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Three Tips to Avoid the “Dark Side” of Microlearning

Ellen(250)-1.pngBy Ellen Burns-Johnson, Instructional Designer / @EllenBJohnson 

So you’re thinking about creating microlearning. Maybe your learners demand it. Maybe your superiors are giving you thinly-veiled suggestions. Maybe the Galactic Empire showed up at your planet and now you need to quickly train a squadron of rebels to fight back.Microlearning on targeting the AT-AT walker’s weak points would have been helpful to the rebels on Hoth. star_war_blog_GIF1.gif


Whatever your reasons for exploring microlearning, starting out can feel like trudging through a swamp on Dagobah. As with any learning solution, there are a lot of factors to consider. While you might not know exactly what you want to do with it, you probably do know that you want to create something that provides real value for your learners.You’re right to be cautious. Like a blaster or any other tool, microlearning can be very effective when applied appropriately, but if implemented too hastily, it can cause a lot of damage in the form of wasted time, misallocated funds, and frustrated learners. A frustrated learner is a terrible thing to behold.

You might say that microlearning has a Light Side and a Dark Side. Here are a few suggestions for avoiding the Dark Side.



Tip #1: Give learners control.

Microlearning is short. Whether it’s a video, a Web page, or a short simulation, a single microlearning event is generally less than 10 minutes long. (Different sources will provide you with various time ranges.)
  • The Light Side: The short duration of any given microlearning event means learners can access it and get right back to work, with minimal interruption to any important tasks.
  • The Dark Side: Any interruption to work costs some efficiency—some experts estimate people need up to 23 minutes to get back in the flow. If you have a lot of microlearning content, this could lead to some significant interruptions and losses to productivity.
The Jedi Way: To avoid the Dark Side, give learners as much control as possible over when they access microlearning content, where, and for how long. This helps give them control over their workflow so they can access learning when it’s most efficient and helpful for them.

Tip #2: Don’t forget about practice.

Microlearning is focused. Each event presents one topic or task, with minimal time spent on introductions or tangentially related concepts. Learners usually appreciate microlearning’s focus only on content that’s immediately relevant, and these small chunks of content or interactivity are often easy to produce. However, sometimes learners really need more than just a short review or exercise.
  • The Light Side: Learners feel confident mastering one small skill or concept at a time, and the lack of superfluous information can make it easier for learners to envision how to apply the skill or knowledge to their work.
  • The Dark Side: It can be easy and tempting to create nothing but content-focused microlearning because of how easy it is to produce, but learners need meaningful practice to be able to perform well on the job.
The Jedi Way: Remember how Luke trained with the laser-shooting ball droid aboard the Millennium Falcon? No amount of reading or quizzing would have prepared him for the experience of actually using a lightsaber to defend himself. At the same time, he wasn’t nearly skilled enough to face Darth Vader. The laser droid was a training tool that helped Luke practice relevant skills in a realistic context, without the risk of getting cut to pieces in a lightsaber duel.Luke won’t become a Jedi just by taking quizzes about the Force. He needs practice, too.



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Tip #3: Do User Testing.

There are plenty of real-world skills that work the same way, even if they have nothing to do with lightsabers. Knowledge usually isn’t enough—we have to make sure learners have mastered the actions we need them to perform.You can create performance-focused microlearning. At Allen Interactions, that means incorporating a meaningful challenge, a relevant context, an appropriate activity and helpful feedback. If your microlearning solution can’t deliver this kind of experience, then plan to give learners practice elsewhere in their learning ecosystem, through e-learning, instructor-led courses, on-the-job training, or other means. Maybe you’ll even need some laser-shooting ball droids.Tip #3: Do user testing.YouTube™, Twitter,®, Duolingo, Kahn Academy, Axonify—the best examples of microlearning aren’t just available on PC, but also on mobile and tablet.
  • The Light Side: People can make the most of microlearning when it’s accessible anywhere, on any of their devices. Multiplatform access also enables learners to use microlearning content as performance support.
  • The Dark Side: Implementing new tools can be expensive, especially when it might require new infrastructure and people to support it. Plus, the flood of available tools and content can make it difficult to find what you (and your learners) really need. Without an approach that helps eliminate inferior options early on, the process of choosing a tool or designing a solution can be long and difficult.
The Jedi Way: Again, it’s terrible to spend time and money on something that no one uses. To avoid this, test possible solutions with members of your target audience well before you commit to a particular tool or design. We recommend incorporating user testing into the early phases of design, using rough-edged prototypes to rapidly iterate your ideas and hone in on the best solution.

Start your hyperdrives.

If you’ve read some of our books or other posts on our blog, then some of these tips might seem familiar. They should! Microlearning is supposed to be a learning experience, after all. Just because the term is relatively new doesn’t mean we should take what we know about instructional design and throw it in the nearest trash compactor.I believe microlearning isn’t an on or off switch. It’s an approach—a design philosophy that is applied to a problem. When used in the right context, microlearning can help enhance engagement and improve performance. However, each problem is different, and microlearning at your organization will probably look different than microlearning at another. Like any learning solution, the key to success is in making the right design choices for your learning audience.Looking for more resources on microlearning?

I’m hosting a webinar on microlearning next Wednesday, August 24, 2016 which you can register for here. You’ll get more tips for designing and implementing good microlearning experiences, along with a few more Star Wars™ references for good measure. I’m also presenting a session on microlearning at the Online Learning Conference in Chicago in September. I hope to see you there! Finally, if you can’t make either session, I invite you to download A Bite-Sized Guide to Microlearning, a free e-book, here on our website.


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About Author

Ellen Burns-Johnson
Ellen Burns-Johnson

Ellen Burns-Johnson has over a decade of experience in the education and training industries. She has crafted the instructional strategy and design for dozens of major initiatives across diverse topics, from classroom safety to IT sales. Emphasizing collaboration and playfulness in her approach to creating learning experiences, Ellen’s work has earned multiple industry awards for interactivity and game-based design. Ellen is also a Certified Scrum Master® and strives to bring the principles of Agile to life in the L&D field. Whether a client is a Fortune 100 company or a local nonprofit, she believes that the best learning experiences are created through processes built on transparency between sponsors and developers, empirical processes, and respect for learners. Outside of her LXD work, Ellen plays video games (and sometimes makes them) and runs around the Twin Cities with her two mischievous dogs (ask for pictures).

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