Dear Reader, welcome to RapL’s consideration of microlearning. Like the evergreen story of blind men and the elephant, microlearning is also interpreted in numerous ways.
What is microlearning

Before we bind various pieces of the microlearning puzzle together, we should look at some ways in which microlearning influences social well-being and corporate excellence.

Case #1

Controlling cost overruns in Norwegian public construction projects using microlearning (source)

Public construction organizations are heavily dependent on continuous exchange of applied knowledge and learning. This helps them achieve multiple business objectives. 

Projects are their operational backbone. Each successfully completed project is a book of learning. 

In this case study, Norwegi, a public construction company responsible for construction spending of 7.2 billion NOK, wanted to focus on reducing costs. They had already identified the root cause from previous projects. Now it was time to plug the gap.

Multiple microlearning exercises were compiled for various tracks. Like, “cost efficiency”, “technology and digitization”, “cost estimation and cost control”, “standardization” etc. 

Based on this analytical experience, the researcher developed a series of microlearning lessons. Seven lessons were created, each focusing on one aspect of the topic. Poignant and clear language, as well as good illustrations or images, were important. Some lessons also contained a short video clip (30–60 seconds). 

In December 2008 we started a project to identify the strategies that companies deploy during economic downturns and to evaluate their effectiveness. We studied corporate performance during the three recessionary periods prior to the current one: 1980 to 1982, 1990 to 1991, and 2000 to 2002.

We collected financial data on all the companies listed in Standard & Poor’s Compustat database, analyzing 4,700 companies across the three recessions. Using data for the three years prior to each recession, the three years after it, and the recession itself, we analyzed strategy shifts during the recession years and developed hypotheses about how they had affected companies’ postrecession performance.

To identify strategy shifts, we calculated how companies’ resource allocations had changed between the prerecession and the recession years, using six balance-sheet items: number of employees; cost of goods sold normalized by sales; R&D expenditures; sales, general, and administrative expenditures; capital expenditures; and plant, property, and equipment stock.

Only major allocation changes affect a company’s performance, so we isolated those in two steps: first, we calculated changes from before to during each recession and adjusted them for the industry average; second, we calculated the percentile scores of those changes and assumed that only those in the top or bottom 33 percentile were significant increases or decreases.

We identified four groups on the basis of specific combinations of changes in resource allocation:

Prevention-focused companies, which had cut back further, relative to their competitors, on one or more of the six items, and hadn’t increased expenditures on any of them more than their competitors had.

Promotion-focused companies, which had increased expenditure on at least one of the six and also not decreased expenditure on any of them by more than their rivals had.

Pragmatic companies, which had adopted both a prevention focus, by reducing COGS or employees more than their peers had, and a promotion focus, by increasing SG&A, R&D, CAPX, or PP&E more than their peers had.

Progressive companies, which had reduced COGS but hadn’t cut employees more than their peers and had also allocated more resources, relative to their competitors, to market-related items such as SG&A and R&D and to asset-related items such as CAPX and PP&E.

We then calculated the three-year compound annual growth rates for net sales and earnings (EBITDA as a percentage of sales), adjusted for industry averages, to understand the top- and bottom-line performance generated by these strategies. Using growth rates allowed us to compare the performance of big and small companies; by adjusting for industry averages, we could compare performance across industries even if the recession had affected them differently.

We concluded that companies with both sales growth and profits growth 10% higher than those of competitors after a recession had achieved breakaway performance. (Our findings are valid, however, for a broad range of definitions of breakaway performance: growth rates from 5% to 20% better than the industry average.)

Finally, we calculated the probability that companies in each of the four groups would achieve breakaway performance by dividing the number of winning companies that had used a certain strategy by the total number of companies using that strategy.

Video and sound enhanced the user experience, along with subtitles.

The threshold for starting a lesson was kept as low as possible. The lessons can be accessed directly via the link from the invitation email. When the participants had completed a lesson, a page showed. The page indicated if there were any lessons they had not completed.

The reaction of the microlearning series was good. 50% of the participants completed the entire series, with 75% participation in the first lesson. At the end of the course, 91% of the participants evaluated the microlearning course as relevant for them.

Following are some hot takes on the definition of microlearning, espoused by researchers and academics:

Carla Togerson, Head of Learning Experience Strategy at the award-winning L & D consulting firm Torrancelearning, explains:

“Microlearning is learning content that can be consumed in less than 300 seconds.”

Theo Hug, a renowned author and authority on all things microlearning, has this to say: “Microlearning is an expression of a specific perspective. Unlike meso and macro aspects, it is directed towards relatively small and time-restricted learning units and activities.”

At RapL, we align ourselves with the definition proposed by Karl Kapp. In his groundbreaking research on the subject, microlearning is defined as:

“Microlearning is an instructional unit that provides a short engagement in an activity intentionally designed to elicit a specific outcome from the participant”
Microlearning - The Three Components

Here is a quick overview of the three key components of this definition. They are: “instructional unit,” “short engagement” and “specific results.

Instruction Unit – A learning unit packed with an instruction-led construct. These instructions are self-sufficient in texture. When you add or subtract an idea from this instruction, its usefulness fades. 

Short Engagement – Most microlearning exercises are designed to be completed within minutes of start. The average is 2 to 10 minutes.

Specific results – Each microlearning exercise is an attempt to build a micro-skill or behavior towards a very specific result. For example, the following microlearning map is meant to influence the accuracy and speed at which a Civil Engineer ‘can inspect a bridge to ensure it meets three critical seismic design criteria’. 

Sample Microlearning Card

Microlearning maps in action. Notice how this microlearning exercise is specific in its approach to inspection of seismic criterias. Also notice how this map is influencing a larger KPI Group of ‘Quality Assurance’. Source

Case #2

Controlling cost overruns in Norwegian public construction projects using microlearning (source)

Microlearning Principles

Like all forms of learning, microlearning also derives its roots in the following fundamental questions:

Which learning domain am I trying to influence?