Yes, we’re a little obsessed with all things little. We like (or at least like to consider) tiny houses with a lot of design packed into an extraordinarily small space, each with the cleverness of a Swiss Army knife. We carry teacup dogs in handbags and tuck them under the seat in front of us on airplanes. Miniacs (yes, it’s a thing) collect miniatures, especially mini-replicas of food items. Foodies eat microsushi. And, in the learning community, we embrace microlearning with a similar enthusiasm, right?
No, you might say, it’s not a fair comparison. It isn’t that microlearning is cute—it’s that it is scientifically proven to be more effective. Okay, but what if the cuteness and the efficacy are connected? It’s compelling to look at the link between cuteness and performance. Suppose we design a series of microlearning pieces that we call “Thought Bubbles.” We pack each with impactful media and lots of color. Now, let’s contrast this idea with a two-day training workshop. Regardless of what we call it or the media we use, the workshop itself likely will not be considered cute. Might the same things that make a design cute also make that design more effective? Some of the research on cuteness would support this idea. Hiroshi Nittono and his colleagues at Hiroshima University have studied kawaii (which is Japanese for cute but is also used to signify cuteness mania in Japanese culture). What they found is that cuteness increases the “care” and the “attentional focus” of our behavior. [i] It appeals to our nurturing instincts for living creatures, it creates a feeling of play, and the high-design ratio creates complexity that engages our brains.[ii]
Over the past several years, learning leaders have experimented considerably with microlearning. Most of these initiatives, however, have contained the benefits of microlearning to digital components and elements. Microlearning often includes short explainer videos, web-based tutorials, quick checks, games, or a variety of other approaches, some supported with platforms and some designed independently. All of these, however, differentiate themselves based upon size. Some designers will argue for a piece of less than 2 minutes while others may push the length of time up to 20 minutes. Most will agree that the optimal size should usually be determined by what you’re trying to accomplish.
We don’t usually think of cuteness as one of the criteria, but the dynamic is certainly at play. Consider the naming conventions. We describe them as blasts, bursts, and nuggets—we characterize them as “bite-size.” Maybe what makes microlearning so effective isn’t the duration or technology—what if it is the design itself? It can, of course, be difficult to separate design strategy from duration or technology but let’s try.
Typically, the elements of design for microlearning will focus on one or more of the following:
- Scale: We often design microlearning as a scaled down version of something larger. It’s a micro-lesson, a quick hit, a mini-game, or a teaser.
- Form or Structure: Because of the scale, the form or structure of the learning becomes more visible to the learner. We might even foreground the instructional recipe to highlight the structure. For example, we might design each module with a three-part structure of why, what, and how. When we compress this design into just a few minutes, the miniaturization might become cute.
- Sequence or Cadence: Another design element is the relationship of the learning element to others. Is there a recognizable sequence of elements? Is there a cadence for delivery or a habit to be formed? Shared design elements can help learners anticipate the purpose and use case for the modules. For example, with “building blocks,” we assume that there will be more than just one and that each will build incrementally on the previous. If the microlearning is a “daily dose,” we expect a regular infusion that will help with our performance.
- Branding: This aspect of design would cover everything from naming conventions to internal marketing and communication of the microlearning to the learners. It’s important to use both push and pull strategies to engage learners.
- Environment or Context: We sometimes define a virtual space with our microlearning. Where is the learning taking place? We aim to create a context and a use case. This could be a learner experience platform or a collaboration site.
While there are other design aspects we could consider, even this short list shows us that there is more going on in microlearning than just length or digital modality.
This brings us back to the two-day workshop—which we’ve already established is usually not cute or enticing to learners. We know that learners crave the social aspects of instructor-led training, but they perceive digital learning as more time-efficient (see this report on learner preference for more info). As an industry, we tend to think of instructor-led training as anything but micro. However, if we were to take a few design cues from microlearning, I think we’d discover that the social aspects of cohort learning, mentorship, and community can be made more relevant and time-efficient with a micro-delivery approach.
Here are a few alternatives to the traditional classroom experience that apply the microlearning design elements listed above. Like most microlearning, these strategies typically work best when they are part of a larger, combination approach.
- Team huddles: A huddle is a little cuter than a classroom workshop, and they are good for cohort learning of all sorts. Think of it as a learning variation of the agile or scrum meeting with a focused, simple agenda. Facilitation of the huddle may fall to a manager or it may be a cohort leader. You might also use a visual agenda, review a dashboard, or go through a series of flashcards (where each tackles a discrete issue or example). The value of the huddle is that it can take place in closer proximity to the work that is being done by the team. This should accelerate both knowledge transfer and team member recall.
- Teach-backs: Teach-backs are also useful for knowledge transfer and reinforcement. These short sessions can be used in a variety of on-the-job settings from healthcare (where this strategy was popularized) to manufacturing or retail. Here, the design is critical because it is important that both the “teacher” and the other learners in the situation have a full understanding of context. In such cases, the micro component shouldn’t lead to a shortcut on context but an increased, targeted focus. Use teach-backs whenever real-world observation and hands-on practice are essential.
- Breakouts: Sometimes, the types of breakout exercises that have been designed as part of a larger program will work even better when they are lifted out of classroom and revisited when learners are back on the job. Group reflection, for example, is likely to be more relevant (or freshly relevant) after learners have a chance to view their work through a new perspective. Simulations or other activities can get more attention when framed as a micro-break from the regular workday. Adding a gamification element can help bridge individual sessions and motivate participation in a series of activities.
- SME interview sessions: Instead of asking a subject-matter expert (SME) to lead a training class—something that he or she may not enjoy and for which the SME may not have the aptitude or background—consider a series of micro-interviews. SMEs are typically very busy with a lot of demands on their time. By scheduling short, targeted interviews, based on a design that carefully curates the questions, you can engage the SMEs without giving them a heavy preparation burden. It helps the learners build relationships and gives SMEs a voice that they may miss if the bulk of the training responsibilities are being taken care of by others in the organization. It has some of the benefits of mentoring without a big commitment from those who are already pulled in a lot of different directions.
In addition to these ideas, there are lots of other debriefs, forums, snack breaks, and clubs that can be miniaturized and made more flexible in terms of their delivery. Another variable to consider is to think about where learners will gather. You probably don’t want to pull them into a classroom for a 10-minute huddle. Instead, look for the spaces where you can do stand-up meetings, quick table exercises, etc. Many contemporary office designs include a mixture of private and collaborative spaces. How are those collaborative spaces being used? Would it be disruptive to use them for a huddle? There is some value in these learning activities being visible to others in the organization. It helps to build culture and invites others to participate.
Of course, any type of microlearning, whether it’s a variation on the classroom experience or an online learning experience, is rarely an independent, stand-alone solution. By broadening our definition to include live, in-person experiences, and leverage instructor-led, leader-led, SME-led, and learner-led options, we have even more flexibility to craft a sustainable, effective learning solution.
Learn how we can help your team develop microlearning – leaving your learners with a “bite-size” yet impactful learning experience.