Most discussions of massive open online courses (MOOCs) focus primarily on the massive component. These courses are huge in every sense of the word—they have massive enrollments, they generate massive amounts of data, and they have certainly caused massive controversy. It’s true that the technology that underlies MOOCs allows for all aspects of instruction to occur on a much larger scale than was ever possible before, but focusing solely on this element masks what is arguably MOOCs’ most valuable contribution to education: flexibility. MOOCs allow education to occur in highly flexible and adaptable environments, and one consequence of this is that learning is not only getting much bigger, but in some important ways it is also getting significantly smaller. Access to anywhere, anytime learning has liberated instructors and students from the four-hour seminar and the three-day workshop: they can now make the most of even five spare minutes, which has led to a new interest in microlearning.
Microlearning is learning that takes place on a very small scale. Currently, the term microlearning is used to describe a couple of different instructional formats.
The first conceptualization of microlearning is as learning split up into short modules, with course content and complete learning activities encapsulated in five- to ten-minute packages. This is the instructional approach generally taken in MOOCs (short video lectures, embedded short quizzes, etc.), and I’ve written about this practice before using the moniker “bite-sized learning.” Bite-sized learning is ideally tailored for how our brains learn, it can be accessed any time via computers or mobile devices, and it can go a long way toward ensuring that training is focused on real skill mastery rather than superficial seat time.
Although it still involves delivering content and performing learning activities in small chunks, the second form of microlearning is a different creature entirely. Here, microlearning describes a type of learning in which mini learning activities of all types are used to achieve various learning goals, including onboarding, content reinforcement, and even assessment. Microlearning units can be delivered as part of larger MOOC modules and courses, but they can also be individually packaged to meet the needs of individual learners and learning groups. Microlearning can be used as part of “push” applications, in which the instructor determines what learning units to deliver when and where, or as “pull” applications, in which the learner decides when and how to access the learning resources.
Microlearning units can take many forms, and coupled with mobile technologies, this style can be used to expand the boundaries of the corporate classroom. Introductions, summaries, short quizzes, blogs, polls and surveys—any type of content can be used in microlearning. On the “push” side, a short introductory activity can prepare students for a longer seminar or a summary can be delivered as reinforcement following a formal learning session. Mini activities can be pushed to users via RSS feeds, SMS instant messaging, and so on. On the “pull” side, packaging resources into small machine-readable chunks organized into a searchable database can allow learners to access course materials à la carte outside of a formal course. This leads to increased engagement and user-determined just-in-time learning.
How does microlearning relate to MOOCs?
Conceptually, MOOCs have raised the bar for what learners expect of their educational experiences—the idea of the traditional classroom in which an instructor lectures for an hour and students take notes (or sleep) has been all but obliterated. Today learners expect to be much more engaged, for example, in flipped classrooms and through using various technologies. Learners also expect to be able to access and participate in their courses anytime and from anywhere.
In practice, the technologies that support MOOCs, such as new software-as-a-service learning management systems, can also support microlearning. Many of the tools already in place, like email announcements, course dashboards, and integrated social media platforms, can be used to deliver and access microlearning units. Tobes Kelly recently wrote on the eLearning Mind blog that “microlearning…has long been a concept in search of the right technology.” Well that technology is now available, and as Kelly suggests, “access to microlearning modules is the next natural step in workforce training.”
What if we could put these two recent learning trends together into a “microlearning MOOC”? What would it look like?
Think massive, but also mini. Onboarding activities done before class; summaries sent an hour, a week, or a month later; videos and learning units accessible via a searchable database; virtual flashcards, discussion prompts, and quizzes sent throughout the training session; short interactive activities that happen outside the formal course—the possibilities are many, and the result would be to move training even farther out of the classroom and help learners incorporate and apply it in their jobs and in their lives. A microlearning MOOC would further challenge popular conceptions about when and where learning occurs, because the answer would be all of the time and everywhere.
MOOCs are changing how we learn and what we expect of education. They have decoupled learning from the classroom, which has opened up a range of new possible learning environments. L&D departments can leverage this new phenomenon to not only create more meaningful trainings, but also to ensure that training is put into practice, rather than quickly forgotten, which is all too often the case. Microlearning is a powerful idea whose time has come.
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