Micro-learning in the College Classroom: Useful Tool or Emperor’s E-Clothes?

April 5, 2019 Diane Rubino

I couldn’t figure out how to use my gym’s fancy stair-climbing machine. So I ducked into the locker room to watch a one-and-a-half minute video clip on my phone, sparing myself the embarrassment of asking for help. That is the essence of micro-learning; short, focused hits of on-demand instruction for those looking to easily acquire a clearly defined skill.

The E-Learning Guild’s Bianca Woods describes micro-learning as “short burst learning experiences, not spending 30 minutes on a video or an hour in the classroom.” 

Micro-learning can take the form of an audio or video file, infographic, meme, or micro-lecture. Though it can be accessed on multiple devices, producers assume content will probably be delivered to the ever-present electronic accessory, the cell phone. 

Naturally, not all content lends itself to short fragments. 

“I don’t think you want your surgeon learning how to be a surgeon through micro-learning,” quips Woods.

Maybe that’s why there’s barely a whisper about micro-learning on university websites I checked. Higher education focuses on complex ideas and developing critical thinking, not how to use gym equipment.  

But that’s no reason to avoid micro-learning, especially if it can improve learning outcomes, lighten your load, or enhance the course experience.   

Suitable for Classrooms? 

I only recently heard the term micro-learning from a leadership development professional in the private sector training arena, where most of the interest lies. I was skeptical at first until I realized I was already a micro-learner. (see: stair-climbing machine)

I’ve also noticed that some university and public libraries buy subscriptions to e-learning platforms like Lynda.com with scads of online asynchronous classes and 70-plus linguistic choices in Mango Languages for cardholders to use for free. From a distance these tools seemed useful, and, with librarians’ imprimatur, promising, yet unrelated to my classroom. 

In exploring micro-learning options, however, I found some to be surprisingly well crafted. For example, Lynda.com’s no-nonsense, fat-free “Productivity Hacks for Writers” course is broken into logically labeled and organized clips, each telling a complete story. I can skip past the intro and dive into three segments (10:41 total time) describing the value of keeping an active daily word count (ADWC). The instructor describes how to use this metric and even gives learners a free, downloadable spreadsheet, which is pre-loaded with formulas calculating progress. I can even take notes within the platform - although that functionality would be difficult for me to use on my cell phone.

The ability to easily find and use only the needed information is a hallmark of micro-learning. The measurement component is a touted advantage too.  

The best in micro-learning offers learners sophisticated self-evaluation tools like Mango’s voice comparison tool, which gave me a visual representation of my recorded pronunciation of  “Buenos días.” I then compared my results to a native speaker saying the same words. I was uncertain how the biological difference between men’s and women’s voices impacted my ability to match the man’s voice. But I re-recorded the greeting a few times anyway. 

The capacity to repeat is beneficial on the flip side as well.  

“For teachers, one of the big advantages to it is that it allows the content to be reusable in a lot of different ways,” points out Callinectes Training’s founder Chris Mattia. 

Like an au courant FAQ, I could develop a short video explaining and showing examples of the passive voice, a challenge that exists across courses. 

And, while we college instructors might think of ourselves as constantly teaching to the top of human intelligence, not everything needs our full focus.  

“Some content you don’t need a long period of time with,” Woods observes. 

It’s worth considering if certain topics could be transferred from the class session to a pre-recorded podcast. This thinking is like the notion of a flipped classroom, which requires self-directed learning. If independent study is unlikely for your group, a micro-learning lesson might provide a brief overview to pique the interest of learners or it may serve as a post-session review.  

All That Glitters…

I also checked in with a pair of students about micro-learning. These women are no ordinary scholars, having been awarded a prestigious fellowship in their male-dominated field. The dedicated twosome wanted to try learning Arabic during a school holiday. We discussed learning via app or learning management system. Even this self-motivated pair,  is more attracted to a relationship with an instructor in the classroom rather than fending for themselves with online learning and apps.   

One oft-mentioned advantage is that micro-learning material can be accessed on the phone, making it especially attractive to college students and other on-the-go learners. But when spying on commuters and gym goers I noticed that most folks are like me, playing games, or scrolling headlines. Micro-learning champions respond that some course content can be gamified or turned into activities to promote engagement. But games would have to be mighty fun to replace my sudoku or Netflix.

Further, it seemed at first blush like language apps are a convenient way to review rusty Spanish. But learning something completely new like Mandarin, with its unfamiliar characters and sounds, is a tall order.  

What Works For You?

Yet one cannot deny micro-learning’s advantages if you can provide well-designed content that solves students’ problems when they need it. The point then is to find something that works for you and your students

“An instructor doesn’t have to rebuild their entire course. Start small. Start with what you’re capable of,” advises Mattia. He also suggests putting students in charge of developing micro-learning as part of the coursework. Motivated instructors can get an overview from his Creating and Deploying Micro-learning class.  

I’m intrigued but wary. So I’ll continue to explore the landscape of existing options to curate rather than create, as Woods suggests. As for my personal learning challenge, I guess I’ll have to break down and ask someone to show me how to use the stair-climbing machine. Things could be worse. 

Are you experimenting with micro-learning in your classroom? Let us know your experiences in the comments below.

About the Author

Adjunct Instructor, New York University & Fulbright Specialist //

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