What is Microlearning?

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What is ‘microlearning’?

Microlearning is a way of delivering education in small, bite-sized learning units, typically allowing students to control their own learning, at their own pace.

The term microlearning dates back to 1963 in a book called The Economics of Human Resources by Hector Correa. Microlearning only really started to gain traction in the 1990s when the internet made it possible to create and access lessons online. Only recently has it become even more prolific, with smart phones making information available literally in our pocket.

Why is microlearning important?

Studies have shown that we learn more deeply when we are focused on a subject for a short duration of time. This is especially true when we go online, because the Internet is an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is supposedly turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

When we ingest too much information into our working memory, we can experience cognitive overload. Our retention increases when we are given information in short bursts, and are allowed to process it more efficiently. Reading or listening (passive learning) in short spans of time can be useful, although it is especially effective when we also interact with our subject matter. This is known as “active engagement” and is one of the many benefits of microlearning. Promoting active engagement can help increase understanding, and help students develop a personal connection to their learning, so that they “own” their learning and are responsible for it.

Do we really have shorter attention spans?

The myth of the goldfish only remembering for a few seconds has recently been debunked.2 We now know that fish have longer memories than they’re given credit for.

It’s tempting to think that our students also have short attention spans, but this isn’t true. They haven’t changed; technology has. Learning used to be difficult if we needed clarification or reference (for those of us of a certain age, remember having to look things up in library card catalogs or digging through that set of encyclopedias we were given as kids?). Learning can be daunting, but technology has shifted the way we not only give and receive information, but also how we ingest it. So, let’s embrace technology, and let’s use it to make learning easier!

What Microlearning Looks Like!

What are the basic characteristics of microlearning?

Microlearning is:

Short: It lasts 5-15 minutes (or less).

Focused: It has a specific focus on one single topic.

Interactive: It is combined with activities to promote active learning.

Flexible: It is available to use alone or with other microlearning, teaching, or classroom activities. Ideally, it should be used daily or several times a week.

How can we use Microlearning effectively?

There are many ways we can use microlearning, either before, during or after class. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Use it as homework.
  • Use it as a personalized learning path: provide a selection of microlearning topics and let students choose 2 or 3.
  • Use it before class, to gauge how prepared students are.
  • Use it in class if devices are available.
  • Use it collaboratively, either online or in class as group work.
  • Use as a “wake up tool” to let students explore something on their own (and give yourself a break; you can even watch their scores coming in to the LMS!)

What do you think about microlearning? Share your thoughts below.

1 Carr, Nicholas The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains Wired Magazine, 24th May 2010.
2 Maybin, Simon. Busting the attention span myth, accessed online 9th Jan, 2020: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-38896790

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