To learn or to micro-learn?

A couple of days ago I talked to a friend of mine. He is an employee of a large governmental organisation. He complained about the e-learning that was offered to him by the L&D (Learning & Development) department of his employer. It took him 2 hours to complete the assignment and there was no way to stop it somewhere halfway to continue and finalise it at another moment.

If you want to make sure that your L&D efforts fail, then you should offer systems like this…

I assumed that we did better with the systems that we had developed. In the past years we delivered e-learning systems with great (video) content. It was attractive, of high quality and certainly not boring. But still, the usage of the system was below what our clients and we expected.

This appears to be a well known problem. L&D officers of other large corporates told me that they all have the same problem. The biggest challenge of corporates is to motivate people to login to their computers and start doing e-learning assignments. The only courses that people actually do are the compulsory ones, that are required for certification etc. It requires great efforts to make them do the other ones.

It requires great efforts to make people do their e-learning assignments

Is it any wonder? 67% of knowledge workers complain that they don’t have time to do their job. That’s why they certainly don’t have time to spend several days in a classroom, or take long and boring e-learning lessons.

49% of organizations say that their main challenge for rolling out learning is ensuring that what is taught is actually understood and utilised on the job.

Mirco-teaching and micro-learning

L&D professionals around the world are ushering in a new buzzword which is “micro-learning”.
In the 60’s, in particular at the University of Stanford (USA), methods of micro-teaching was developed (Dwight & Ryan – 1969). Unlike micro-teaching, micro-learning is a rather new expression. It is a way of delivering content to learners in small, very specific bursts.

Modern learners with an attention span of 90 seconds require modern ways of learning

Millennials are those born between 1980’s and 2000. They are digital natives. Within 10 years from now, Millennials alone will make up 75 percent of the workforce. The average attention span of the millennial generation is 90 seconds. L&D specialists agree on the fact that traditional training courses, that are designed for long periods of concentration, are not very effective for modern learners with a short attention span.
For millennials, internet and multimedia are crucial in their learning processes. They are accessing information and learn differently than we did just a few years ago. Most learners are looking outside of traditional training and development channels.
Employees access search engines 70% and online courses 50-60% of the time. 70 percent of millennials visit YouTube monthly. They simply prefer video over other mediums. But most modern learners won’t watch videos longer than 4 minutes.
Today’s employees find themselves working from several locations and structuring their work in nontraditional ways to accommodate their lifestyles. Companies are finding it difficult to reach these people consistently and even harder to develop them efficiently.

  • More than 40% of the global workforce is mobile,
  • 30% of full-time employees do most of their work somewhere other than the employer’s location,
  • 20% of workforce comprises of temps, contractors and freelancers. And this amount is growing rapidly.

Traditional learning vs. Micro-learning

The availability and rapid development of mobile educational technology is making accelerated advances in this digital age. Multimedia and video based learning solutions give educators great tools to meet the requirements of today’s learners. It is well known that repetitive learning is essential to store knowledge in the long term memory. Back in 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered the “forgetting curve”, which states that humans tend to halve their memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of weeks, unless they consciously review the learned material.
Most Learning Management Systems are designed to offer a maximum amount of content in the shortest possible time. For learners, it is hardly possible to remember all this information.

As a trainer I have developed and delivered traditional classroom based sales and leadership courses during more than 14 years. Sometimes I run into people that I trained several years ago. They say the training has had a big impact on their work. They can recall all techniques from memory. Those are the participants that started using the techniques right away and use them on a daily basis.
However, despite the fact that my courses always have been very practical, with lots of exercises and role-plays, I found out that for many trainees, much of the trained techniques vanished in just a couple of months. That has always surprised me. It was great for the business, but shameful that, since Xerox introduced their famous Professional Selling Skills (PSS) training in the early 70’s, things haven’t changed a lot for about 30-40 years.

We have learned to tie our shoes by practicing a few minutes every day, not by training ourselves a full day.

Micro-learning deals with relatively small learning units and short-term learning activities. Thinking it over, many of the things we do daily, have been learned by applying micro-learning. We have learned to tie our shoes by spending a few minutes everyday, not by training ourselves a full day.
Unlike “traditional” e-learning approaches, micro-learning often tends towards push technology through push media, which reduces the cognitive load on the learners.

Hug (2005) described several elements of micro-learning, such as:

  • Time: Relatively short effort
  • Content: Very small units, narrow topics, rather simple issues, etc.
  • Curriculum: Small part of curricular setting, parts of modules, elements of informal learning, etc.
  • Form: fragments, “knowledge nuggets”, skill elements, etc.
  • Process: separate, concomitant or actual, situated or integrated activities, iterative method, attention management, awareness (getting into or being in a process), etc.

Imho, for a soft skills micro-learning platform (such as for sales, customer service, people management) to be successful, the following conditions must be met:

It must be video based.

It is widely accepted that the most effective learning process is in a 70/20/10 learning environment. People learn 70% on the job, 20% of their peers and 10% in a formal training setting. Videos are indispensable to depict the practical situations that people will recognize from their workplace. Especially videos that show a correct and an incorrect approach are very effective, as it is similar to learning by doing, making mistakes and watching an experienced colleague showing how to do it right. It covers the 70% 20% and 10% of the learning process.

It must be practical (backed up by theory)

Most of the e-learning programs that I have seen and that are out there in the market are based on animations or “talking heads”. An instructor or trainer, explaining theory in front of the camera. Although that might sometimes be acceptable for knowledge transfer, for the training of soft skills it is not the way to go. It is like delivering old content via a new medium. Comparable to publishing traditional book pages on a website: boring and demotivating. I am sure that you are dragging the slider on many videos because it isn’t going fast enough, don’t you?

It must be short

In today’s world, people are facing thousands of distractions every day. Mails that pop-up, Skype and WhatsApp messages, phone calls, app notifications, colleagues that need attention: to be able to learn in such an environment, it shouldn’t take longer than about 4 minutes.

It must be available anywhere, anytime

If a learning assignment indeed doesn’t take longer than 4 minutes and you have a busy job, then you want to do it at a suitable moment. When you are on the train, waiting for someone, waking up, having breakfast. It should be available on your mobile device wherever and whenever you are ready for it.

It must be of high quality

Technology has made it so nearly everyone has the ability to create video – whether it’s on a smartphone, tablet, a camcorder or a GoPro. But bad video can take away from good content. It is essential that the production quality doesn’t distract the content itself. Videos that are shot with multi camera angles are much more attractive than single shot ones.

It must be simple

Nowadays nobody reads manuals. Systems and software are getting more complex over time but we expect it to be self-explanatory and unmistakable. If we don’t understand how something works immediately, we lose attention quite quickly. If it is a “nice to have/know” system and not a “need to have/know” system we stop trying to understand it within a few seconds and start doing something else.

It must be challenging (gamified)

Gamification is a concept that became crucial in learning systems. People want to compare themselves to others and are motivated by beating others. I am a amateur tennis player and when the match starts my strikes are better than in the warming up. This natural behaviour is true in the traditional classroom, but also in cyberspace. It inspires people to compete and brings continuation and motivation to compete. Learning can be fun!

Micro-learning has a great ROI

According to recent research of Aberdeen group, only 17% of of companies that were surveyed indicated they offer micro-learning. So we are at the beginning of the micro-learning era and there is still a lot to gain. But best in class companies (the top 20% successful companies in terms of employee engagement, revenue growth and customer satisfaction) prioritize micro-learning more than anyone else (20% vs 17%). Companies that use micro-learning are approx. 2 times more likely to improve their revenue for FTE.

Epilogue

It is imperative that companies adapt their learning strategies to their workforce. The world is changing rapidly and so do humans. Modern technology has changed our lifestyle and the way we communicate and learn. Ignoring this in L&D strategies could turn out to be a major and expensive mistake.

By Paul J. Smulders

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microlearning

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microteaching

https://elearningindustry.com/why-microlearning-is-huge

http://v1.aberdeen.com/launch/report/research_report/12069-RR-best-practice-microlearning.asp

http://www.dr4ward.com/dr4ward/2015/03/what-are-the-new-realities-of-the-modern-learner-infographic.html

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