Thursday, August 7, 2014

Micro-Learning: Its Role in Formal, Informal and Incidental Learning

What is micro-learning? When and where does it work well? What characteristics define micro-learning?

In this post, I have looked at micro-learning from the point of view of efficacy as well as applicability. 

Microlearning deals with relatively small learning units and short-term learning activities. Generally, the term 'microlearning' refers to micro-perspectives in the context of learning, education and training. More frequently, the term is used in the domain of elearning and related fields in the sense of a new paradigmatic perspective on learning processes in mediated environments on micro levels.” ~Wikipedia

With the rise of social and informal learning, and ubiquitous mobile devices (tablets, phablets, smartphones and everything in between), micro-learning as a concept and practice has taken off. Clients who earlier asked for elearning are now further specifying the type of elearning. A typical requirement statement could sound like this: “We want short capsules of learning or learning nuggets that will run on all devices.  Our employees are busy and want to learn on the go.” In short, micro-learning is the need. And this is just one of the needs that short capsules of learning can fulfil.

Typically, micro-learning or learning bytes or learning capsules work well as a component of informal learning where the learner pulls what they need to solve an immediate problem. Recently, I have downloaded a couple of apps from the Amazon Appstore – one of these being on the British Museum. Whenever I want to know about a specific section or artifact or era, I can go to the app and to that precise section and read up. It’s quite well designed with the sections appropriately segmented and can be a good companion during a walk around the museum. These bytes could be classified as micro-learning satisfying the criteria of short, accessible nuggets available at the point-of-need.

Micro-learning is effective when the nature of the learning required has some or all of the characteristics: 
  1. When the learning required are bytes of facts, episodes, etc., as illustrated in the museum app example above 
  2. When it covers parts of a process or steps to be followed 
  3. When the learning required is simple or complicated but not too complex (complex learning is interconnected, and often, experience-based and non-transferable) 
  4. When the learning happens in a collaborative environment like an enterprise discussion forum or a social media platform 
  5. Where there is scope for anytime, anywhere access facilitated by technology

Micro-learning makes up an important component of one’s PLE (Personal Learning Environment). Whether it’s tweets from the Twitter feed, blog posts and articles, or the latest You Tube video and TED Talk, these essentially comprise nuggets and bytes of content in various forms that we pull from the environment and then string together to make sense and build a cohesive picture. Learning bytes can be created by literally anyone today. Learning designers, SMEs, laypeople – in short, anyone who wishes to share their knowledge and skills. Anyone with a smartphone today can capture, create and share a capsule of their knowledge, skill or experience. 

WhatsApp, usually seen as a social app used by groups of friends, can be a powerful micro-learning platform where members of a group can and already do share interesting links, photos, write-ups, posts and so on. The approach currently may not have taken learning into consideration but incidental learning is happening anyways though perhaps going unrecognized. You Tube abounds with short videos on everything from how to use an iPhone app to how to tie your shoelace. Sites like Common Craft specialize in short “how-to” learning videos using a very unique design style of cutout figures in conjunction with hand gestures. Facebook groups on Wildlife or Travel or Art (choose any topic) are replete with short capsules of knowledge – anything and everything from the features and habitat of a bird to sites to see when traveling to a specific place. Pinterest with its rich repository of images and infographic is another example of how micro-learning exists in various forms without being recognized as such.

This same web phenomenon translated to the corporate environment can be an immensely powerful mode of capturing the organizational hive mind – the explicit and the tacit knowledge residing within an organization. Thus, micro-learning can play a crucial role in both formally designed performance support as well as in informal learning, with the latter focusing on user-generated content. The creation of instructionally designed learning bytes, checklists and job aids, infographics, process diagrams, and even email and short messages represent different kinds of micro-learning. Add to these the informal forms of micro-learning – short bursts of content created or curated by users like, podcasts, videos, blog posts, tweets, etc. and one can appreciate the varied usage of the form.

Does micro-learning have to exist in a tangible form like a module, document or video?
I don’t think so. One of the most powerful forms of micro-learning could be feedback on the job. We often forget the power of a quick 5 minute input as a form of learning. Or a 10 minute conversation at the water-cooler.

The other way to look at such micro-learning artifacts could be to see them as social objects (a concept popularized by Hugh Macleod) that give people a reason to create, converse and collaborate. If I know that someone will benefit from my 2 minute video on how I restarted my Note 3 after it crashed, I am more likely to create it. Human beings are intrinsically helpful when given the autonomy and respect.

There is more to micro-learning than meets the eye so to speak. And we’ll be restricting ourselves if we define micro-learning as bytes of learning created only for the online world. Human beings have always engaged in bursts of learning to acquire skills, solve challenges and lead life on a day-to-day basis. Technology is an enabler that enhances this form of learning by amplifying what we share, facilitating connection and allowing access to experts who may be in another time zone altogether. Micro-learning enabled by technology can be a powerful workplace learning strategy.

Micro-learning thus lends itself to formal, informal and incidental learning. We are learning something new every moment and most are some form of micro-learning right down to the list of ingredients on a bottle of ketchup. Some of the information and knowledge bytes we encounter are designed for us with specific objectives in mind – formal learning; some of it we pull based on our need at the moment – informal learning; and some of the learning occurs as a by-product of some other activity – incidental learning. And micro-learning prominently features in all these areas.

Thus, different forms of micro-learning can be used to create a ubiquitous learning environment characterized by the following:
  • Permanency: Learners never lose their work unless it is purposefully deleted. In addition, all the learning processes are recorded continuously everyday.
  • Accessibility: Learners have access to their documents, data, or videos from anywhere. That information is provided based on their requests. Therefore, the learning involved is self-directed.
  • Immediacy: Wherever learners are, they can get any information immediately. Thus, learners can solve problems quickly. Otherwise, the learner can record the questions and look for the answer later.
  • Interactivity: Learners can interact with experts, teachers, or peers in the form of synchronies or asynchronous communication. Hence, the experts are more reachable and the knowledge becomes more available.
  • Situating of instructional activities: The learning could be embedded in our daily life. The problems encountered as well as the knowledge required are all presented in their natural and authentic forms. This helps learners notice the features of problem situations that make particular actions relevant.
  • Adaptability: Learners can get the right information at the right place with the right way. ~Wikipedia

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