eLearning Design and Development

MOOCs and Microlearning: How They Work Together

Whether you label them buzzwords or trends, both MOOCs and microlearning have changed the way the average person sees education. From corporate learning to college classes, the ability to learn where you want in the time you have is obviously appealing.

But while the “massive” in massive open online courses sounds opposite the idea of microlearning, the two are more alike, and complementary, than you think. Understanding this juxtaposition between the two phenomena will help us understand why they are really two sides of the same coin.

Massive Learning Opportunity

It’s true, that “micro” connotes an opposing impression to “massive” – perhaps even depicting contrasting ideas. However, in the context of MOOCs, L&D professionals see the two as a juxtaposition to each other. To see that association, it’s important to understand what MOOC really means.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) is a phrase first coined in 2008 by academics at the University of Prince Edward Island, and the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education in Canada. It referred to a course that a handful of students paid to attend, in person. But the course was also available for free, to a broader audience in the general public.

Back then, as is the case now, the “massive”, in MOOC, did not actually mean lengthy or comprehensive, to define the depth or breadth of the curriculum. Neither was it intended to highlight the extensiveness or elaboration of the subject matter covered by the lessons offered.

Even though just 25 students attended that first MOOC in person, and a total of only 2,300 free learners signed up for online participation, the “massive” was meant to underscore the depth and extent of a course’s reach to large audiences.

At a very macro-level, then, MOOCs:

  • have massive numbers of learners enrolled in them – for context, some have more than 2.7-million students enrolled online!
  • are open to anyone who wants to learn – no pre-requisite experience, qualifications, or degrees necessary. While most courses are free to learn, some do charge a fee for certificates or credentials
  • are offered completely online – There’s no requirement to attend any in-person sessions whatsoever!
  • deliver learning that stresses all the characteristics of courses that one might access through other eLearning interventions, including in-person or hybrid learning, and lessons delivered via traditional learning management systems (LMS). These include engaging content, networking, ideation, and communication and interaction with the learning environment

Since that first course in 2008, MOOCs have morphed into a learning opportunity of massive proportions. Just three years later, in 2011, over 160,000 learners from around the world registered for a MOOC course on Artificial Intelligence (AI), hosted by two Stanford University professors.  

Both MOOCs and microlearning have also both grown rapidly since they first arrived on the learning scene. It’s estimated that there are now more than 13,500 courses offered, by 900 universities, with a global learner audience of 110 million. That’s truly Massive!

Leading the Charge through Juxtaposition

Microlearning has developed into a great learning strategy that fits nicely into the learning needs of today’s fast-paced world. Millions of learners around the globe are too busy to carve off multiple 8-hour days, back-to-back, in pursuit of their learning objectives. And even if they did take that time off to learn, they want the flexibility to learn the basics quickly, and then pursue additional learning on their own.

So, what type of a learning platform can reach millions of learners, transcend geographic boundaries, and circumvent time zones, to deliver learning in short bursts; with the flexibility and option for the learner to pursue more in-depth studies subsequently?

MOOCs and microlearning combined, offer the juxtapositions of mass-scale learning (as opposed to small-sized classes), learning quickly (as opposed to weeks or month-long sessions), and optional learning resources (as opposed to scripted, extensive, mandated-only curriculums). Without micro-content, however, MOOCs fail to deliver those benefits.

When you think about it, the same companies utilizing MOOCs are also those that have led the charge to smaller, more accessible content. Take TED Talks, for example. With short, instructional, and informative videos, it’s a way to make learning easier and quicker for the perpetually time-crunched. And there lies yet another juxtaposition between “micro” and “massive”, working together to deliver high-quality learning objectives.

Just as, to see the light of the stars illuminate the night, one requires the darkness of the skies, so too, to make MOOCs a success, requires the use of microlearning strategies. In fact, MOOCs regularly make use of microlearning concepts like short videos, sharing via social media, and quizzes.

Shared Practices

While it’s true that MOOCs are traditionally a more formal way to learn when compared to organic microlearning, the two often cross paths using shared practices. From summaries sent before class to virtual flashcards and even short discussions, both MOOCs and microlearning seek to increase learning motivation by streamlining the process. Both methods help increase results by removing complicated materials, strict timelines, and expensive resources.

Without the use of microlearning strategies, MOOCs would likely be no different than traditional online learning platforms, with months required to complete a learning curriculum. By sharing the “micro” of micro-learning content, with the “massive” of the large-scale delivery of MOOC, trainers have not only reduced the length of time to complete a course of learning, but also its cost.

Both, traditional eLearning and MOOC-based courses share common payment models too – a per-seat or per-learner billing. And though both learning technologies share commonalities, costs pose yet another juxtaposition in those shared practices.

One study found that, while traditional online courses, many of which also use micro-learning resources, may cost between $7,000 to $10,000 per course completer, equivalent MOOC-based learning only cost between $74 to $272

Though there’s a significant development cost associated with putting a typical MOOC together (between $39,000 – $325,300), one weighs those costs versus what it costs to develop a regular 3-credit course (between $35,000-$50,000). The “massive” delivery scale of a MOOC dramatically reduces the cost to the learner, but it also offers a larger volume of payers (millions) compared to traditional eLearning.

Raising the Bar

While not intended to completely replace microlearning as a pedagogical format used to support higher learning or corporate training programs, MOOCs have, however, helped significantly enhance the quality and delivery of eLearning programs. Researchers have concluded that:

 “…students are more likely to regard the MOOC’s learning platform as a tool supporting their traditional learning at university rather than as a new autonomous system which can be used instead of face-to-face interactions “

Like traditional eLearning interventions, built around high-quality microlearning content, MOOCs too use a rich mix of blended content, including bite-sized custom-built and/or repurposed bite-sized learning snippets.

And, similar to other microlearning pedagogical approaches, MOOCs too rely on highly professional design teams, and banks of subject matter experts (SMEs) to produce them.  

Even if you don’t choose to use a MOOC as part of your training, you can’t deny that it’s effectively raised the bar for what learners expect from the experience. Gone are the days of boring slide shows and lectures – the best administrators realized that learners want a more interactive experience. Whether that’s in the form of a short game played upon computer startup or an online course for astrophysics, both MOOCs and microlearning can blend and borrow ideas for a more seamless application.

Make the Juxtaposition Work for You

Though more similar than different in their objectives, organizations can combine the mass appeal of MOOCs, with the bite-sized footprint of microlearning, to deliver powerful learning experiences to their employees. From highly curated, customized micro-content, to user-generated microlearning videos, blogs, social learning, and TED-talk-type resources, they each have their individual uses as part of a comprehensive corporate learning strategy. 

But put together, MOOCs and microlearning make an unbeatable eLearning team.If you would like help putting this juxtaposed dynamic duo to work in your learning strategies, contact our experts, and let’s start talking!