eLearning Design and Development

The Ropes of Microlearning – Pros and Cons

While microlearning has its benefits, like all good things, there are a few drawbacks, and understanding the pros and cons can help you decide if microlearning is right for your organization.

Whether you’re excited to implement a few mini-lessons in your own workplace, or you’re wondering where you went wrong in a lackluster campaign, you should understand that there’s a time and a place for breaking information into smaller bites. Stick to the fundamentals. Remember the disadvantages as you plan a program to decide when and where smaller lessons should be used.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

What began as digital learning using standalone or offline computers in the 1990s – popularly known as Computer Based Training (CBT) – gradually morphed into eLearning. Back then, the term referred to formal internet-driven, macro learning, where people often turned to enroll for degrees and other long-form academic and professional training. 

eLearning offered the convenience of getting certified, attending full-length degree programs, and earning technical and business certifications online while studying part-time for a few months.

Learners and trainers, however, were looking for ways to expedite such training, and, by 2005, educational technologist Elliot Masie was talking about “nano learning”  The focus of Massie’s thoughts was that learning shouldn’t be something that happened at prescribed times, and only when people have the time to take a course or attend an eLearning program. Instead, Massie described his vision of nano learning thus:

“I am a nano-learner. What does that mean? Each day, I learn several things in small chunks. Really small chunks. A 90-second conversation with an expert triggers a huge “a-ha.” A few moments concentrating on learning how something works leads to a new micro-skill. What’s more, I am not that unusual. Most people acquire most of their knowledge in smaller pieces”

Sounds familiar? Yep…nano-learning is the precursor of today’s microlearning!

According to educator, author, and HR specialist Josh Bersin, the word micro-learning was coined sometime around 2009. Until then, learners were confined to traditional long-form learning experiences offered by corporate learning management systems (LMS).

The evolution of this type of (short-form) learning was necessary to deliver a more contemporary learning experience. And, it did that by integrating, organizing, managing, and curating a broader range of learning content, including articles, videos, podcasts, and a slew of new-age digital content. Today, that micro-learning paradigm has evolved into a full-blown learning intervention known as Micro-Learning.

Macro-Learning vs. Micro-Learning: Compared and Contrasted

When building “traditional learning” programs, L&D teams look at the “big picture” stuff, and that’s what Macro learning is all about. It leverages longer-duration content, albeit, in segmented servings, that covers a broad range of topics. Each “serving” (or module, lesson, segment) is part of more detailed learning, that learners typically consume in sequence and in accordance with a prescribed learning curriculum. Macro learning is what most of us know as “training”, and requires a bigger investment in time and effort.

Macro Learning is ideal for:

  • to learn something new, or to learn something for the very first time
  • if you have several hours (or even days) to learn it
  • if your preferred method of learning is the classroom, in-depth online courses, or formal educational programs
  • when the ‘human connection’ is important, especially in-person
  • where you are looking for authoritative and expert-level content
  • for those that require extensive coaching and learning support

In contrast, Microlearning involves creating powerful, insightful, and impactful learning in short bursts.

Contrary to the long-form lessons that macro programs deliver, Microlearning relies on shorter-duration, bite-sized, learning content, that’s specifically designed to deliver maximum learning value in the shortest time possible.   

Microlearning is ideal for:

  • when you need immediate help with a learning challenge
  • if all you need is a quick refresher or a short primer on a topic or workplace problem
  • you have less than a few minutes (under 10 to 12-minutes) to understand new concepts
  • have a learning need focused around a single concept (e.g., formatting bullet points in a Microsoft Word document, as opposed to understanding how to use Word)
  • are willing to learn from multiple media, such as text, blogs, videos, gaming content, and short modules – as opposed to extensive PowerPoint slides or 20-page PDFs
  • prefer to search for, and consume learning content randomly per your specific need, as opposed to serially, as part of a lengthier learning intervention
  • for those looking for pressing, relevant, useful, and accurate content, and not necessarily expert-level learning resources

Because of its versatility, and the diversity of media that it supports, microlearning can be (and often is!) interweaved into longer-duration Macro learning courses and programs.

Typically, Macro course creators may offer micro-content as optional, supplemental learning resources. Its greater effectiveness, however, lies as a stand-alone learning modality.

When L&D teams must design for learning at the point of need; just in time learning; learning on the go; revision and refresher learning, and learning as a performance support tool, then microlearning is the learning intervention of choice.  

Pros and Cons of Microlearning

As alluded to earlier, in the introduction to this post, like many other learning modalities, microlearning too has both good and not-so-good attributes associated with it.


  1. 1

    Accessible: By pushing your lessons out using social networking, email, and online videos, you’re using tools that learners already have readily available. Without the need for special software, your microlearning lessons are easy to access, read and share.

  2. 2

    Timely: Not only are smaller lessons perfect for the time-crunched, but they’re easy to update and push out to learners anytime, anywhere. That means access to timely info and the ability to update and change information as you go.

  3. 3

    Autonomous: Hate having a higher-up looking over your shoulder? Chances are, your learners feel the same. Microlearning puts them in the driver’s seat and allows them to lead their own education, which may be a major motivator for some independent learners.


  1. 1

    Low Commitment Because smaller, quick lessons require less dedication when compared to a longer, classroom-based training session, some learners may have a low commitment to the method. Some may start lessons and never get around to finishing. By tapping into user motivation and creating personalized engaging material, you can keep them glued.

  2. 2

    Informal Learning If you’re teaching the fundamentals, microlearning makes sense as a way to brush up. But if you’re teaching new and abstract concepts, you may need more time and a more formal setting to hit your points home. Reserve mini-lessons as reminders and light bulb moments – not brand-new or certifying material.

To decide if it’s the right learning approach for your company, and to make microlearning work for your organization, it’s important to have a clear understanding of its pros and cons. For instance, while autonomous is a “pro” for most eLearners, certain types of eLearning might not lend themselves well to that attribute.

A case in point: If your organization has a tight deadline to certify its employees, or if regulators mandate compliance training within a specified timeframe, anonymity and autonomy might not work well for the organization. You’ll probably want tighter control and oversight of the training process, making wholly self-directed microlearning unsuitable for the occasion.

Still, as part of a blended, well-knit training strategy, micro-content can serve to strengthen and reinforce formal training, such as certification and compliance training.

Doing it Right: Creating Impactful Microlearning

Because it has the word “micro” embedded in it, when moving their Macro learning into the micro domain, many learning organizations and L&D teams over-emphasize that aspect in their training strategies. That’s a huge mistake.

Simply taking lengthy, macro content, and “chunking” it up into smaller-sized learning content isn’t going to create impactful microlearning. If anything, that approach may, in fact, create more confusion and disengagement among your learning audience.

“Doing it right” requires going back to the drawing board, and rethinking your training strategy, so that micro-learning modalities fit into your overall training plans. With the right strategy, and by stripping away a lot of the “noise” inherent in lengthier content, you’ll dramatically reduce training time, and produce micro content that delivers greater learning retention and higher knowledge transference.

So, does that mean you’ll discard all your investment in macro content, that you’ve made over the years? Does “going back to the drawing board” mean starting from scratch? Not at all!

If you have significant legacy macro-learning resources, reach out to our team to discuss how we can help you create impactful microlearning. With some redesign, rearrangement, and adaptation, we’ll help you reach your training objectives quicker through a targeted microlearning strategy.