To make microlearning successful in your organization you must first understand what it can and can’t do. Learning Strategist, Consultant and Author Dr. Robyn DeFelice explains how to think about microlearning as part of your overall training goals and not just a way to deliver training.
In this interview, Robyn DeFelice stresses how and when to successfully use microlearning and makes these key points.
Read more about microlearning in these resources from our guest, Dr. Robyn DeFelice.
The Push-Pull of Leading Motivation Using Microlearning
Register for the Learning Guild Microlearning Conference to Watch Robyn's Presentation - Make Performance-Driven Microlearning Work for Your Organization on February 6 and 7
Connect with Robyn on LinkedIn
Powered by Learning earned an Award of Distinction in the Podcast/Audio category from The Communicator Awards and a Silver Davey Award for Educational Podcast. The podcast is also named to Feedspot's Top 40 L&D podcasts and Training Industry’s Ultimate L&D Podcast Guide.
Learn more about d'Vinci at www.dvinci.com.
Susan: [00:00] Microlearning. It's a term everyone in the L&D industry talks about, but do you know what it can do and what it can't, and how to avoid common mistakes?
Dr. Robyn Defelice: I'm going to create a one-time intervention for one-time use. You're going to just do something inside an LMS to prove to me that you've either completed it or you've completed it successfully at a certain rate. That is where the trouble begins because now we have to talk about the culture of the organization. If the organization even is ready for microlearning because you might have to come back, not just to the L&D department, it really does take the stakeholders.
Susan: That's our guest, Dr. Robyn Defelice, who will share a guide to understanding microlearning so you can make it work for learners in your organization. Powered by Learning is next.
Announcer: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. d'Vinci's Approach to learning [01:00] is grounded in 30 years of innovation and expertise. We use proven strategies and leading technology to develop solutions that empower learners to improve quality and boost performance. Learn more at dvinci.com.
Susan: Robyn, start out by telling us a little bit about your background.
Dr. Defelice: Well, I've been in the field of learning and development for 22 years. I started out just like most of us do, working in the trenches, and I've built my way up as a contractor and a consultant. Working across the stratification of industries, anywhere from government, higher Ed, pharmaceutical, finances, you name it and I've pretty much had my finger in there as an experience.
I've just been working my way through challenges because that's what I think a lot of us do in the field. We get so bored by what we're doing. We love it, but it's not the thing that's going to bite at us. My background is really just taking [02:00] me through a fantastic journey of learning about the challenges and problems that our field has to hold. Now I sit here as a consultant and an author today just really enjoying where our industry is taking us.
Susan: Well, there are lots of challenges, and today we're going to talk a little bit about microlearning and picking your brain to help set everyone up for success.
Dr. Defelice: Fantastic. Let's go.
Angeline: Thank you so much for joining us, Robyn. I'm really excited to talk about microlearning because I feel like every person I talk to has a different definition and it seems pretty self-explanatory, microlearning, it must just be bite-sized. I'm hoping you can really break it down for us and so let's just start from the beginning. How would you define microlearning?
Dr. Defelice: Well, I will define it two ways, first, I think my co-author Dr. Karl Kapp and I, in our book, Microlearning: Short and Sweet, I think we did a great job in providing what I would call the technical depiction of what microlearning is as a product. That definition is about microlearning [03:00] being an instructional unit, a short engagement in an activity. It's intentionally designed to elicit a specific outcome. Now, since we've penned that book, I've been spending my time and collaborating and speaking with others, it's morphed for me.
To me, personally, now sitting here being asked that question, I think microlearning, I would use it as more of a generic term. It's used to not only discuss the product that I just described to you, but it also defines what a concept is. Microlearning can be a concept, and it can also be a method related to what I consider to be performance-based needs. That's more of my definition now than what we had in the book. I still think the one in the book is totally valid, but I think we need to broaden out how microlearning is defined because I think everybody is using it in different ways. I like to contextualize it like that.
Angeline: That's really interesting. I've talked to so many people that feel microlearning, it's down to the amount of [04:00] time it takes to learn, and it's so much more than that and I love how you stated it's based on the learner's outcome. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and how it can maybe build into or in be integrated into a larger learning initiative to help organizations get where they want to go?
Dr. Defelice: Sure. Because it definitely can do that. If we go back to those two pieces of the definition I just shared that weren't part of the technical piece. If you think about it as a concept, it goes beyond knowing. With microlearning, you're not about just knowing things, you're about showing things. If we're looking at organizational skill pieces, then we're looking at that concept of how can you show me that you have these skills? How can you show me that you're embracing this attitude or behavior, and that's the way you're performing?
Then we have to think about, as we walk that down, how we're fitting this into an organization. Then we think about the other thing. I said, it's a method and so as a method, [05:00] we can fit it into two things for refining skills, augmenting skills, developing skills, but we do this over repetition and time so that's where the method comes in. That's a little different than what we're used to, which is a one-time intervention. You do something in the LMS, it shows that you know something, but it doesn't actually show that you are successful in what you know.
There's a little more performance going on here. That repetition over time is really critical because that's a different way of going about integrating things into an organizational learning infrastructure and that relies on space learning. Space learning is where you're introduced to a topic in a certain period of time. Then there's a break from it, and then you're reintroduced to it again. You keep doing that with the spaced interval becoming broader and wider so that eventually you're ingraining all this into your long-term memory. Hopefully, over that repetition of time you start to build a [06:00] behavior or a habit or an attitude or a mindset, that type of thing.
Angeline: Looking at it as not just being that instance in a learning management system where you take a module or a course or whatever it may be, there's different measures, I'm assuming, to track its success so that the learner can repeat the behavior. How do you know if it's successful?
Dr. Defelice: Well, and I think that's a different challenge. We can't just multiple choice, true-false scale development. I didn't pass the test to be a successful leader. I had to demonstrate things to be a successful leader. That's where I like to use examples about being a leader, actually, because we can get into some of these, and it makes sense about why microlearning might be an asset to you. When we're thinking about success, we're thinking, what's that outcome? What does a leader in our organization need to display?
Is it that they can be a good listener, they can be unbiased, they can be neutral, they can keep a level head about themselves [07:00] with emotions and things like that? They know how to build consensus. They can hold people accountable for whatever we've built consensus around. These are all skills that a leader would have and so what does success look like? How are we seeing that demonstrated? Mainly through observation so we're looking at evaluative tools that gather that observation.
For some people, that's a checklist, but a lot of times we're now looking at what's called rubrics. If everybody is not familiar with the use of rubric, you're really just measuring based on criteria. Here in this example of leadership, we would be looking at proficiency of doing it. Do they do it without pause? Did they do it without coaching? Did they display a certain, I don't know, model for resolving conflict? Maybe the organization embraces a specific way of doing things and have you observed this? Was it something that they did as almost if it was natural, like getting up and brushing your teeth every morning, or is it something [08:00] that they're struggling still with?
You would measure that on a scale, and that would be the proficiency of that individual at that time of observation. As you start to see that success increase, you'll see that proficiency go up so your data is still there. Folks might think it's qualitative, but when you design a really good rubric, it can have qualitative information that can get scored a certain way. If you're doing okay, maybe that's a three, but if you're doing awesome, maybe that's a five.
If you have a goal of everybody that goes through a leadership program, they're at least scoring let's say a four or higher to pass out, then you know the outcomes are being met. You now have successful data showing demonstration of a skill. See, that's the power of this and now I got really excited first, I'm sorry. It's like because you're proving, you don't have to worry about walking away and saying, well, they passed the test. Now can they do it for a fact that they could do it?
You just sat in a meeting and watched them [09:00] do all of these things, hold composure, make sure that they engaged the room, that they heard all the perspectives. They didn't judge anybody for it. They build agreement. They put people into responsible roles to move forward that agreement. You observe all that, you know that the training, which would hopefully be something in the microlearning realm has done what it should do and all that rubric is doing is just checking off that they've done it to that level of proficiency you expect.
If not, it's helping you coach or mentor or guide them back maybe to microlearning materials or some other resource to help them get to the proficiency level you're looking at.
Susan: There's a strategy involved with everything that you just said. I think as we travel around to conferences and talk to people in the industry, and certainly clients, I think oftentimes people think of microlearning as just that short-form piece of learning in response to everybody's decreasing attention span but what you're saying is to really make it work, you've got to make it part of your overall program and really think [10:00] about how to measure it.
Dr. Defelice: Absolutely. It's definitely not a replacement for all other learning, actually, in my opinion, I think it works better as a compliment to other learning products in your learning ecosystem. If everybody's thinking, oh, we just got this LMS and we're doing all these e-learning pieces and this and that we have to get rid of it. No, I think it's a compliment to it. I wouldn't say that one would create an entire curriculum focused on specific performance skills and behaviors using microlearning because there becomes a point where subject matter, it becomes so complex you have to do something bigger.
You can't turn a firefighter training into microlearning and expect a firefighter to save people's lives. How about that? Let's just make a polarizing contrast there for people about what it can't do. Karl does a great one about Solly Sullenberger landing the plane on the Hudson. He couldn't have had all those hours in a plane or even in a simulator. Microlearning cannot replace [11:00] those complexities. The thing to think about is, is there are certain performance skills that are what I would call building blocks or maybe micro skills to macro skills.
We talked about conflict. I think I might have said conflict resolution or negotiation. I would consider those in some sense macro skills because there's micro fundamental skills sitting underneath it like building consensus, active listening, not having bias, those types of things. All those little skills help you create and be able to do conflict resolution or negotiate. If I just sat and created a training just on negotiation or conflict resolution, I wouldn't be helping you understand those nuanced skills that combine together to create that one larger skill.
That's where I think where microlearning starts to have that edge of maybe this isn't the right fit anymore when you're getting into that higher level of complexity of your skill development, where you need, like, again, a firefighter, they've got to run into the burning building. [12:00] They've got to do things that microlearning cannot do for them.
Susan: Either for Robyn or for Angeline because I know, Angeline, you do this with our clients as well. How do you help organizations map out how to integrate microlearning into their learning ecosystem so they know when it's going to be effective and when it's not?
Dr. Defelice: It really starts with conversation for me, when I'm working with a client and trying to understand either because it's either one of two things and typically I'm coming in after they've tried it and they don't like it, or they've tried it and they feel they failed. I'm just untangling that. We try to work backwards from that. I always start with what was the purpose and potential? What was the purpose of even introducing microlearning? What were you hoping to get out of it?
Of course a lot of people do say performance, but then they set it up like everything else that they've done in their ecosystem which is I'm going to create a one-time intervention for one-time use. You're going to just do something inside an LMS to prove to me that you've either completed it or you've completed it successfully at a certain rate. [13:00] That is where the trouble begins because now we have to talk about the culture of the organization. If the organization even is ready for microlearning. Because you might have to come back not just to the L&D department, it really does take the stakeholders.
A great example of this becomes things like a very common topic right now where you have a high turnover, everybody's talking about high turnover. All of a sudden a department will come to the L&D arm and say, "We need new onboarding training. That's the reason why we're having trouble keeping new hires." All of a sudden L&D is being handed the responsibility of somehow making this different for these new hires but the new hires still need to perform.
There's all these questions that need to be asked of these other departments and that's why I was talking about culture and the cultural understanding of microlearning across key stakeholders. Because at the end of the day, we might find out that that high turnover is because they're not a good [14:00] cultural fit to the organization or the department. It could be a skill thing. They've exhausted everybody they've been trying to hire. Now they're watering down the skill set to bring them in. The training is above the head of the person coming in.
There's all these other factors that rely on HR, that rely on the department asking you for the hiring maybe even the marketing department, that type of thing where microlearning isn't going to solve anything. When somebody says how do you help them map out success? I'm usually helping them remap the way they're thinking about what success looks like and understanding you just can't come to this department and say make magic happen.
If you do it a certain way, especially make it into microlearning, why can't our onboarding just be microlearning? The new hires will love that so much. Back to your point, Susan, about attention span. It'll just make it easier and they'll stay longer. That's not true because we don't even know in the first place basic fundamental instructional design skills 101. [15:00] Do the needs analysis. What's the true problem? What's that real problem? I like to start off the conversation which gets me back to why I said I start my conversations with what was your purpose and what do you see as its potential.
Because most times the organization is not unified on what that is or looks like. Then they don't realize that maybe their own organization's culture for training isn't ready to receive in a new style or approach of training that might shake up the way even your end-user, a new hire, or a seasoned employee engages with training. It could be a total shock to system. Those are some of the reasons we see problems and that's when I go to do mapping and work backwards for success. That's why I start where I start. I would love to hear what else gets done because I want to hear people that go from a fresh start with none of that failure in their minds.
Angeline: Sure. Yes. We have a pretty similar experience. Like you said, it really comes down to [16:00] the client's learning ecosystem and so we really try to get to the root of what the true outcome is. I think often we hear folks come to us and they know what content they want to get out there, but they're not always sure why, sometimes they are but you know what I mean? What's the actual goal? What do you want someone to learn? Do you want them to just understand something? Do you want them to do something? Is it compliance?
We really do try to get to the root cause of that and really identify what we need to know about the learner to make the experience the most valuable for them. It transitions to my next question because I'm curious, we talked about what microlearning is, but what it can look like. When we look at the learner there's all different formats that might resonate with them for that particular topic. I think I might have heard this in your webinar the example of maybe a video from leadership and that's going to resonate with them emotionally when it comes to company culture. That's one format that would be really meaningful to that learner.
I'm curious if you could tell us a little bit more about other formats of microlearning [17:00] or microlearning products. I think you've called them and what they could be. Because I think some people might be wondering what exactly is microlearning. What does it look like tactically speaking?
Dr. Defelice: Sure. That's another one of those maybe microlearning myths that people like to talk about. It could only be an e-learning, it could only be this, it could only be that. It can actually be anything that we already create. That's the cool thing. It could be this podcast, it could be a blog, it could be a series of e-newsletters that go to let's say teachers, sky's the limits.
I'll give you two examples that are non-technology heavy in my mind. One was a poster and one was an infographic. I'll start with the poster because I thought it was brilliant and this is a distilled perfect example of what microlearning can be and its total potential in one moment. It's a conference, it was the first conference back after the pandemic [18:00] and it was material printed and put into the booklets of the attendees.
There was also these poster boards all around and it was a simple image with three arms with three colored bracelets and it told you the way in which a person wanted to be interacted with based on the color of their bracelet. That's changing performance and behavior right in the moment. It's spaced out over time. Because you can refer to it as you need in your pamphlet or look up and see one of those posters. You could even take a photo of it and carry it around. Then you start to see how people engage and interact with everybody. That is a distilled perfect version of microlearning with a poster board and print hands down.
Angeline: I love that example.
Dr. Defelice: It's one event. Sometimes when we talk, and I know when I've been talking today, it might sound like there's some labor here and it can be intense and maybe take time to build to, but just think about that powerful message in one image. That's it. Everybody knew what to do. Now the infographic is a little different and I think it's a good one. [19:00] Teaches us about the combination within our learning ecosystem. Instructor-led training. We have folks learning a new system. They're medical receptionists, they're learning how to greet a person but put them in this correct system a certain way to gather claims information so that the billing can be done appropriately.
There's all these other environmental factors affecting that person's performance while they're doing their job. What they realized after they did the first pass of instructor-led training, classroom training, things like that, they sent out a survey. In that survey, they actually quizzed to see what knowledge was retained. Then they started to look at the data of the quality of submissions for claims. Then they start to see that, boy, we've got issues in the backup of the claims department. Now we're missing out on money to get to getting it out in a timely manner to the insurance companies to settle that claim so now the organization's losing out on money.
What they did was they used that survey to find the people that were struggling the most with it and then [20:00] what they did was they created infographics that walked the workflow and the process that explained only the things that were the biggest challenges, creating the largest problems with the claims being done appropriately. They did two things with that infographic. They allowed them to print it out, put it on their soft walls, which was a great thing to do.
It's right there in front of your face, like that poster board. For the other folks that you're sitting in front of that computer all the time. What they did was they made it so that it was an accessible PDF so that they could have in one window that piece of workflow open that just said-- and it was nice. Is it a yes or a no?" It was nice, like a decision tree infographic. It was very colorful, it was done very nicely in a way that was just simple. It helped them expedite getting that person checked in and feeling confident that they checked them in.
Then over time, this is where that over time and confidence and what success looks like. Over time, they weren't using that infographic anymore. They were intuitively doing it and they knew what to do. Then there were other people that came on as receptionists [21:00] and they were struggling and they would pull back out that infographic for that person to use it because they were new and they repeated the process. Those are two examples I love to share because they stray away from podcast, webinar, e-learning videos.
Those are all great things to use too. If you've got a tight budget and you're a smaller department, there's other options that are just as economical and powerful if you don't have the ability to do some professional video.
Angeline: It sounds like, again, I'm sure some of our listeners might be thinking this to themselves, that they probably have done microlearning and have not even realized it because they were putting it into the box of those items you just listed.
Dr. Defelice: Yes. You're absolutely right. When I do presentations, some people will be like, "I never knew that's what I was doing." I was like, "Well, yes, because you're trying to help performance." Some people will then lead into, well, isn't this just a job aid or a tool? It depends. In this example, it was a microlearning, it was [22:00] an effort designed as a microlearning campaign. There were several infographics in that campaign targeting five key issues. Each one had its time and space and refresh.
There was refreshers on it. Again, it was being brought in and again and again and then another survey comes out. There's again, where some data is coming to play. It got it through a survey where you answered some questions, not only about what you were doing and how your job was going like an attitudes disposition kind of piece. Then they questioned them a little bit about the process and workflows to see is it really sticking. It was. They also saw a significant drop again in those issues that they were having with the financial side of things. Those are other data points that sit outside of the training that are telling you success is happening.
Angeline: It really comes down to the purpose and intent of the learning materials and specifically around performance improvement and behavior changing.
Dr. Defelice: Yes. I was going to say, [23:00] the one thing I like to say is it's just, I know performance development always makes it seem like it's one thing, but if it's performance improvement, development, remediation, augmentation, whatever words you want to use, performance just is in front of it then. We're talking the same.
Angeline: My last question for you. What words of wisdom do you have for listeners that would be looking to get started with microlearning tomorrow? It's the start of a new year, everyone wants to try something new.
Dr. Defelice: Well, I think we can pull out from our conversation today, and I will talk to three groups that I usually talk to anyway when I'm talking about microlearning. If it's a leader here listening to this, I would say pulse your organization. If microlearning's not already part of the fabric of your ecosystem, find out from your L&D team to your peers, like your peers across the departments at your leadership level and higher up.
Find out from them. How do they view the value of microlearning? What's its purpose and potential? Maybe they've never even heard of it. Again because I was describing [24:00] that turnover piece. We need the involvement of other people so we need them to understand what this will be and how it will be used. That purpose and potential. If it's not unified, the first thing for the new year, determine how to unify it as the leader. Get that settled.
That will help you. Once you do that. You will assuredly have champions coming after you. It's nice when you get a champion inside and especially outside of your department so that they can support that unified vision. Those would be the things I'd say start with if you don't have anything. If you're the manager leading the people, audit your team's ability. If that vision has been handed to you, start using that vision to do your audits. What's your team's ability to take on microlearning based on that vision if you have it?
Think about processes, tools, templates, technology, even the talent of your team. Designing for microlearning is not the same as designing for a four-module, seven-lesson curriculum. [25:00] It's different. It really is. You said it best when you were saying about a powerful video evoking an emotion like that takes a different style of writing and information sharing. That's for the managers.
If you're that L&D that peep in the trench, as I say the peeps in the trench if you're there, look at the opportunity, look at those opportunities that are in your current content. You don't have to start from scratch. Try a pilot. See if you can convert something into microlearning. I always love to advocate. Start with the static content your organization has. That means the stuff that doesn't change often, it's not as volatile content. Think of like compliance-based training, onboarding, and I think you mentioned it, the company culture.
Those are all great places you can start with content at hand. Going back to what we just discussed, what's the best format that you think you can handle and manage? That's going to have a conversation then back up the food chain. The manager's going to know what you've got for resource and capability. A leader's going to [26:00] direct and guide that vision. That's what I would advise from three different perspectives to get you going for the new year.
Susan: So helpful, Robyn.
Angeline: I think that is wonderful, Robyn, thank you so much. That is very helpful.
Susan: I think especially too as the peeps in the trenches and the managers, maybe getting that mandate from up above, oh, we need microlearning. At least now after listening to this I feel like people can defend its value and what it is and what it's not. You've given everyone some great tools for their toolbox. Thank you, Robyn.
Dr. Defelice: You're welcome. I appreciate you saying that because now I'm thinking in reverse if the leadership is saying do this, this is allowing the managers in the pees and the trenches to come back and say, but to what point, what potential, what purpose? Thank you for allowing me to share.
Susan: It's definitely much more than a buzzword. Thank you for taking the time to help our audience understand it. Thank you, Angeline.
Angeline, I really loved how Robyn broke down the concept of microlearning so that our listeners [27:00] know how and when they can integrate this approach into their learning strategies.
Angeline: I agree. It was so helpful to hear her insights on microlearning and I really appreciate how she, I guess, I'll say debunked the idea that a lot of folks have about microlearning, that it's just shorter e-learning experiences or those quick video snippets.
I can say at d'Vinci we've done both. We've of course created those short bite-size deliverables to share a message our client needed to get out. We've also supported with laying out that larger strategy and for those training initiatives where you really want to change behavior. Considering how microlearning can be embedded into those experiences, and teaching a single objective like Robyn discussed and building on that over time on the skills that your learners are requiring can be really impactful.
Susan: Yes, agreed. Robyn is very eloquent speaking about this. In fact, she's written a lot about this topic and is a speaker at industry conferences and we'll put some information about all of those things in the show notes of the podcast.
Angeline: Thanks, Susan.
Susan: Well, thanks, Angeline. [28:00] If you have any questions about what we talked about today or have an idea for a topic or guest, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us through our website.