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Driving Microlearning with Social Media: A Conversation with Learning Experts

With 2015 now behind us, Allen is looking ahead at the areas of workplace learning that will have a significant impact in 2016. One of our key focuses that does not show any signs of diminishing momentum is microlearning.

A few months ago we discussed the connection between microlearning and social media with Jane Hart, a leading figure on workplace learning. That interview can be found here. This discussion centered on traditional learning practices versus more modern techniques such as microlearning and social media. We learned that opposition does indeed exist for using social tools in training by some people in learning and development.

It got us thinking, is this opposition the industry standard? Should it be? And is it possible to change the mindset of industry experts with a more traditional standpoint to include contemporary approaches?

For these answers, we reached out to two leaders in the organizational learning field, Karl Kapp, Professor of Instructional Technology at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, and Clark Quinn, Executive Director of Quinnovation.

Karl Kapp:

I often feel we have more ways to deliver instruction than we have for actually articulating the type of learning we want to occur. Is it memorization, quick recall, application, synthesis, creativity? What is the goal?

I think the learning need should dictate the training delivery method. Using social media and microlearning has proven to be and continues to show great ability to help someone learn. The social connectedness, the bite-sized learning element and the ability to access the content quickly and exactly when needed is an invaluable way of learning in our modern, fast-paced world. And research backs up the value of providing distributed practice for content. So it is clear that microlearning and social learning (both with and without technology) are effective ways of learning.

However, I don’t think we can throw the baby out with the bathwater. I personally don’t want a pilot to fly me overseas if she only learned about flying through one-minute chunks. I want her to understand the entire flight system and how it is interconnected, I want her studying diagrams, flying a simulator and reflecting on certain actions she may need to take in an emergency. I want her to understand how wind speed impact velocity and how an electrical short caused the plane to react. So, it’s clear to me that simulations, classroom instruction and other more “traditional” learning delivery methods have their place.

In fact, I’m often amused by how dismal the claims of the educational system and methods are as I read about them on the greatest technological innovations ever created by humankind. If all those old methods are as horrible as pundits say they are, how did we get here? So while lectures and classroom discussions and such might not be optimal for learning or the most efficient methods, they do have their place. It just might not be front and center any more.

The task before learning professionals today is to have the acumen, knowledge and skills to discern when to apply more “traditional” instructional methods and when to let informal learning run free. There are times for both. We don’t need a false dichotomy; we need more words to describe the myriad ways people learn.

Clark Quinn:

We all learn through social media, and it’s almost by definition microlearning. We’re learning in the moment, with a problem we need help with, and we get the help or answer right then. It doesn’t take much, since we’re in a context.

Now that’s self-directed, informal learning, not formal learning. Formal learning when mapped to microlearning is about delivering small bits over time that accumulate. That’s not necessarily a role for social media (though it can be done through things like email or text message) so much as a system that can provide it. However, augmenting it with small tasks to do with others, or sharing some outcome of learning can be a powerful adjunct. Note that people might resist having their social media used for formal learning, so you might want to have a separate solution.

The best tools for microlearning are social media; Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, etc. are very powerful tools for learning. You can do what I call stealth mentoring: If you follow someone on twitter and read their blog, you can see what they’re paying attention to and what their reflections are, and that way you’re looking into their thinking over time and can use that as a model for your own. Again, that’s informal learning, and that’s the most valuable learning because it’s personally relevant.

For formal learning, it’d be a system that can deliver small bits of interactivity to an individual over time, and a social media component that allows people to share and collaborate. I don’t know of any system in particular that does this well, I reckon it’s probably an app your organization develops and uses to accomplish this.


A fork in the road for learning?

It is nearly impossible to deny that a great deal of learning occurs through social channels. It is where modern learners spend an immense amount of their time and go to for answers. Due to social media’s instantaneous, easily accessible and specifically focused nature, microlearning makes for an easy pairing.

Concurrently, traditional learning practices have a place in formal teaching. Sometimes, there is just no getting around extensive, detailed curriculum when job functions are more complex. It seems that a middle ground to learning and the resources involved do exist. What do you think?

Thanks to Karl Kapp and Clark Quinn for their contributions.

Karl Kapp is a Professor of Instructional Technology at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and author of The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.

Clark Quinn, PhD, is Executive Director of Quinnovation, an independent consultancy assisting organizations to get better value from their technology investments to support learning, performance and development.