What Is Microlearning and Why It Matters


There is a lot of talk about microlearning in the learning and development industry. But what does it mean? And why does it matter? Is it simply another buzzword or is there a real change taking place?

In our view microlearning is a strategic response to a number of related developments and it has an increasingly important role to play in corporate learning strategies. It is part of a shift towards continuous learning as strategies adjust to meet the needs of the modern learner.

What is Microlearning?

According to John Eaddes in this Elearning Industry article microlearning is:

“A way of teaching and delivering content to learners in small, very specific bursts.”

“The learners are in control of what and when they’re learning.”

Allen Communications argue this second aspect, learner control,  is important because it “allows learners to consume training and apply new knowledge and skills quickly”.  It is this learner-driven approach that “increases engagement, improves training and job efficiency, and builds learner interest in seeking out additional training opportunities.”

Why is Microlearning Growing?

Elearning Coach, Connie Malamed, argues Microlearning is an emerging learning strategy “for quickly closing skill and knowledge gaps” because:

  • Information changes quickly
  • People find it difficult to keep up in a fast paced world
  • Resources are freely available online
  • Newer technologies support it

This last point is critical. Until the recent smartphone developments it would have been very difficult to deliver microlearning to the point of need, wherever the learner happens to be. Towards Maturity’s recent benchmark data shows that 93% of businesses want to integrate learning more directly into the workflow. Microlearning is very well placed to support that.

Microlearning is also growing because it meets the needs for flexibility demanded by the modern learner, as outlined in Bersin by Deloitte’s infographic “Meet the Modern Learner” below.  Bersin argues mobile learning is essential as learners “increasingly turning to their smartphones to find just-in-time answers”. Bersin’s infographic also highlights the fragmented nature of attention spans and the need for shorter content.


Microlearning Is More Than Just Bite Sized Content

Microlearning means more than just short content or creating bite sized content. Microlearning is particularly suited to support a number of specific learning objectives:

  1. Supporting specific tasks. Microlearning can provide the core information necessary to help a learner achieve a specific, actionable task. This makes microlearning in a work context particularly valuable.
  2. Supporting continuous learning. The world changes every day, new research, new case studies, new technologies, new product launches, new market developments and even new companies emerge. One of the ways to keep up is microlearning every day, enabling learners to scan and be aware of changes.
  3. Changing behaviour. Microlearning enables behaviour change through small steps that reinforce learning and enable learners to develop their knowledge and skills daily.

Actionable content that can be broken into small pieces, industry news and content updates all lend themselves well to using microlearning strategies. Equally learning that requires repetition such as language learning or behavioural changes can be well suited to microlearning.

Microlearning content can take a number of formats from a short structured piece of interactive learning to a video to an article.

Ease of Access – Mobile Learning Is Everything

Microlearning is all about ease of access. Learners need to be able to find it and consume it in a work context or in the micro moments they have available.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of smartphones on learning and it is smartphones that have enabled the growth of microlearning. Latest surveys suggest that people now spend more of their digital time on smartphones than desktops or other devices.


The growth of smartphones and better mobile standards means that increasingly everyone can access content via their smartphone. Microlearning and mobile learning are very closely linked. This means learning can be delivered at the point of need but also at those times where learners have short periods available for learning.

Examples of Microlearning

In addition to the much discussed Khan Academy there are many examples of microlearning. Here are a few.

Dangers of Microlearning

There is a danger that microlearning results in learners not seeing the wood for the trees. These microlearning interventions come without context. Hence they can be fragmented and isolated elements that do not help cognitive synthesis and the learner may not build a holistic picture or framework.

For this reason it is still important within the overall learning strategy to construct and scaffold learning, so that microlearning takes place within context. Many authors have argued this is why microlearning can be more suited to more advanced learners and to particular types of learning such as task specific content and news or update content, that build on previous knowledge and experience. This said, microlearning is seen as important to address the forgetting curve and to build on learning through repetition and spaced learning. It’s not an alternative for structured courses which continue to have a vital role.

Benefits of Microlearning

The growth in microlearning is being driven by the range of benefits it is delivering. These include:

Speed of Results. It enables a person to quickly close a small knowledge or skill gap. The content is easily digestible.

Continuous Learning. This is the key challenge of our age and microlearning, even if simply in the form of latest articles, enables a person to stay updated.

Diversity of Content. Microlearning can support unstructured and structured learning, and to be used as part of a blended approach.

Ease of Access. Microlearning is primarily delivered on a smartphone, enabling the learner to access the content when they have time, when they need it and wherever they are.

Lower Costs. Typically the costs of microlearning content are much lower than the costs of producing say a course or structured content. This applies equally to the cost of updating. Many courses remain outdated simply because it is too expensive to update them. 87% of businesses are focused on learning cost reduction in 2016 according to Towards Maturity.

Learner Motivation. It can be easier for a learner to achieve success from a short microlearning intervention and hence, build motivation. I have found this when learning how to code something for WordPress or even fixing a plumbing task with a video on YouTube. Less context is needed.

Ideal for Curation. Short content is easier to curate such as relevant articles or videos. This enables learning and development departments to add value to existing content through curation.

Ideal for Tagging. Small pieces of content can be specifically tagged for easy search, sharing, access and reuse.

Fits with Work. Microlearning is not as disruptive as more formal approaches or even an hour of elearning.

Cure for Curation. Microlearning may not come with structure and context. But a skilled curator can filter and curate microlearning resoures, adding context, commentary and structure where appropriate.

Is it right for you?

The suitability of microlearning depends upon your context and circumstances.

  • Are there tasks that can be broken down and addressed adequately via microlearning?
  • Does some learning require repetition to embed the learning?
  • Do learners need to keep updated with new developments outside your organisation such as news, research, competitor developments, case studies, etc?
  • Do you have the time and tools to source and filter good quality, recent and relevant content?
  • Can your learners access it at point of need, and in context of other learning?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then microlearning should be part of your learning strategy.