Most discussions of MOOCs focus primarily on particle an item. These courses are huge in every sense of the word – they have huge enrollments, generate massive amounts of data, and have certainly caused massive controversy. It is true that the technology behind MOOCs allows all aspects of teaching to occur on a much greater scale than was possible before, but focusing solely on this element masks what is arguably MOOCs’ most valuable contribution to education: flexibility. MOOCs allow learning to happen in highly flexible and adaptable environments, and one consequence of this is that learning not only gets bigger, but it also becomes noticeably smaller in some important respects. Anytime, anywhere access to learning has freed teachers and students from the four-hour seminar and three-day workshop: they can now make the most of even an extra five minutes, sparking a new interest in microlearning.
Microlearning is learning that takes place on a very small scale. Currently, the term microlearning It is used to describe two different educational formats.
Micro-education first conceived is to break learning into short units, with course content and full learning activities packaged into five- to ten-minute packages. This is the didactic approach generally taken in MOOCs (short video lectures, short embedded quizzes, etc.), and I’ve written about this practice before using the moniker “micro-learning”. Microlearning is perfectly designed for how our brains learn, is accessible at any time via computers or mobile devices, and can go a long way toward ensuring that training focuses on mastering real skills rather than superficial sitting time.
Although it still involves presenting content and performing learning activities in small portions, the second form of microlearning is a different creature entirely. Here, microlearning describes a type of learning in which microlearning activities of all kinds are used to achieve various learning objectives, including preparation, content reinforcement, and even assessment. Microlearning modules can be offered as part of larger MOOC modules and courses, but they can also be packaged individually to meet the needs of individual learners and learning groups. Microlearning can be used as part of ‘push’ applications, where the teacher determines which learning units to introduce when and where, or as ‘pull’ applications, where the learner decides when and how to access learning resources.
Microlearning units can take many forms, and this style, along with mobile technologies, can be used to expand the boundaries of corporate classrooms. Introductions, summaries, quizzes, blogs, polls and surveys – any type of content can be used in micro-learning. On the ‘push’ side, a short introductory activity can prepare students for a longer seminar or an abstract can be provided as reinforcement after a formal learning session. Microactivities can be pushed to users via RSS feeds, SMS instant messaging, etc. On the “pull” side, packaging resources into small, machine-readable chunks organized into a searchable database can allow learners to selectively access course materials outside of the official course. This increases engagement and learning at the right user-defined time.
How does microlearning relate to MOOCs?
Conceptually, MOOCs have raised the bar on what learners expect from their learning experiences—the idea of a traditional classroom in which the teacher lectures for an hour and the students take notes (or sleeps) has been nearly obliterated. Today’s learners expect to be more engaged, for example, in a flipped classroom and through the use of different technologies. Learners also expect to be able to access and participate in their courses at any time and from anywhere.
In practice, technologies that support massive web-based courses, such as new software-as-a-service learning management systems, can also support microlearning. Many of the tools already in place, such as email announcements, course dashboards, and integrated social media platforms, can be used to deliver and access microlearning modules. Tobes Kelly recently wrote on the eLearning Mind blog that “Microlearning… has always been a concept in search of the right technology.” Well, that technology is now available, and as Kelly suggests, “access to microlearning modules is the natural next step in workforce training.”
What if we could put these two trends in modern learning together in a MOOC? What would you look like?
Think big, but also small. preparation activities that take place before class; Abstracts were sent out after an hour, a week, or a month; videos and learning modules accessible via a searchable database; virtual flashcards, discussion prompts, and quizzes sent during a practice session; Short interactive activities that take place outside of the formal course The possibilities abound, and the result will be to move the training away from the classroom and help learners integrate and apply it in their jobs and in their lives. A micro-learning MOOC would challenge common notions about when and where learning takes place, because the answer is anytime and anywhere.
Massive online courses are changing the way we learn and what we expect from education. They have separated learning from the classroom, opening up a range of new possible learning environments. Learning and development departments can take advantage of this new phenomenon to not only create more meaningful training, but also to ensure that training is applied, rather than quickly forgotten, which is often the case. Microlearning is a powerful idea whose time has come.