Why is Microlearning Futile? How to Fix It – Tip #126

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This week I had an exhilarating conversation with a Caltech professor at the Athenaeum Caltech Faculty Club. The professor is responsible for the facilities where robotic experiments are conducted. He said, “many of my graduate research students stand back and would not touch the robots at first. They fear they might damage the robots that cost millions of dollars. Having no experience, they worry that they may destroy them. So I break down the different parts of the robot and show them how each part works, and that the parts can even be purchased from eBay.”

Apparently by doing this process, the students see that parts perform a function and the working principles are just like other components. However, the remarkable insight is how the robots work after they are all assembled and programmed to perform even more complex tasks.

Each time I try to shrink or compress content to turn it into Microlearning, I face the ultimate boundary that Microlearning has to do with the learner and worker’s ability to use the content to some useful end. I arrived at this by breaking down the parts of the Microlearning and learn how each part works. Then I reassemble it to see how else it can work.

The following are my discoveries.

Essentially it is futile to reduce or resize content, unless we design it for the worker in action. Ultimately, it is the learner who decides the value and use of content and can do this better than any other learner can. 

An equation that misses the view

In Equation # 1, the left side is the learner and worker and the right side is the content.

It is the learners and workers who decide how to use content. They see instances of problems and want to find solutions, which at times come in the form of content or knowledge. Because these occurrences are ultra small, unpredictable and split-second, micro-sizing a content to fit the need is a near – impossible task. I am convinced it is a futile effort. The best we can do is a big approximation and mostly a guess.

When Google designed their search feature, they did not change the content. They allowed users to search endlessly until they found the answers or simply stopped.

In Wolfram Alpha (What Happens When New Becomes Old? – Tip #89),  the users enter their questions and queries and the software assembles the answers. It does not do anything with the content, but assembles and combines data to serve the users’ needs.

Reflecting back on our left and right side diagram in Equation #1, as designers our focus seem to be on the right side of the equation (the content) rather than the left side – the worker’s side and what is going in the user’s situation.

These are my dilemma and reflections

Is it because I am a content provider and designer that I am compelled to resize content? Perhaps. However, my knee-jerk approach usually fails if I miss to ask one question: “What is the view of the learner and worker, and pointedly, let’s just say the worker’s situation?” Do we even ask this question?

The Circular Equation

So I began to ruminate and ask the questions from different angles or varied points around the worker and Circular Equation #2, crystallizes in my mind.

In Equation # 2, the workers must contend with finding problems and creating solutions in the different factors affecting them. Their actions and solutions are influenced by such factors as well as impact the outcomes in each of the areas.

The workers’ decisions and actions are influenced by these factors:

How is our level of engagement so far? Will you give a thumbs up, or a thumbs down?How is the pacing of the program?Is the content useful so far?
Customer – defines what is success and value
Process – must be optimal
Supplier of parts – must adhere to the specs
Teams – should be coordinated
Plants or facilities – updated and humming
Information and data – timely and useful
And many others

What glues all of these together? The workers make things happen by constantly fixing, changing and improving all the parts. It is a very difficult situation to know what form and type of content they would need to be useful in this situation.

Where is the fix in our Microlearning approaches?

Looking at the Circular Equation view of the worker and not the left and right view of Equation # 1 -Worker and Content, I am inclined towards following these thought processes. This helps me correct my misunderstanding of Microlearning. These are some insights. Hopefully, they be of value to you.

1 The “learning” aspect of Microlearning is doing us a disservice. I suggest we think of the worker’s micro-decisions and actions. I also call this the diagnostic actions. This view is holistic and returns our attention to helping the worker through the process of making decisions and taking action – away from content. You then help the worker micro-size all decisions and actions in the world of Equation # 2.
2 The focus on micro-sizing of content, as a starting effort, is futile unless we start with the learners’ situations as shown in Equation #2. At best it is a process that many of us try to do to approximate what the learners and workers need. We need to cut the huge pile of “garbage” and bias that content (and our jobs) is important particularly if we develop content that is so remote and distant from the workers’ decisions and actions. We have to learn to let go of the content. Let’s find intersections in the workflow where we can help the learner. (See the handout and recording of my webinar on Strategic Microlearning: Making Training Initiatives Keep Pace with Rapid Workflow)
3 Business leaders intuitively sense the potential disruption value of Microlearning. Let’s do the fix before we, as learning professionals squander the opportunity. Let’s find new metrics and standards to help the workers and leaders see the value of Microlearning. Unfortunately, our usual knowledge checks and tests, LMS completion tracking and memorization type of assessments do not work. How do we assess Microlearning in the world of Equation #2?


Like in our robotic lab story, we can break down the parts of Microlearning and truly understand the essence of each part and build them back together to actually deliver real results, not the ones we are used to, but new capacities to deliver on the value of Microlearning.


Athenaeum Caltech Faculty Club
Strategic Microlearning: Making Training Initiatives Keep Pace with Rapid Workflow
Tip #53 – How Small Should Small Bites Learning Be?
Tip #60 – Letting Go of the Need to Know Everything: Use Context Setting Learning Objectives
Tip #89 – What Happens When New Becomes Old?

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”

One thought on “Why is Microlearning Futile? How to Fix It – Tip #126

  1. Yes! Ibrillia t way to "repurpose" us instructional designers. nstead of chopping long slide lectures into short lectures, text or video, on separated topics we need to start designing a series of micro-sessions by asking basic questions like:
    – What do employees need to learn to do as a result of these sessions? How do top performers achieve those results? At each step In the process, what do employees need to know, decide, do or say? How can we measure how well they produce these results?
    – To do this well: What attitude do they need to do this?
    – What questions do employees at different levels of experience have as they learn to achieve needed results? How can we break out the process and related knowledge skills into a series of short sessions organized according to these employee questions as well as the steps in the process?
    How can we create easy access to the sessions so employees get instructions and performance support what they need when they need it?

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