Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

14 April 2015

Defining Microlearning?

Clark @ 8:32 am

Last week on the #chat2lrn twitter chat, the topic was microlearning. It was apparently prompted by this post by Tom Spiglanin which does a pretty good job of defining it, but some conceptual confusion showed up in the chat that makes it clear there’s some work to be done.  I reckon there may be a role for the label and even the concept, but I wanted to take a stab at what it is and isn’t, at least on principle.

So the big point to me is the word ‘learning’.  A number of people opined about accessing a how-to video, and let’s be clear: learning doesn’t have to come from that.   You could follow the steps and get the job done and yet need to access it again if you ever needed it. Just like I can look up the specs on the resolution of my computer screen, use that information, but have to look it up again next time.  So it could be just performance support, and that’s a good thing, but it’s not learning.  It suits the notion of micro content, but again, it’s about getting the job done, not developing new skills.

Another interpretation was little bits of components of learning (examples, practice) delivered over time. That is learning, but it’s not microlearning. It’s distributed learning, but the overall learning experience is macro (and much more effective than the massed, event, model).  Again, a good thing, but not (to me) microlearning.  This is what Will Thalheimer calls subscription learning.

So, then, if these aren’t microlearning, what is?  To me, microlearning has to be a small but complete learning experience, and this is non-trivial.  To be a full learning experience, this requires a model, examples, and practice.  This could work with very small learnings (I use an example of media roles in my mobile design workshops).  I think there’s a better model, however.

To explain, let me digress. When we create formal learning, we typically take learners away from their workplace (physically or virtually), and then create contextualized practice. That is, we may present concepts and examples (pre- via blended, ideally, or less effectively in the learning event), and then we create practice scenarios. This is hard work. Another alternative is more efficient.

Here, we layer the learning on top of the work learners are already doing.  Now, why isn’t this performance support? Because we’re not just helping them get the job done, we’re explicitly turning this into a learning event by not only scaffolding the performance, but layering on a minimal amount of conceptual material that links what they’re doing to a model. We (should) do this in examples and feedback on practice, now we can do it around real work. We can because (via mobile or instrumented systems) we know where they are and what they’re doing, and we can build content to do this.  It’s always been a promise of performance support systems that they could do learning on top of helping the outcome, but it’s as yet seldom seen.

And the focus on minimalism is good, too.  We overwrite and overproduce, adding in lots that’s not essential.  C.f. Carroll’s Nurnberg Funnel or Moore’s Action Mapping.  And even for non-mobile, minimalism makes sense (as I tout under the banner of the Least Assistance Principle).  That is, it’s really not rude to ask people (or yourself as a designer) “what’s the least I can do for you?”  Because that’s what people generally really prefer: give me the answer and let me get back to work!

Microlearning as a phrase has probably become current (he says, cynically) because elearning providers are touting it to sell the ability of their tools to now deliver to mobile.   But it can also be a watch word to emphasize thinking about performance support, learning ‘in context’, and minimalism.  So I think we may want to continue to use it, but I suggest it’s worthwhile to be very clear what we mean by it. It’s not courses on a phone (mobile elearning), and it’s not spaced out learning, it’s small but useful full learning experiences that can fit by size of objective or context ‘in the moment’.  At least, that’s my take; what’s yours?


  1. I agree mush more than not, although there is a perspective issue needs to be considered.

    As an individual, I need or want to learn to do something. If that’s a complex task, it might be broken down into components, and those may be further broken down into yet smaller pieces that I need to learn. Looking at the definition of microlearning, I note it’s based on behaviorism and has micro, meso, and macro aspects. I’m no expert, but it made sense to think of an example such as drawing an illustration. Some of the micro aspects of learning to illustrate might include choosing appropriate media – paper, pencils, etc. – or how to hold the pencil. Perhaps becoming skilled at drawing straight lines or circles might also be micro aspects. Meso aspects might include things such as erasing properly or learning how to form other shapes based on more basic shapes. Macro aspects might include even higher level things such as perspective or shading. It’s imperfect, but helps me put things in context.

    Where I think things get complicated is when we create something for someone else to learn from, and we decide that will be in short interactions, and therefore label it microlearning. All points you make then make sense. But as Will Thalheimer said, like it or not, microlearning is coming to a CEO near you. If we think it’s confusing to address the term in L&D circles, how will we fare dealing with the expectations of business leaders?

    In #chat2lrn, Adam Weisblatt wrote that he sees microlearning as a philosophy. From the L&D perspective, so do I. If we maintain the integrity of programs we create but overlay a philosophy of developing in manageable, quickly released, easily consumed components, that might be worthwhile. Whether that’s called microlearning or not really doesn’t matter in the end.

    Comment by Tom Spiglanin — 14 April 2015 @ 9:05 am

  2. Good points, Tom. I think when CEOs here ‘micro learning’, we ride that wave to more approval (read: $$), but internally we have to know what we mean: either distributed/spaced/subscription learning, or performance support in the moment, and when and where to use each. So, yes, we don’t have to care what it’s called, we just have to be clear that we’re doing the right thing. And small, manageable, quick released easily consumed components is good. IF we align it to business impact and evaluate that quickly consumed <> quickly forgotten ;).

    Comment by Clark — 14 April 2015 @ 9:38 am

  3. I remember a discussion board conversation in (good God!) the last century at the Dawn of eLearning. Marcia Connor asked for examples of eLearning that worked. I gave half a dozen. Marc Rosenberg replied that none of my examples were courses. Bingo. It was a learning moment.

    We decided that the only rationale for eLearning courses was providing a billing mechanism for vendors.

    So now courses are in their death throes. Latest evidence pegs human attention span at 10 – 18 minutes. I cringe when I see that a YouTube recording is ten minutes long. That’s forever.

    What do we call these learning experiences that occur in minutes? What’s our unit of measurement?

    I’ve been called them snippets but frankly appropriating the term microlearning might be a better idea,

    Comment by Jay Cross — 14 April 2015 @ 6:49 pm

  4. I would love to see an example of “microlearning” in the context of your definition. Let’s say a quick course is created on active and passive voice. It’s the first course this company has made about grammar and writing. I think at this stage, it’s “microlearning.” Then, the company starts to make more mini modules on writing/grammar – perhaps nothing crazy official, they’re just identifying common mistakes and sending out training on them, but they do have a new section in their LMS specifically for grammar/writing. Does the original active vs. passive course turn into subscription learning? or is everything else that’s created microlearning as well?

    Or perhaps was the active/passive voice training ever microlearning to begin with?

    Quite frankly, as you mention, it doesn’t matter – but I’m mostly curious so I know what people are talking about when they’re talking about microlearning.

    Comment by Rachel Barnum — 14 April 2015 @ 6:51 pm

  5. Jay essentially redefined microlearning and I think it’s perfect. I’m completely behind the notion of appropriating the term in this manner.

    Comment by Tom Spiglanin — 15 April 2015 @ 12:10 pm

  6. I certainly like the scope Jay says, but we might want to keep micro learning open to performance support as well. Is a ‘how to’ video that you use to, say, remove your SIM card in your phone *learning*, particularly if you don’t remember it and have to view again next time? Is there a reason to learn it? Can anyone think of examples, to Rachel’s point?

    Rachel, I think your little course on active/passive could be micro learning if it is indeed on the order of a few minutes (one criteria: can the amount of practice you provide in a few minutes sufficient to lead to retention?). I think the other courses would also each be a micro learning instance if they stand alone, but they’d aggregate into a curriculum.

    Comment by Clark — 15 April 2015 @ 4:44 pm

  7. […] Hier sein Vorschlag: “So I think we may want to continue to use it, but I suggest it’s worthwhile to be very clear what we mean by it. It’s not courses on a phone (mobile elearning), and it’s not spaced out learning, it’s small but useful full learning experiences that can fit by size of objective or context ‘in the moment’. At least, that’s my take; what’s yours?” Clark Quinn, Learnlets, 14. April 2015 […]

    Pingback by Defining Microlearning? | weiterbildungsblog — 20 April 2015 @ 12:11 pm

  8. I agree with that “microlearning has to be a small but complete learning experience, and this is non-trivial. To be a full learning experience, this requires a model, examples, and practice”.

    Maybe we could add to the definition some “time” reference, since the previous definition can apply to almost any learning intervention, no matter how long it takes.

    How small must it be to be “micro” or “mini” or some other diminutive for learning?

    What do you think?

    Comment by Eduardo Mayorga — 20 April 2015 @ 12:29 pm

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