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Five Steps to Seeing the Big Picture of Microlearning

By Linda Rening, PhD, Senior Instructional Designer

linda(250).pngIt doesn’t matter what assessment I do, because a common theme always emerges. On the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) personality inventory, I scored very highly in “N” (Intuition), which means that I see the big picture first and then the details. (That may seem like a good thing until I’m so busy walking through the forest that I don’t see the tree right in front of me.)

Similarly, on StrengthsFinder 2.0®, my number one strength is “Strategic,” which means I can pull together seemingly disparate pieces of information into a cohesive whole.

As I thought more deeply about those two things (perhaps pulling disparate pieces of information into a whole?), I realized that they are essential characteristics for Instructional Designers. I’m sure many of you reading this blog would score similarly on the assessments should you be moved to take them. Either naturally or because we’ve been trained to do it, Instructional Design always starts at the 40,000-foot level. We look at the entire landscape, and then begin to focus on the details within it.

That kind of big-picture thinking is probably what is needed for two of the hottest techniques out there right now: microlearning and serious learning games. Think about microlearning. Without a big picture plan, what is coming to be called “content curation,” we will simply have a hodge-podge of learning objects with no rhyme or reason as to how and when they are put to use. Learners need some guidance to finding the correct microlearning events when they need them, or else “just-in-time” quickly becomes “just-too-late.”

So where do we start? I think we should go up 40,000 feet and take a look at the big picture. Chances are that existing training materials, job aids, resources, and subject-matter experts for almost any topic already exist within your organization. So, how do you go about making sense of all of it? Here are some suggestions based on the work we’ve done with different organizations.

1. Start with behavioral objectives.

What do you want learners to be able to do?  Note that the focus here is on DO—not know, not understandDO. Identify the observable behaviors by writing learning objectives that start with strong verbs to describe the actions you want learners to be able to perform. Ask yourself:

  1. What does the behavior look like?

  2. What does it look like if someone is doing the behavior the right way?

  3. What does it look like if someone is doing it wrong?

  4. If two people were doing the same task, one correctly and one incorrectly, what is the difference in their behavior?

If you need examples of good verbs, just pull out good ol’ Bloom’s Taxonomy for help. Bloom’s Taxonomy has lots of descriptive verbs that will help you describe behaviors accurately.

2. If possible, review evaluation data.

What levels of performance are you seeing now? What are the most important gaps in desired performance?

3. Survey your content and resources related to each of your objectives.

This is important so you know what you have to work with. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel if you’ve already got a warehouse full of tires.

4. Now, apply time and methodology:

a. What knowledge or skills need to be taught with immersive interactive elearning?

b. Do managers need to be taught certain behaviors to reinforce with coaching and recognition

c. What job aids or resources exist to support learners in exhibiting new behaviors? For example, if you’re training salespeople for a new product launch, they don’t need to practice reciting all the specs for the new product. Put these specs into a job aid instead. Salespeople do need to practice listening to a customer and describing how the new product will meet the needs of that individual customer. You now have the opportunity for two microlearning events: an immersive interaction with customers and a job aid with product specs. Even better, that interaction feels like a game!

d. Now, grab your calendar and think about what Art Kohn calls boosters. Plan to send out an email with a little animation or other reminder of basic concepts related to the topic in two days, two weeks, and two months. Boosters don’t have to be long. In Kohn’s research, boosters lasting 5 seconds, 30 seconds, and 5 minutes all have the same results. Remember: this is microlearning, not pedantic-learning.

e. Plot training events on a calendar:

  • eLearning game launches first

  • Booster goes out

  • PDF of job aid goes out with link to accessing it later when it is needed

  • Virtual 10-minute Instructor-led Training event to answer questions and provide real-time support

  • eLearning activity to reinforce crucial skills

You get the idea. Every few days, make sure there are reminders and opportunities to practice and improve skills.

5. Organize, Label & Make Available! 

Make sure everything is available, organized, and clearly labeled in your LMS so that it is available to learners on-demand and just-in-time. And now, voila!, you have done content curation.

And, as a postscript, if possible, do follow-up evaluation on the same data you started with to quantify the impact on behavior and performance that all of your hard work has had. (You’re right: evaluation should not be the P.S. of an initiative, but that’s a rant for a different day.)

To do microlearning effectively, we have to start with the big picture. We must go high enough in our analysis and planning to see the entire landscape of what’s possible. We have to apply the concept of spacing learning activities and opportunities over time to boost retention and application of new knowledge and skills. It is only by looking at the forest that we will be able to make sense of the patterns and possibilities of each of the individual trees.

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