Micro-learning only augments what’s there already — it doesn’t create new behaviours

A recent email campaign from our friends over at Training Industry promises big things from small learning:

“Microlearning is a training method that solves the challenges of aligning and educating organizations in the 21st century. Carefully designed 60- to 90-second lessons deliver content in bite-size pieces to increase learner consumption, retention, and performance gains. In an era of shrinking attention spans and rapid technological change, microlearning is the most effective way for organizations to give their employees the skills they need.”

Is it?

(If you don’t have time to read this whole article, jump to the summary)

I think the idea of micro-learning is pretty great for learners, for designers, and for stakeholders. And we are big exponents of ‘quick’ here at Saffron. Over the years our typical unit has got shorter, the amount of text on the screen has fallen, the platforms have got snappier, and the devices themselves have got smaller.

This reflects the way the digital environment is changing our brains and it’s no bad thing.

But the radical proposition of replacing everything with “carefully designed 60- to 90-second lessons” is even more alluring. Learners like it because it sounds short. Designers like it because it sounds quick to make. Stakeholders like it because it sounds cheaper.

But being quick to create and consume does not a good performance solution make. Buzzfeed churns out content at high speed, and it’s consumed even more quickly.  But I don’t remember the last time Buzzfeed really changed my opinion on something. In fact, I think that in 60 – 90 seconds all you can really do is reinforce what’s there already (unless it’s a very expensive 60 – 90 seconds).

Let me show you what I mean. I’ll be quick, I promise.

I often use YouTube to micro-learn anything from DIY to advanced Excel operations. But this enabling home-improvement resource does not create the inclination to improve my flat on its own. And picking out a particular Excel skill to boost will rely on my existing connections with the new task: the vague knowledge that what I want to be able to do is both possible using Excel and a desirable solution.

Using the RAMP model of intrinsic motivation, we might describe these two missing elements as Purpose and Relatedness. I do think that micro-learning components are really excellent for building the other two – Autonomy and Mastery – into our learning solutions: Autonomy because learners get to pick what they need, and Mastery because it encourages the iterative improvement of skills.

But I don’t think a sequence of 60 second videos, mixed up with all the noise of our day-to-day digital lives, can really deliver on Relatedness and Purpose, which are equally important drivers for improving performance and developing new skills.

These drivers both require reflection (in neuro-speak, that basically means the creation of new neural structures instead of reinforcing existing connections). And reflection, I’m afraid, is a process that takes hours, days, weeks, months, years – not seconds.

I simply can’t repackage the way that my undergraduate degree gave me a passion for literature and philosophy into a sequence of 60 second chunks (without resorting to caricature) and expect it to achieve the same results for someone else. So do you really think that emotional investment in your organisation’s vision and mission statement– a vision that you have sweated over for so long – can be achieved in that way? Doesn’t it require reflection, imagination? Doesn’t your audience need the time to share in that process?

I also think that the move towards micro-learning could turn out to be yet another content-based magic bullet (like ‘mobile’ and ‘gamification’) which, for all its merits,  distracts us from addressing the core inhibitor to success in L&D within nearly any organisation.

This is the simple truth that behaviours, above all, are driven by the physical and social environment in which they take place. We talk a lot about the user experience design of digital learning which is intended to change behaviours. But the ‘user experience’ is also the environment in which that behaviour happens. So if we want to stamp something out or grow something new, then the garden is as important as the seed (or weed).

If your employees never get to meet each other informally, and there is no collaborative space for them to do it in, then your training programme on teamwork (whether micro or macro) won’t work. If your company heavily rewards dangerous risk taking and underhand sales tactics with financial compensation, your compliance programme will fail.

In the spirit of quick, here’s a summary.

I think that success in L&D requires:

  1. Alignment with business objectives
  2. The buy-in from leaders to transform the offline and online work environment itself
  3. … you may also need design and development ninjas to make cool 60 second videos

Number 3 cannot replace numbers 1 and 2. No matter how much you want it to.

Hmmm, that was pretty quick to convey. I might put it in a video.

About the author

Toby Harris - Consultant