infographics? Similarly, Axonify reported an improvement of 12% in employee knowledge in their 2018 Microlearning Global Benchmark Report. But they use games in most of their microlearning products. Is the boost coming from the games or the microlearning? Microlearning can be very effective, but the overall instructional design strategy needs to be effective to create effective microlearning content.

What are the weaknesses of microlearning?

Bianca: Cost. We can get caught up in these super-engaging, exciting techie microlearning content. We need to consider that by definition microlearning it is a small piece of learning. Therefore, the investment in each microlearning module needs to be considered because a 5-minute video can sometimes cost a few thousand dollars. If you can convey that information through text or sound bytes, you can create more and more value. People can sometimes get too excited by all the things you can do in 15-20 minutes of microlearning content, but that doesn’t mean we should.

Jay: Two things can happen without careful design. First, microlearning content can become disjointed. In fact, a lot of the chunking learning theory research suggests chunking works precisely because learners can connect information to previously learned concepts. Second, learners can become overwhelmed or alternatively bored if they already know the content. It’s easy to mitigate this con by creating a strong diagnostic that allows them to opt-in to whatever microlearning content they need and opt-out of what they don’t.

Why do 49% of talent professionals identify microlearning as a trend?

Bianca: I think three concepts have come together to lead people to consider microlearning: 1) technology, 2) the need to constantly upskill and 3) modern learners. First, we’ve done a lot in the EdTech space in the last 5-10 years so people are getting more familiar with these tools and apps. Second, we’re constantly hearing that we need to upskill ourselves as professionals because we’re going to need to change careers. Finally, we no longer wait for knowledge to be imparted to us over hours and hours of time. We are self-seeking, learner-driven, “just in time” learners. Those three concepts have all come together to make people realise that some of the investment in flying people around to give training could be invested in quite a scalable, dynamic, cutting-edge way of delivering information, such as microlearning platforms.

Axonify found training on mobile devices improved the frequency of training by 42%. Does the desire for mobile learning feed into the microlearning trend?

Bianca: Probably. We’re all looking for something quick on our phones. We’ve got a society that is constantly looking for every angle of productivity. We don’t just sit on the bus staring out the window anymore. So microlearning can fit in those 15-minute spurts. We don’t just sit and smell the roses anymore.

Jay: You’re right! This is one of the reasons I’m not fully on the microlearning design model train. In my opinion, in 10-15 minutes a day, how can you scaffold anything into meaningful learning? At the same time, corporate employees often already have 75% of the skills required (Axonify). Filling out a tax form correctly was one example I heard recently. I think that I could probably learn which part of the form I was filling out incorrectly in 15-minute chunks. I think the ability of microlearning to provide support in the flow of work can’t be underestimated and mobile is a great way to do that.

What types of skills is microlearning a good fit for?

Bianca: Microlearning is good for focused learning on basic skills training or compliance where you simply need to impart knowledge. But any complex skill where you need to receive feedback wouldn’t work.

Jay: I agree with, Bianca. For deeper learning, it’s more difficult to do it in 15-minute chunks. Patti Shank’s article on the Elearning Industry nicely illustrates the differences between macro and microlearning. It really becomes a question of whether you need deep learning. That being said, I think any skill can be chunked. Elementary school teachers teach complex skills every day by chunking, but unlike in the workplace, their activities aren’t stand-alone modules.

LinkedIn identified engaging managers as a top challenge in the talent development industry. Does microlearning present an opportunity to engage managers?

Jay: I think it could if it’s designed that way. The previous year’s LinkedIn report highlighted that managers had a lot on their plates. Half of them want a system that will help them recommend courses. A robust diagnostic tied to microlearning content could give managers the information they need to help direct their team’s learning. They can then act as coaches after the employee has gone through the microlearning content.

Bianca: Like Jay, unless it is just a skill, then microlearning needs to be complemented with something. A system can assess a skill or compliance by asking “can x do y?”—yes/no. But if the microlearning teaches soft skills or knowledge, then it’s moving toward a blended model where the microlearning content could be very valuable.

We’ve done that with one of my clients. She has a 4-hour workshop, but instead of spending time orienting people, we created three microlearning pre-modules so she can jump right into her workshop at a higher level. That’s when the microlearning design model works—when you can deliver more value to your participants. You can utilise the face-to-face component so much more if people are prepared to be in there and oriented to your stuff. All that orientation can be done on the train through microlearning content.


Here’s a table of the pros and cons of microlearning outlined in the interview:



Engaging May promote social learning Can “prime” learners for deeper learning at face-to-face training Chunking content enhances learner retention when it’s well organised Scalable

Potentially costly Courses can become disjointed Potentially overwhelming for learners Learning complex skills can be tough with microlearning Potentially lacks feedback

At the end of the day, microlearning needs to be considered in the overall learning strategy. All of the cons can be mitigated with great learning design. Organisations shouldn’t jump to a microlearning design model just because it’s popular. They should consider how microlearning content will fit into their overall business objectives.

What do you think of microlearning? Share with us your microlearning stories with us!

For more on Education in the digital age: teaching and learning, click here