Microlearning Myth 1 - Its Just Shrunken Content-1

Microlearning isn’t about being small micro-content, it’s about reinventing learning and development programs as precision learning challenges that organizations can deliver to their learners. These job-critical challenges represent far more than just the “shrunken content” definition too often assigned to microlearning and, when designed on microlearning best practice principles, should be designed to engage learners on the go and improve long term knowledge retention.  

In this first blog of a five-part series, I discuss the myth of microlearning as shrunken content. It’s often assumed that microlearning is “chaptered,” “chunked” or shortened but in reality, it transforms and reinvents learning content to enhance a strategic learning program — versus adding to what has become in effect a “digital junk drawer” — filled with the debris of years of online learning efforts. 

Avoid “Thinking Small”

The biggest myth of microlearning comes from the term itself: people read “micro” and immediately think small. “Too much information? Just shrink it into bite-sized learning modules.” The premise is that by making things smaller, people will digest the information faster, more frequently and even “just in time.”

But that’s a flawed assumption. The same information that’s been out there before isn’t going to work better just because it’s smaller. The opportunity isn’t about shrinking learning content, it’s about transforming it into best-practice micro-content that can be delivered repetitively over time to tap into the way the brain learns. Well, that is if that micro-content is going to have a lasting impact on retaining knowledge and shaping behaviors.

Content Transformation

This is a simple proposition: even with the science of spaced learning at the core of the most effective microlearning, the reality is that most learning organizations’ training programs could use a transformation anyway. Great pieces of content are curated in every learning management system, but people can’t always find them, often forgetting they exist. This makes organizations uncertain whether they’re having any impact at all. Microlearning is a catalyst to rethink learning content as precision learning challenges that reinforce the critical business knowledge people can’t afford to forget.

Rethink the Digital Junk Drawer

The “digital junk drawer” is what I call years of well-intentioned learning content that has accumulated on the internet, in learning management systems and in disparate systems or repositories. The combination of learning materials that use many different formats and time frames creates an information glut that was intended to develop a learning culture. Despite good intentions, a static, fragmented, inconsistent library of learning content quickly accumulates and becomes outdated. This in itself may be in vain and is not going to create a culture of continuous learning needed to shape employee behaviors and keep them up-to-date.

These efforts and formats inadvertently create confusion — one SCORM course, PowerPoint, webcast replay or email at a time. The challenges of a digital junk drawer can lead to:

  • An inconsistent and chaotic learner experience
  • Difficulty finding the content that matters most
  • Out-of-date information mingled with what people need to know right now to do their jobs effectively

Transformation Versus Content Curation

You can’t depend on the digital junk drawer to deliver the kind of precision learning an organization needs to compete in the increasingly complex world of work. Content is surprisingly resistant to being shrunken. A critical nuance may be left out, or content may not be complete. But for something to really fit the definition of a true microlearning challenge, the best way is to think in terms of editorial transformation:

  • What’s most important?
  • Which groups must know this information for their jobs?
  • How can the concept be distilled into a real-life, relatable scenario?
  • How can learning be delivered that has a lasting impact without interrupting busy people’s days?

Rather than a universe of facts, microlearning challenges seek the subset of concepts that matter most, distilled to the right size and focus for impact and engagement. This is different from the traditional approach that is more focused on accumulating information than selectively creating challenges that work in microlearning. 

For example, it may be easier to record a 45-minute one-off training video but how likely are people to find the “knowledge needle in the haystack” representing what you really want them to know?

With so much existing information, there are only so many things that can take precedence. People simply can’t digest everything that’s thrown at them. Transforming knowledge into microlearning is scientifically proven to help people retain knowledge.

Respecting People’s Time (and Attention Spans)

Another misperception of microlearning being “just shrunken content” is that it is not necessarily designed for where busy professionals prefer to engage in learning and why they want to engage there in the first place. They’re busy and have competing demands on their attention, so learning on the go via a mobile device or while in the daily routine of work on a busy desktop needs content to suit those mediums. In reality, microlearning specializes in delivering content to the channels (including mobile) that people prefer, while creating a message that works in those channels.

Mobile sales teams, for example, who view or do almost everything on a phone will likely gain less by taking a course built for the desktop but completed on a smartphone. It’s not even so much that it’s hard to see, it’s just that it doesn’t fit the design metaphor of the device: Information that matters, pushed to me when I need it.

While mobile is certainly a driver in the necessity of microlearning content transformation, the microlearning experience is not that much different on any device, even the traditional desktop. People have busy digital lives and learning content competes for the attention of a time-starved audience. Smaller versions of the same message (unless precision-optimized in the first place) won’t have the impact that microlearning does for the critical business topics that organizations can’t afford for employees to forget. 

Creating Precision Learning Challenges

The science of spaced learning leads to another opportunity for transformation: How content is shared. In the spaced learning model, the goal isn’t simply to share another paragraph, document or video, but to pose the learning activity as one that engages the learner by delivering the content as a precision learning challenge. Challenges engage the brain differently by promoting active engagement and, when combined with gamification, competition.

How Microlearning Transforms Learning: An Example


  1. Get Learners’ Attention: An alert is delivered to a person’s mobile phone.
  2. Present a Precision-Learning Scenario: The learning scenario is framed as a challenge to engage the learner 
  3. Deliver Responses: Learners know the right answer immediately after they submit their responses, correct or incorrect 
  4. Reinforce Knowledge: Regardless of the learners’ response, they receive immediate knowledge reinforcement on the subject. 
  5. Competition: Gamification engages learners, encourages competition and creates transparency into the progress of individuals, cohorts and the organization as a whole. Leaderboards are valuable to illustrate real-time who’s participating and how they’re doing. 

* * *

Microlearning is a great way to deliver a new, transformed message to a target audience that’s relevant and retainable. It’s not just shrunken content, it’s an opportunity to find the most important concepts and help make them stick. The transformation and delivery of this content make all the difference to long-range knowledge retention, behaviors and, ultimately, business outcomes.

To further demystify the myths of microlearning, download our webcast. To learn more about how Qstream’s mobile microlearning platform can help learning and business leaders improve their employees’ performance, contact us.

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