Micro-Learning: The Next Big Bad Idea

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It was good to see this article by Josh Bersin in which he reflects a view that many of us have held for decades – namely that the LMS is at best a compliance and event management system, and has little to offer the learning organisation.

That businesses and colleagues have wasted billions of dollars and millions of hours implementing these things is not the worst of it; what gets to me is that even as one terrible idea is exiting stage left, another is inching it’s way into the spotlight: ‘micro-learning’.

I’m annoyed because if we insist on selling yet another duff idea to our parent organisations, we can hardly complain when they register very little confidence in L&D’s ability to make a positive contribution. And – to be blunt – I don’t suppose any of us want to waste another decade doing something pointless.

So why is micro-learning a bad idea?

I’ve explained why it’s a bad idea elsewhere. This time I’m just going to tell a story:

Some years ago we were asked to tackle a ‘knowledge management’ problem: an expert who knew an awful lot about something (let’s say ‘how to run an oil refinery’) was about to retire.

The organisation was busy flying him to people and people to him so that he could give lectures. And now they needed our help.

When we spoke to our expert – let’s call him Fred – it was clear that his expectation was that we would simply film his standard lecture on ‘how to run an oil refinery’ so that, in the event people had the odd 8 hours to spare, they could watch it whenever they liked. On a mobile device perhaps.

This would have been a bad idea. An equally bad idea would have been to break this 8 hour lecture into 5 minute chunks. The content does not become more useful by breaking it into smaller pieces. This is the problem with ‘micro-learning’.

So what is the solution? We gathered together the target audience, the kinds of people who attended Fred’s lectures, and asked ‘what challenges do you face?’ ,‘what kinds of everyday problems do you have to tackle?’ or ‘what are the top 5 questions you would want to ask Fred?’

We then put these questions to Fred and captured the responses to specific task-related challenges. Questions like ‘How do you stop X happening?’ or ‘What’s the best way to do Y?’. We captured Fred’s responses as short video, but we could just as easily have created one-page guides or checklists.

So instead of producing chunks of content, we produced useful resources: stuff that people could use to solve real-world problems.

Of course there is always the point that people ‘don’t know what they don’t know’ – Fred was able to offer some useful guidance on this too.

I have been told that the distinction between ‘courses and resources’ is subtle. That may be so, but it is the reason why Google is a better learning tool than your LMS. The significance of the picture of the underground map above is this: it’s a resource, not a piece of micro-learning. If you are trying to get to a meeting in London and you have a choice between a 5 minute micro-learning video on ‘urban navigation skills’ or a map of the underground – which is most useful?

Build resources not (short) courses.

About the author – Nick Shackleton-Jones

Transfixed by the task of understanding people, technology and the challenges of integrating the two, Nick began his career as a psychology lecturer and author. He has since worked in consultancy, Siemens, the BBC and BP in roles encompassing learning strategy, leadership, culture, innovation and technology. A memorable conference speaker and well-known in the corporate learning world for ground-breaking thinking and work, he divides his time equally between being disruptive and provocative.

Follow Nick on Twitter @shackletonjones

Connect with Nick via LinkedIn 

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