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Definition of MicroLearning

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I’ve looked for a good definition of microlearning, but because I couldn’t find one, I’ve created my own.

Microlearning involves the use of:

“Relatively short engagements in learning-related activities—typically ranging from a few seconds up to 20 minutes (or up to an hour in some cases)—that may provide any combination of content presentation, review, practice, reflection, behavioral prompting, performance support, goal reminding, persuasive messaging, task assignments, social interaction, diagnosis, coaching, management interaction, or other learning-related methodologies.”

Microlearning has five utilization cases:

  1. Course Replacement
    Provides training content and learning support, often as a replacement for classroom training or long-form elearning.
  2. Course Augmentation
    Provides after-course or within-course streams of short learning interactions to reinforce, strengthen, or deepen learning.
  3. Retrieval Support
    Provides retrieval practice, spaced repetitions, and reminding to ensure knowledge and skills can be remembered when needed.
  4. Just-In-Time (Moment-of-Need) Learning
    Provides information when learners need it to perform a task they are working on.
  5. Behavioral Prompts
    Provides action nudges, task assignments, or performance support to directly prompt and support behavior.

If it’s not obvious, there are clearly overlaps in these five use cases, and furthermore, a single microlearning thread may utilize more than one of the methodologies suggested. For example, when using microlearning as a replacement for a standard elearning course, you might also consider retrieval support and behavioral prompts in your full learning design.

What is Subscription Learning

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Subscription Learning Defined

Subscription learning, as its name implies, provides an intermittent stream of learning-related interactions to those who are subscribed. These learning-related interactions–called “nuggets”–can involve a great variety of learning-related events, including content presentation, diagnostics, scenario-based questions, job aids, reflection questions, assignments, discussions, etc.

Nuggets are short, usually presented in less than five minutes, delivered to recipients using push technology; either through email, text messaging, cell-phone alerts, desktop notifications, or some other form of prompting. Nuggets are intentionally scheduled over time to support learning, often utilizing research-based findings related to the spacing effect. Learners subscribe (or are subscribed) to one or more series of learning nuggets, called “threads.”

Learning threads can be predesigned, creating nuggets based on anticipated learner needs or they can be dynamically created based on learner performance. Threads can be an alternate way to present course-like information, they can augment other learning interventions, or they can provide an alternative to traditional learning approaches. In addition, subscription learning can go beyond learning delivery and be designed to create open communication channels, directly prompt performance, or provide hybrid experiences.

Visual Representation

Let’s compare a 90-minute elearning course to a commensurate subscription-learning thread. Typically, learners will engage a 90-minute elearning program in one sitting on one day, never to engage the learning material again. A standard e-learning course could be pictured as one big block of learning, whereas the same content in a subscription-learning thread could be presented as 18 five-minute learning nuggets.

Given the time-based reality that subscription-learning nuggets are spread over time, it’s probably best to present nuggets as typically distributed on a calendar.

Special Capabilities of Subscription Learning

Subscription learning provides affordances that standard elearning typically does not provide. Here’s a short list:

  • Relatively long spaced-repetition intervals to maximize remembering
  • Engagement in the learners’ work context over time
  • Opportunities for learners to practice real-world tasks over time
  • Increased likelihood that learning will be discussed with coworkers
  • Multiple learning contexts in terms of cognitive frames of mind
  • Heightened attention to learning content with fresh engagements
  • Potential to prompt on-the-job actions with multiple prompts
  • Potential to engage in social-media conversations that support learning
  • Potential to engage with senior leaders or other organizational experts
  • Potential to modify content in response to learning dynamics
  • Potential to modify content in response to organizational changes

Research-Based Benefits

From a learning standpoint, subscription learning has several advantages over typical training. First, it keeps learning fresh in the minds of learners. Forgetting is a natural cognitive process, but it is the scourge of most training programs. By utilizing a thread of short nuggets, key concepts stay accessible from within long-term memory. Second, subscription learning can be designed to utilize the spacing effect—one of learning science’s most studied phenomenon. The spacing effect is the research finding that repetitions of concepts spaced over time are a more potent way to support long-term memory than repetitions that are not spaced over time (or are not spaced as widely in time). Interestingly, while the spacing effect is one of the most studied learning factors it is also one of the most underutilized in training and education.

Note that while subscription learning is the learning approach most amenable to the spacing effect, subscription learning need not utilize the spacing effect. When a learning thread presents new content in each nugget–and never utilizes the power of repetition–we still have subscription learning, but we don’t have the spacing effect.

Macro vs. Micro Spacings

While immersing myself in the research and attempting to bridge the gap between the research and practical learning situations, I realized that a new terminology was needed. Spacings can be relatively long, say providing a content repetition after four days; or relatively short, for example providing content repetitions after a minute or two. In practice, both can work very effectively—but their relevance depends on factors like the topic, the learners’ knowledge level, importance, etc.

Micro spacings are utilized when learners have to learn many separate bits of knowledge. For example, in learning a language, learners are trying to learn tons of vocabulary—so waiting a week between content presentations would be too slow. In such a case, micro spacings present many learning opportunities within a short time frame. Micro spacings are particularly valuable for things like language learning, vocabulary, multiplication tables, or any learning situation where there is a lot of learning information—or there is a short time horizon for learning a smaller set of information.

Macro spacings are utilized when learners only have to learn a short list of learning points (say less than 20)—or when there is no urgency in learning and repetitions can be leisurely spread over time.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget the findings of the learning researchers. In general, the longer the spacing interval, the longer the information will be remembered. Indeed, micro spacings often require a hybrid spacing scheme, using multiple micro spacings in one sitting, but then utilizing macro spacing to ensure long-term remembering.

The diagram below is my attempt to show how micro spacings differ from macro-spacings—and how they can be combined.