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From Micro Pugs to Microlearning: The evolution of chunking

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We all know that trendy doesn’t always mean new. That said, usually there is a new twist or innovation that sparks the trend. The trend of microlearning makes me smile a little. As a culture, we’re into all sorts of small, micro things. For a few minutes of fun try Googling micro tattoos, micro (or teacup) pigs, or micro (or pocket) pugs (if it isn’t a violation of your IT policies).

MichaelPugThis larger, cultural trend for all things tiny seems a refreshing counterbalance to our American thirst for Texas-sized everything. And, while admittedly a stretch, I think that there may be a connection, however micro, to our current industry appetite for microlearning.

Why are small things so very popular right now? It’s partly because technology has made it possible for people to satisfy more unique and personal wants. It’s also partly because small things are cute.

So why is microlearning trending right now? I think the answer is similar. It’s because technology affords greater personalization and because microlearning is sort of cute. Who doesn’t want an adorable, baby course-let instead of a bloated curriculum?

The Rationale

Let’s consider briefly the instructional rationale for microlearning. What I hear over and over from both clients and my own team is that Millennial learners have shorter attention spans—that we’ve been conditioned by technology to expect more concise, quick bursts of training. Although this is most certainly true, it doesn’t fully justify microlearning as an instructional approach. Capturing a learner’s attention is important but it isn’t the only factor. Here are some others:

  • I already mentioned personalization, and the ability to serve up smaller portions that target a learner’s specific needs and wants is a great application for microlearning.
  • The brain likes smaller chunks. Note the research that has been done over the last several decades with respect to that elegant term of art chunking. A lot of more recent work on the neuroscience of learning reinforces this.
  • And we’ve known about memory structures and mnemonics since the Greeks. Everything old is new again.
  • If you’re looking for a behaviorist argument for microlearning, check out the research being done on micro habits. I think we can do much better in targeting the learning strategy for small, impactful behavior changes.

And what of learning objects, remember those? They were trendy over a decade ago. I think this latest return is less stuffy and rule-bound, more attuned to the input and preferences of learners. We also have better umbrella structures (or we’re starting to) so that some of the overarching logic and meta-narrative can function as a gateway, facilitating immediate access to the right pieces in contrast to the LMS-style catalogue where what is relevant is buried beneath multiple layers of log-ins, learner tracks, indexes, and course menus.

The Practice

In terms of practical applications, let’s look at a few examples. What is the smallest, most micro chunk of learning we’ve created? I think it’s about 15 seconds. We ask floor managers in a retail environment how many customers are currently in the store (without looking up from the instructions). They then look around and check their answer. It’s an extremely simple exercise, but it helps the learner check their own floor awareness. Of course, this 15-second exercise is part of a larger strategy, which includes a series of small exercises that can be done on the retail floor in available moments of time.

MichaelSonAnother example is a design that we have for a 5-in-5 mini-lesson—where you learn five things in five minutes. Interestingly, learning things in chunks of five isn’t a new idea. As I pointed out up above, you can find evidence for similar mnemonic strategies going back to Greek rhetoric. But, to make it successful, there is still a lot of design involved. It isn’t just about breaking things up into smaller pieces. It’s important to tease out discrete objectives and to carefully analyze those objectives to identify the five points, elements, or characteristics that will make the most impact.

The Appeal

To wrap up, let’s circle back to the cute factor. I think there is a UX sensitivity that contemporary microlearning often possesses (when successful) that the preceding learning objects didn’t have. In addition to the instructional function, microlearning depends upon relevant and fun interactivity, ease of use, smart content architecture, and technical portability. Are they desirable or compelling? Can learners collect or share these pieces? What successes have you had with microlearning? We’d love to get your ideas.

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