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History of Microlearning


May 4, 2020



History of microlearning

Think you know everything there is to know about microlearning?

You could be right, of course, but just on the off chance that you aren’t, we challenge you to take our Quiz as we explore whether microlearning is a genuine contender as the future of learning.

Microlearning is bite-sized chunks of learning

Why does the size of the bite matter? Research shows that for learner engagement and retention, smaller is better. 

A recent study in Germany divided learners into three groups. Group #1 read one chapter of content and then answered one comprehension question, continuing in this way for all 16 chapters. The second group read Chapters 1-4, answered 4 questions, then read Chapters 5-8, answered another 4 questions, and so on. Group #3 read Chapters 1-8, answered 8 questions, then read the remaining 8 chapters and answered another 8 questions.

microlearning is bite-sized learning

Group #1 (microlearning) had the best performance. Group members answered their assessment questions 28 percent faster. They had 20 percent more correct answers. They also did 8 percent better on the final test assessment.

One of the important reasons for this improved learning is less mental fatigue (tiredness). The brain is not overworked during one, seemingly endless lesson and gets a chance to rest and recharge between sessions. When students are mentally fatigued, their cognitive function (brain activity) is significantly reduced, making them much less effective learners.

Microlearning is not a new concept

So why the “big deal” all of a sudden? Microlearning excellently suits the mindset and technology of today.

The first use of the term “microlearning” is uncertain. Some say it was first used by Hector Correa in his 1963 book entitled, The Economics of Human Resources. Others say that the term “was coined in 2003 by Research Studios Austria” to describe “learning in small steps”.

No matter when it happened, microlearning in one form or another has been around for longer than most people realize. I have been using microlearning techniques as an English teacher for close to 20 years. Before getting into teaching, I was a computer programmer/analyst. We used microlearning as both a programming technique and a user training methodology…and that was even farther back in the past (think before Y2K).

Yet, microlearning’s seemingly sudden explosion is due to a few synergistic factors: the internet, the availability of digital devices, and the digital culture.

The existence of the internet and all the data it contains means that we do not have to remember information as before. True, there were libraries and reference books, but they were usually a car ride away. So, people needed to be able to mentally recall and retrieve all kinds of information. Today, that information is just a search engine click away.

Not only is that information online, but it is also at our fingertips. The relative ease of having at least one smart digital device means that this virtual library is close by as needed.

Lastly, like all types of media, digital media has become a culture, with its own forms, behaviors, and etiquette. A significant part of that culture is brevity (or as Google says, “concise and exact use of words in text or speech”). In other words, short and sweet…but powerful.

There are many reasons for this brevity such as character limits in social media, the faster pace of the digital world, and life in general, perhaps even shorter attention spans. No matter what the reasons, people are used to shorter messages delivered in less time.

Putting it all together…

Much of the learning that used to take place is no longer needed since information is freely and easily available. The majority of people have devices to access this information as needed and have become accustomed to getting that information as quickly as possible.

And that is why microlearning is buzzing. This short, quick information delivery method is perfect for people’s mindsets and is totally available due to the existing technology. 

microlearning is a big deal

Microlearning is suitable for a wide range of learners

Here are three examples.

Health professions students

Researchers in the U.S. did a review of 17 articles about microlearning. They concluded that for the health professions students studied, microlearning increased their “knowledge and confidence in performing procedures…retaining knowledge, studying, and engaging in collaborative learning.”

In another study (not included in the review above), scientists found that with regard to crew resource management training (CRM) for medical students, “a traditional lecture was outperformed by an instructional video demonstrating a practical example.” 

Media vocational students

In Germany, Mediencommunity 2.0 offers its members (who are media designers, printers, and bookbinders) collaborative options with peers and experts. A case study examined a virtual study group on this platform. The study group was designed as a microlearning scenario of various sessions. It was aimed at members who were preparing for an exam in technical English. 

Feedback from learners at the end of the study group was positive. For example, at the start, most of the students felt their competence in technical English was 72 percent, but at the end, they felt they had improved to 86 percent. Almost all the learners (93 percent) felt that the 10-15 minutes spent learning per day was the correct amount and that the sessions had focused on the right exam preparation material.

New employees

Microlearning was successfully used to help onboard new employees. These workers were able to learn the faces and names of their new colleagues. This helped them feel “at home” in their new positions more quickly.

Other types of learning

No single learning method is ever the best. Like all the others, microlearning does not suit every situation or every learner.

Making sure your microlearning modules use best practices is the key to success. Another is using an award-winning, mobile-first microlearning platform with gamification and creator tool features, such as SC Training (formerly EdApp). Using SC Training (formerly EdApp) as part of a blended learning solution helps to embed F2F and other learning interventions, catering to a wide variety of learner characteristics and learning styles. 

So, what do you think?

As a professional who has used microlearning in one form or another for over 40 years, I can tell you what I think. 

In my opinion, the evidence shows that microlearning will definitely continue to be an important (and perhaps increasing) part of e-Learning. Microlearning suits a wide audience. Also, it has proven itself in the increased engagement, retention, and performance of its users. In addition, since most microlearning is a “one and done” investment, it is endlessly repeatable at the same high level of quality and effectiveness, making it kind to your organization’s resources.



Lisa Aharon Guest Author

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