Microlearning – A New Old Concept to Put Out to Pasture

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner


Microlearning looks like the new hipster term in the workplace. We’re not sure when it became so cool but what we do know is that it isn’t new. If we look at the research, it all started with ‘VTR: In-Service Tool for Improving Instruction’ by Attea (for the youngsters: VTR = video tape recorder) written in 1970 to help teachers improve their lessons. He used the term microlearning so we can conclude that it has been around for almost half a century. He writes:

The VTR was used as a tool through which teachers could analyse their classroom behaviour via the micro-teaching technique. This technique has a teacher present a brief lesson to a small group of students from five to ten minutes, concentrating on the implementation of a specified teaching skill such as questioning. After teaching the abbreviated sequence, the teaching process is evaluated as the teacher views the video tape on his own or with the students, helping teacher, adviser-consultants, principal, or other staff member. After critiquing the teaching segment, the teacher reteaches the lesson to a different group of students, changing his [sic] presentation to overcome the weaknesses identified while analysing the first videotaped presentation (p. 148).


So the big question is why did it, at least in the workplace, become so important lately? This blog explores what microlearning is and where the whole idea that microlearning is needed and useful in organisations came from. Last but not least, we’ll explain why we think ‘microlearning’ isn’t a very helpful term.

The microlearning definition: This, that, and the other

Many learning professionals have attempted to define microlearning. For example, Taylor defines it as “learning from content accessed in short bursts, content which is relevant to the individual, and repeated over time to ensure retention and build conceptual understanding.” So, maybe it involves the spacing effect.

Another example is Bersin’s interpretation of microlearning as microcontent (see figure below) and it seems to refer to informational stuff only.


In his recent blog ‘Microlearning Under the Microscope’, Quinn interprets microlearning as contextualised just-in-time learning in order to provide learning on top of an existing context. Interpreted that way, microlearning is ‘performance support +’ and the plus (+) apparently refers to learning. In other words, Quinn’s idea is that we wrap small opportunities for learning around the on-the-job performance context.

In the research space, we see the same pattern: various definitions for the same term. Kovachev and colleagues (2011) state that microlearning is “a learning activity on small pieces of knowledge based on web resources” (p. 1), while Kahnwald and Köhler (2006) define it as acquisition of microknowledge and claim it’s an “integrative perspective that concentrates on structuring and syndication of information. Focus is the learning individual and although microlearning includes informal learning it has been mainly applied to model formal contexts” (p. 158). Gabrielli and co-authors say that microlearning is a contextual lifelong learning process that is most effective when it can enable activities such as:

  1. construction of knowledge, by means of finding new solutions to problems or creating connections between past and current experiences,
  2. conversation with both the social-physical world and with oneself (like in reflection, experimentation in the world and interpretation of results) as well as,
  3. learner control over any continuing cycles of experimentation and reflection.

Disagreement on what microlearning is, is as ‘not new’ as the term itself. In 2005, Hug described the many different concepts and practices of microlearning, which he tried to illustrate through the mindmap below:


Clarify? Now we’re really confused. Formal? Informal? Contextualised? Web-based? Push? Pull?

Why Microlearning is Considered Important in the Workplace

There seems to be general agreement that microlearning is important in the workplace because of the need for a flexible, personalised, and on-demand approach to learning and performance. The reason why these things are considered important in the contemporary workplace, is because employees need to be able to respond to the fast-changing needs of an organisation, especially for, there’s that magic word again, knowledge workers. Schmidt (2007) states that microlearning can range from “didactically prepared learning objects, via microcontent in the context of social interaction up to direct communication opportunities with others” (p. 99). In other words, the idea is that knowledge workers collect whatever information they need to solve their problems and that that whole information seeking address is accompanied by a learning process.

This sounds like a combination of performance support (for example, Just-In-Time information presentation to solve their immediate procedural problems) and a self-directed learning process, which they need to be able to find what they need to problem-solve effectively. Sound complicated? Maybe this is the reason why the interpretations of what microlearning is, are all over the place.

You can ask yourself, if no one agrees what microlearning is, how useful is it then as a concept?

Hug and Friesen (2007) state that

it is important to avoid definitions of microlearning that lack discriminating or differentiating power. If microlearning is simply equated with informal learning, lifelong learning, or being “bathed in bits” in the digital mediasphere, we end up in a night in which all cows are black. If everything is microlearning, nothing of it is to be considered of special importance. (p 4).

We totally agree. But unfortunately, in the workplace that’s exactly where we’re at.

Someone bring some clarity, please?

Even back in 2007, Schmidt attempts to bring clarity to the microlearning chaos. His interpretation is that self-directed learning is a big part of microlearning and he points out, rightly so, that we can’t fully rely on self-directed learning. Therefore, he feels that we need to find a new form of guidance appropriate for these small but focused learning experiences. He presents a knowledge flow that gives some notion on the maturity of both the learner and the content. Schmidt outlines five phases of knowledge maturity as well as the type of microcontent that typically goes with that phase.


The first thing that came to our mind when seeing this model is: Wow! It covers a LOT! It looks like microlearning is basically everything. For us the model does something that it didn’t intend to do. Instead of bringing clarity in the microlearning quest, it actually shows that microlearning isn’t a specific thing; it’s everything! It’s a term that a) nobody agrees on what it means, b) doesn’t explain what it generally covers and at the same time c) seems to cover everything in an ‘organisational learning ecosystem’. In other words, it’s – to say it euphemistically – not helpful at all.

This model does show all the different things that employees need and do when they need to get better in whatever they need to do for their jobs. Therefore, we think that Schmidt’s model is helpful in the way that it analyses learning in organisations and tries to figure out what kind of guidance we need to provide to support employees in finding the ‘learning stuff’ they need in a personalised manner. Good question. But we don’t think the answer is ‘microlearning’.

cow poo

Can we please put it out to pasture?


Attea, W. J. (1970). VTR: In-service tool for improving instruction. Educational Leadership, 28(2), 147150.

Bersin, J. (2017, March 27). The disruption of digital learning: Ten things we have learned [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://joshbersin.com/2017/03/the-disruption-of-digital-learning-ten-things-we-have-learned/

Gabrielli, S., Kimani, S., & Catarci, T. (2006). The design of microlearning experiences: A research agenda. In: T. Hug, M. Lindner, & P. A. Bruck, (Eds.), Microlearning: Emerging concepts, practices and technologies after E-learning: Proceedings of Microlearning Conference 2005: Learning & Working in New Media (pp. 45-53). Innsbruck, Austria: Innsbruck University Press.

Hug, T. (2005). Micro learning and narration. Exploring possibilities of utilization of narrations and storytelling for the designing of “micro units” and didactical micro-learning arrangements. In: Online proceedings of the International Conference “Media in Transition 4: The Work of Stories” at the M.I.T. in Cambridge (MA), USA, May 6-8, 2005, available at: http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/mit4/papers/hug.pdf.

Hug, T., & Friesen, N. (2007). Outline of a microlearning agenda. In T. Hug (Ed.), Didactics of Microlearning: Concepts, Discourses and Examples (pp. 15-31). Münster, Germany: Waxmann Verlag.

Kahnwald, N., & Kohler, T. (2005). Microlearning in virtual communities of practice? An explorative analysis of changing information behaviour (Changing patterns of learning: Schools, universities, vocational training). In T. Hug, M. Lindner & P.A. Bruck (Eds.), Microlearning conference 2006, 2006a (pp. 156-172). Innsbruck, Austria: Innsbruck University Press.

Kovachev, D., Cao, Y., Klamma, R., & Jarke, M. (2011). Learn-as-you-go: new ways of cloud-based micro-learning for the mobile web. In H. Leung, E. Popescu, Y. Cao, R.W. Lau & W. Nejdl (Eds.), Advances in web-based learning – ICWL 2011. 10th international conference (pp. 51-61). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer Verlag.

Quinn, C., (2017, May 23). Microlearning under the microscope [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.litmos.com/in/blog/learning/microlearning-under-the-microscope

Schmidt, A. (2007). Microlearning and the knowledge maturing process: Towards conceptual foundations for work-integrated microlearning support. In M. Lindner, & P. A. Bruck (eds.), Micromedia and Corporate Learning. Proceedings of the 3rd International Microlearning 2007, Innsbruck, Austria, June 2007 (pp. 99-105). Innsbruck, Austria: Innsbruck University Press.

Taylor, D.H., (2017, January 6). Micro learning: advance or fantasy? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/micro-learning-advance-fantasy-donald-h-taylor?trk=prof-post