A Microlearning Approach to Education

YouTube on Smartphone

There are two approaches you can take to education, a macro approach and a micro approach, although these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. A macro approach, as the name implies, focuses on education at a larger scale, at the level of institutions, accreditation, academic program design, and so on. In contrast, a micro approach to education is more granular and focuses on learning at the course level and below, at the level of specific topics and learning points.

The terms “microlearning” and “micro-education,” while ambiguous and used in several different ways in different contexts, are sometimes used to denote learning in short, concentrated bursts on specific topics or skills. It’s no accident that the concept of microlearning has emerged in the era of the smartphone, as students and professionals are regularly ingesting content from mobile devices while on the go. In the smartphone era, there is generally a demand for highly modular and tightly focused learning experiences, in contrast to more traditional forms of e-learning such as lengthy video lectures or textbook chapters.

Forms of microlearning vary, but they include things such as mobile-friendly quizzing, concentrated (3–5 minute) educational videos, and so on. Regardless of form, the aim of microlearning is to provide maximum educational benefit with a minimum time commitment on any particular topic. One of the clearest examples of microlearning is the following popular YouTube video from CGP Grey (currently with over 12 million views), The Difference Between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England Explained:

In this video, a fairly complex (and admittedly fast-paced) narrative about the distinction between these overlapping political entities is distilled into a five-minute audiovisual microlearning experience. This microlearning experience is surprisingly efficient and engaging, despite its level of information density and its accelerated pace of narration. What is clear to me is that this mode of learning, video plus microlearning, is the mode that typifies learning in the age of mobile devices. A student on the go carrying a smartphone with five minutes to spare can learn a great deal about a topic in a short amount of time, while that same student may not have time to sit through an hour-long video lecture or read an entire textbook chapter, at least not while on the go.

There are several advantages to thinking of education in terms of a series of microlearning experiences:

  • Microlearning forces educational content creators to be concise, distilling and condensing a topic to its essence, then finding the most engaging way of conveying that essence to students, regardless of the specific form of microlearning.
  • Microlearning allows for a more direct and immediate intersection of student and content, in the form of a 3–5 minute window into the essence of a topic or concept.
  • Microlearning experiences are highly modular, with each microlearning experience meeting a very specific learning objective. Various microlearning experiences can be woven together or rearranged as needed to meet broader learning or course objectives.
  • Because microlearning experiences are specific, targeted, and modular, they can be easily accessed by students as needed, whether to explore a new topic of interest or as a quick refresher on a previously covered topic.
  • Microlearning experiences mesh well with the on-demand content consumption model that is increasingly the cultural norm (think YouTube or iTunes).

An objection to microlearning as a standard for education might be that some concepts or topics are too simply complex, too subtle to be distilled into 3–5 minute educational experiences. While this is true to some extent, many topics can be distilled further than they are given credit for, and complex topics can always be broken down into smaller and smaller components suitable for a series of microlearning experiences. Rather than teaching complex topics in a large-scale, linear fashion, a complex topic could be broken down into a large set of modular 3–5 minute microlearning experiences that do not necessarily need to be consumed in sequence (although there may be a natural conceptual progression for topics that are inherently cumulative or build upon more foundational topics).

The interesting challenge in creating microlearning experiences, from the content development and instructional design standpoints, is to constantly challenge yourself to create microlearning experiences that are simultaneously as efficient, engaging, compact, and modular as possible, but in a way that is also interesting, novel, and creative, even beautiful.

There are several top-notch creators of educational YouTube videos that I consider to be in the category of microlearning experiences in a broad sense, which are worthy of study for their ability to bring concepts and ideas to life in a concise and engaging way. For example, in alphabetical order:

Not all of these content creators stick strictly to my arbitrary timeframe of 3–5 minutes for a microlearning experience, with some videos being several minutes longer. But they all have in common the attempt to distill a complicated topic to its essence, and to present that essence to learners in an engaging and efficient way.

The modularity of microlearning learning assets gives inherent flexibility to educational content developers and instructional designers in terms of how to incorporate microlearning experiences into any particular course, whether online courses in higher education or in professional development training courses. Microlearning experiences can be used to supplement more traditional modes of content presentation. Or a series of microlearning experiences themselves can form the basis for a course’s overall learning path and structure. By extension, the modularity of microlearning experiences likewise gives students the flexibility to learn and explore in whatever progression and pace they choose, as needed to focus on particular learning point, and in whatever free time they have.

While there are less audiovisual forms of microlearning experiences, such as short, mobile-friendly quizzes, I myself tend to think of microlearning in an audiovisual sense. The plethora of simple media production tools, such as the VideoScribe whiteboarding video creation software, makes it easy to create concise and engaging microlearning experiences with a minimum of technical knowledge or media production experience. With the availability of these sorts of video creation tools, there is little reason to shy away from adding engaging microlearning experiences into the courses you are creating as an educational content developer or instructional designer, whether in the form of microlearning assets that you yourself create or those created and shared freely by others, such as the educational videos from the YouTube channels listed above and similar.

We live and work in a unique time in the history of education when it has never been easier to create microlearning experiences that are concise, engaging, effective, and visually beautiful ways to learn. And yet, too often, we fall back on old habits, patterns, schemas, and content development methods, not realizing that the world of content creation and content consumption has changed around us. As instructional designers we must resist the status quo, even tried and true methods of yesterday, for the sake of creating beautiful and efficient learning experiences for today’s learners.

Zachary Fruhling is a senior instructional designer at HotChalk Inc. where he is responsible for the design and implementation of graduate-level online course materials. Zachary has over 15 years of experience in higher education, both in the classroom as a university-level philosophy instructor and in educational technology as a digital content author, instructional designer, and creator of interactive online course materials and media for a variety of disciplines.

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A Microlearning Approach to Education

by Zachary Fruhling