A quick internet search of the term “microlearning” produces in a ginormous volume of information, much of which addresses the virtues of “bite-sized” content. Very few sources focus on how much is actually learned. This trend toward tiny learning solutions begs an important question: Is a little learning really enough?
The English prefix “micro” comes from the Greek word “mikro,” which means small. For example, we use microscopes to view tiny particles up close. No one looks into a microscope expecting to see the big picture. No one points a microscope toward the heavens expecting to see the constellations. The prefix doesn’t refer to the instrument itself, but to what we can see by using it. The scope of what we can see with a microscope is much smaller.
Likewise, microlearning is a great tool for helping learners “see” small and specific bits of information. But is it an effective tool for helping them grasp big picture stuff? Probably not. Sure, we can dissect an elephant-sized subject into tiny pieces and study it piecemeal, but seeing an elephant one square inch at a time is no replacement for experiencing the whole thing intact. If you’ve ever stood close to a mosaic mural you know that a big picture is greater than a sum of its pixels.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with zooming in and focusing on a single pixel, tile, or micro-topic. I’ve learned to do everything from replacing a headlight to grilling a perfect steak by watching YouTube videos. But no one became an auto mechanic or chef that way. The depth and breadth of knowledge required to be an expert, a professional, or a leader requires a more protracted and holistic “macro” learning approach. This prefix comes from the Greek word “makro,” which means large or long.
The current enthusiasm for microlearning reminds me of another change that revolutionized talent development, affordable asynchronous eLearning. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, I was hired to transform Disney Security training to help the company combat the increased threat of terrorism. During that time, Disney recognized the financial advantages of eLearning (labor savings, travel cost avoidance, just-in-time delivery, etc.), and there was lots of pressure to convert instructor-led content to eLearning to meet pro-forma expectations.
The challenge was that, while eLearning was a great tool for helping employees learn to operate theme park rides, it would have been much less effective for helping security employees recognize and address emerging threats. The Disney Security Training Institute eventually became a licensed provider of anti-terrorism and crisis response training, some of which was delivered via eLearning. However, it was our instructor-led and live-simulation field training that made Disney a benchmark for security training organizations worldwide.
Let’s fast-forward to the present and return to the original question: Given the current trend toward microlearning, is a little learning really enough? It depends.
For example, there are millions of people who know enough about microeconomics to engage in basic transactions. But those who want to become millionaires should learn to analyze macroeconomic factors that influence global monetary value, economies, and trade. The same is true in the knowledge economy.
Eight hours of macrolearning may be as inefficient as binge-watching for a college student who only needs to know how to balance a checkbook. Likewise, a series of microlearning lessons might be as ineffective as channel surfing for someone aspiring to be an accountant. Sometimes learners need a little learning and other times they need a lot. In either case, the scope of what must be learned should dictate the size and format of the solution.
When learners only need to know a little and they need to know it now – go micro. But when learners need to see the big picture, complete with background and context – go big or go home!