Microlearning disappoints – unless you put it into context

Posted by Asif Rehmani on Sep 17, 2020

How much time did you spend on professional training this week? If you are anything like the average worker, it probably wasn’t very long. One study found that employees spend just one percent of the workweek learning. Furthermore, the amount of professional training that American workers receive is in long term decline.

There are multiple complex reasons for this overall reduction in on-the-job training, and there is no single solution to the problem.

However, one approach that has emerged over the past decade is the use of microlearning. By providing employees with ‘bite-sized’ nuggets of information, microlearning aims to respond to the fact that there is less time available than ever for instruction.

Despite its promise, microlearning has often disappointed. This does not mean that the concept is fundamentally flawed – but the way it is delivered needs to be improved. Ultimately, microlearning is most effective when it is delivered in context. Let’s see why.

What is microlearning?

eLearning Industry, a specialist publication, describes microlearning as: “short bursts of content for learners to study at their convenience. Content can take many forms, from text to full-blown interactive multimedia, but should always be short”.

Information can be delivered in a variety of ways:

  • Short videos
  • Quizzes
  • How-to guides
  • Gamified modules

In the professional context, microlearning is often accessed over a learning management system (LMS), a company intranet, or by email. Alternatively, companies may provide workers with licenses to an online learning platform like Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, Skillshare and many more.

Staff might be expected to self-direct their learning when they have free time, or they might be given a set number of modules to complete each month.

Microlearning often disappoints

The promise of microlearning is of flexible training that fits around the workday – as opposed to long blocks of formal in-person training. The idea is that whenever an employee has a spare 15 minutes, they can use that time productively to enhance their skills or boost their knowledge.

This is good in theory, yet there are some serious flaws with this basic approach:

  • Employees must be highly motivated

Imagine you had a spare 15 minutes in the middle of a busy day. Would you really spend that time seeking out a training course? While there are certainly some model workers who would, realistically speaking, the majority would use this time to decompress – making a coffee or talking at the water cooler.

  • Premised on active information seeking

In the microlearning approach, the individual must actively seek information out. This means they have to log onto a learning platform, search for a training course and hope it is at the appropriate level. However, unless you are aware that the information is available on that platform and know how to find it, you are very unlikely to seek it out.

  • Often ineffective

Perhaps the greatest weakness of microlearning is that it is often ineffective. In most cases, people learn by doing. However, if the learning is done via online modules – but not immediately put into practice – it is very likely that the worker will forget how to do the task.

Does this mean that microlearning is entirely flawed? Not at all! When it is delivered at the right time, microlearning can in fact be highly effective. At VisualSP, we call this contextual microlearning – and it can have impressive results.

What is contextual microlearning?

Contextual microlearning builds on the foundational concepts of microlearning – short, useful summaries in text or video format – but then provides it at the moment of need.

So much of the learning we do in the workplace is about understanding processes, procedures or technology. However, if this is delivered over an LMS it can feel very abstract – you only really want to learn how to do the task when you actually have to do it.

And this is how contextual microlearning works. Whenever someone is confused about how to complete a workplace task, an appropriate learning module is made available which shows them how to use a tool or complete a process.

Because the training is delivered in context, the employee benefits:

  • They do not have to seek out training – it is delivered when they need it
  • They only learn things that are actually relevant to their work
  • They learn by doing – rather than via abstract concepts

Let’s see why contextual microlearning works where traditional microlearning fails:

Traditional microlearning

Contextual microlearning

Don is a self-described technology laggard. He is a great salesman, but does not enjoy learning to use new technology. However, his company recently deployed Microsoft Teams for communication and collaboration – and he received an email with a link to several microlearning modules on the company LMS.


Don is a busy guy, and has not yet gotten around to consuming the microlearning content. And, each time he does have a spare 15 minutes, he always seems to find something else to do – whether that is emailing leads or making a coffee.


This means the microlearning content is underutilized, while Don is still struggling to do basic things on Teams.


Sylvia is, like Don, something of a technophobe. She runs events for her company, and they have also recently shifted over to Microsoft Teams.


However, Sylvia’s company opted for a contextual microlearning approach. This means that there is an easily accessible overlay on her screen which provides tips and guidance whenever she needs.


Right now, she is struggling to set up a Teams conference call, and so clicks on the contextual microlearning tab. Right away, she finds a short guide with screenshots showing exactly how to set up the call.


After a couple of attempts, Sylvia has learned the process by heart and no longer even refers to the guide. And, she is becoming more confident using technology too!


Contextual microlearning makes training relevant


In an era when workers receive less professional training and have less time to learn, microlearning is undoubtedly a pragmatic solution. Unfortunately, the delivery model so far has been flawed. Traditional microlearning does not correspond with how people actually learn. Furthermore, it creates an unrealistic expectation that busy workers will go out of their way to consume training material.

And this is where contextual microlearning helps. It takes the fundamentals of microlearning – bite-sized and useful information – but delivers it in the time and place that it is really needed.

To find out more about contextual microlearning and how it can support your employees’ professional development, contact VisualSP today.

Topics: in-context help, contextual microlearning

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