Developed in the corporate training sector, microlearning is drawing attention from higher education as an alternative to traditional courses. As the name suggests, microlearning involves short lessons on a relatively narrow topic, while traditional courses cover a range of topics within a general subject.
Learning in the world
But at a deeper level, microlearning is about taking education outside of the classroom, be it a physical classroom or learning management system (LMS). Instead of requiring students to show up at a particular room three times per week or check into an LMS with a completely self-contained class, microlessons are delivered via a variety of technologies. This allows instructors or companies to choose the technology most appropriate to the learning objectives rather than being limited by a physical space or particular LMS.
Additionally, microlearning lessons are generally designed to be done “out in the world” within the learner’s everyday life. Corporate trainers learned that it was efficient to push training out to employees in individual digital lessons that they could take when convenient between work activities, such as over lunch. This means that microlessons are often designed for mobile learning, unlike the traditional online classroom, which is designed for students to enter the LMS on their desktop or laptop, with a mobile app version added as an afterthought.
One advantage of freeing learning from the classroom or the LMS is that the lessons can be incorporated into the learner’s physical space. For instance, an institution might want to create a microlearning lesson to orient all incoming students to campus. The lesson would be designed for mobile learning via a smartphone or tablet and require students to take pictures of different locations on campus (e.g., the box office inside the student union) to learn their way around.
Another advantage of microlearning is that it allows for more interactivity and chunking of content than is possible in a physical classroom or LMS. The traditional face-to-face course divides learning into long segments, starting with the 50–75-minute lecture, continuing with a couple of hours of solitary reading as homework, and concluding with an assessment. Most online classes in higher education reproduce this format. They are divided into weeks, with students spending a few hours going through educational content as readings or videos and then engaging with the material through discussions and assignments. In both cases, lessons and assessments are split into separate, long blocks.
But this traditional method does not allow for engagement with content during the learning stage, which long-term retention requires. To build the neural connections that constitute learning, instructors need to chunk content and intersperse it with activities that force the student to think actively about the material. This is the process of moving information from working to long-term memory, and long blocks of content—whether as lectures or online videos and readings—do not support that.
Another use of microlearning is to supplement the learning done within courses. Most academic departments have certain core understandings that they deem necessary for all majors, and they put them into introductory classes. But this approach uses only the final grade to ensure that students get these understandings, and students might pass the course by doing well on some parts, but not others, and so they do not leave with the level of understanding the department desires. What can a department do about this once a course is over? An academic department might create microlessons on these topics that students take after their introductory classes to ensure that they have all the knowledge that they need. Plus, students will soon forget what they learned a year or two ago, and so departments can have students repeat the modules over the course of their years in school to reinforce the learning through spaced repetition. Finally, instructors can create microlessons as companions to face-to-face or online courses that make use of technologies not available within the course. Again, they can use the mobile aspect of microlearning to allow for place-based lessons that require students to answer questions and take photos or videos on their smartphones that apply their learning to examples in the architecture, engineering, history, or other aspects of their environment.
Google Forms for teaching
By moving beyond the classroom and LMS, microlearning can make use of systems that are fundamentally designed to facilitate chunking and interactions within the learning content. Articulate Storyline and Rise are two such systems that are designed to modularize lessons into short segments with interactions. Similarly, EdPuzzle allows instructors to add interactions to videos that periodically pause the video to require students to do something that engages with the content in order to move on.
Here I want to discuss the frequently overlooked Google Forms. People may be familiar with Google Forms for gathering information for surveys or registering for events, but they are also an excellent, free method for creating microlessons. They do not require the institution to create student accounts, and students do not need to go through different steps to log in. The instructor can merely create a form and share the link with students to access it (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Sample microlesson in Google Forms
Also, it is easy for an instructor to create a microlesson themselves rather than having to send content to an instructional design queue to have it loaded into an LMS. This allows them to be created at any time while a class is running, rather than well ahead of time, as is usually required for LMS class material.
Plus, the format of Google Forms lends itself to modalized content interspersed with engagement activities. Instead of having preestablished areas for different types of content, such as readings, videos, discussions, and assignments—as is the case with an LMS—a Google Form is built by adding one piece of content at a time, in order. A short video can go in first, followed by one or more questions, followed by another video, and so on. This way, the student goes on a learning journey that the instructor, not the LMS, determines.
Finally, an instructor only needs to worry about loading content into the Form. Google Forms automatically creates a spreadsheet to record activity and results, along with a report that the instructor can analyze. The activity can be open as long as the instructor wants, not time-bound to a class schedule. A department using Forms for microlessons for all students can leave it open for years without worry of having to work around the fall, spring, and summer class and registration schedule that an LMS course is locked into.
Take a look at this tutorial on how to build a microlesson in Google Forms.