From conference rooms and classrooms to computer screens and then mobile screens, the setting for learning has been changing, shrinking over time to fit into our palms. Training developers have had to swig Alice’s fabled “drink me” potion to fit new requirements. Another quaff may be called for as we adjust to fit the demands of the newest exciting development in the field: microlearning.

Limited attention spans and a plethora of distractions have, for some time now, made smaller nuggets the preferred choice for learning. When discussing microlearning, though, it is important to clarify the distinction between a learning module broken into easily digestible, bite-sized chunks and the compact, self-contained, largely informal modules that constitute microlearning. While small e-learning nuggets could be equated to a course of a meal, microlearning modules must be in the nature of ready-to-eat meals that are sufficient in and of themselves.

Tailoring Design

Once you have confirmed that microlearning is a good fit for your training needs, the next step is to identify learning objectives. This process requires a deep dive into the nitty-gritty of objectives, because a three- to five-minute microlearning module can only meet one objective. It would be foolish to try to cram in more.

This is not to say, however, that we must lose sight of the macro perspective entirely. For instance, if a sales team needs a language learning program, you could break the training into vocabulary (jargon) and etiquette (region- or market-specific). Together, they make a complete package, but a short video on Japanese business etiquette could be consumed on the flight to Tokyo by a senior manager, while a new sales rep could devote more time to longer sessions on appropriate sales vocabulary.

The key for any kind of learning is to have a design that respects learning needs at different organizational tiers, is for different purposes and can be delivered through different media.

Selecting the Right Media

Given the nature of microlearning, it might be argued that the best way to deliver the learning is a video. However, this is the age of the hashtag that makes a stand, when an edited (or not) image on Instagram powerfully speaks a thousand words, and the erudition of a book can be condensed into 140 characters.

There are really no limits on what medium might be appropriate for a three- to five-minute learning module. From a slideshow or video to a blog or even a podcast to listen to on the go, any medium that is engaging, effective and relevant to the learner, the learning objective and the subject matter works. Of course, the decision on which media meet these criteria will require a study of the criteria in context and an evaluation of the best fit.

Carving Learning Paths

While microlearning is ideal for just-in-time learning, this use does not exclude its being a part of a broader LMS with a long-term learning goal. Video games offer an interesting insight in this respect. Games, even those played on mobile devices, offer multiple levels and modes, allowing for lateral and linear progression and encouraging a sense of accomplishment at each level. There’s an incentive to move to the next level, where a greater challenge offers increased gratification. Easy to difficult modes allow for a progression from the role of beginner to that of expert.

You can adopt the same strategy for an LMS that incorporates microlearning, offering a short but complete learning module with a clear milestone. At the same time, learners chart a customized pathway for greater learning and additional milestones for skill enhancement and expertise.

Validating Effort

With the interactive, fun aspect of microlearning, it is easy to lose sight of assessment. How do we ensure that learning has indeed taken place, and how can we validate or certify the learning? Since microlearning favors an interactive approach, a measure of assessment can be woven into the quizzes or games that facilitate the learning.

Another option, to carry forward the gaming analogy, is to build levels or tiers in an LMS and assess learning using ranking. You can also encourage learners to create a product that showcases their learning at the end of the module. An LMS can support both uploads and downloads, thereby allowing for creative expression of learning.

Making Small Successful Despite the Challenges

Its very nature makes microlearning challenging. It’s short, so you risk losing sight of the big picture. Does its immediacy imply quick obsolescence? Is it too informal and thus perpetuating the wrong culture for a corporate setting? These are questions that can make you pause when deciding on microlearning. They are not, however, insurmountable challenges.

You can string together short modules can with a coherent theme so the big picture is reiterated without being pedantic. Like software updates for apps, an LMS that employs microlearning can be easily updated to remain relevant and contemporary. Appropriate design considerations will ensure that while microlearning modules are easily digestible, they do not seem flippant, and they remain true to the organization’s ethos.

Small can be sweet, but to make it effective for both the learner and the organization, it is important to make it well conceptualized, well designed and well implemented.