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 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 colors. 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:
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.
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 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.