• David Sharp
  • 7 February 2017

eLearning under the microscope

David SharpLast week saw the Learning Technologies exhibition at Olympia in London, describing itself as Europe's leading showcase of technology supported workplace learning. As in previous years, it was a buzzy event – not necessarily because of its size, rather because of the space which everything was crammed into.

There was an impressive number of free seminar theatres, covering a wide range of topics. The content itself however was less impressive: varying in quality from one or two really informative presentations to the much larger volume of product promotions thinly disguised as case studies.

What exhibitions like this really are good for however is looking for trends, and testing your own assumptions about where the market is going.

There has been much talk about the importance of gamification: designing in features to eLearning courses to encourage learners to play and to compete with each other. Such an approach has led to a bewildering array of pins, badges and leaderboards among many eLearning courses. Taking the temperature in the room at the exhibition you get the sense that gamification is something that needs to be treated very carefully if it’s not to be overdone. A view shared by our naturally sceptical development team here at International Workplace.

The other major trend was microlearning. Basically, that’s learning that is broken down into small chunks (hence the bite-sized tag), delivered continuously over longer periods so your learning is constantly reinforced. It works on the principle that it’s easier to take in small pieces of information and refresh your knowledge of them regularly than it is to learn a big chunk of information in one go, which is then all too often readily forgotten.

Microlearning also goes by the name of bite-sized learning and – from the chatter at the exhibition and from our own interaction with clients – it’s gaining credence in the L&D community. Based on what I picked up at the event, it was pleasing to hear that the development work we are undertaking appears to be on the right tracks. 

What makes good microlearning?

According to Sponge UK, courses need to be short: 3-5 mins maximum; delivered continuously; and highly personalised.

Gamification plays a key part in course design, both to encourage learners to compete against themselves and each other, and to keep people hooked on expanding their knowledge. But it needs to be subtle.

And ease of retrieval is also important: where information needs to be accessed just before you need to be reminded of it, it’s vital that learners can quickly have it at their fingertips.

There is a danger with all trends like this that you end up pigeonholing learners as a homogenous group of millennials who all have a short attention span and are incapable of retaining information for anything more than a few minutes. Choosing to run a microlearning programme need not exclude other forms of training.

But this approach can work really well where people need briefing about constantly changing information – such as the ingredients in a restaurant’s daily menu – or where behaviour change needs bedding in over a longer period, such as reducing slips, trips and falls in the workplace.

Axonify are claiming good results with case studies from Bloomingdales, Toyota and Wallmart. We’ve heard of similarly positive outcomes from our partner firm Chatterbite, who’ve been trialling microlearning via the Facebook Messenger platform in the retail sector.

Microlearning still has some barriers to overcome, however.  

How do you deliver the same learning to the same people on a continuous basis without them suffering from information overload? There are only so many ways you can brief a worker every day about the risks of manual handling without it appearing like ‘constant nagging’ and potentially leading to resentment rather than engagement.

And how do you ensure gamification doesn’t take over, to the point that learners simply want to beat each other in a social competition, with the relevance of the course content becoming less important than simply achieving a high score for its own sake?

Our view is that microlearning can be very useful and is here to stay. It’s not going to replace classroom or blended learning, nor will it displace the longer 1-2hr eLearning courses that have been around for some years now. But as way of delivering short, sharp updates and refreshers on key subjects, it’s certainly something we think L&D professionals should be embracing.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of microlearning, please do get in touch with me via email, our website or on Twitter @looksharp