Chants from the Chancellery #3: Microlearning

By Nishant Pandav (@npanium)

In my previous articles, I have argued that lectures are boring, and, in most cases, people can find the information online. But what if the same lecturer was to deliver the content in short bursts? Would it be more effective?

I was browsing Reddit the other day when I realised that reading the short articles on different topics was much more addictive than reading a book. Of course, the platform is designed in a way to keep the users hooked, but it made me wonder – what if useful knowledge was designed in a similar manner? I later came across ‘microlearning’, a concept that has caught my attention.

On online learning platforms like LinkedIn Learning, although the course itself can be of several hours, individual videos seldom stretch for over 5 minutes. There are short quizzes after every chapter of the course to test your knowledge. This seems to work for many learners who don’t have to commit to watching a long video. Since these videos are short, they get quickly to the point. The trivial or nice to know information is often trimmed off or provided as a resource in addition to the learning module.

For example, let’s have a look at Duolingo, the microlearning platform that helps you learn languages for free. Duolingo has the language course divided into modules based on topics like ‘family’, ‘restaurant’, ‘city, ‘at home’ and so on. These modules are grouped into levels and are arranged in the order of increasing difficulty. Each module takes about 2-3 minutes to complete and has cute animations to keep the learners engaged. Learners are also awarded with gems every time they complete a module, giving them a sense of achievement. These rewards play an important role in keeping the learners coming back. Although Duolingo alone can be used to learn a language, many would argue that it is not the most effective means to do so. But instructors can use it as a tool for blended learning.

Another advantage of using microlearning is that its content can be updated or added easily. For example, if an hour-long recorded lecture, like the ones UNSW has resorted to, needs to be updated because of change in, say, some figures, then whole lecture would have to be re-recorded. On the other hand, if the lecture were divided in smaller bits like LinkedIn Learning or other eLearning platforms, it would be much easier to update the content. This can also be observed in Duolingo, where the content and modules are updated regularly.

Most microlearning tools are available for mobile phones as well, as the short content size allows users to learn anywhere they like. Smarter platforms also personalise the content based on the user interaction. This method of teaching is also gaining popularity amongst employers who want their employees to learn new skills. Tools such as EdApp and Biteable which allow users to create short and engaging content are a result of this trend.

I have wondered how institutions could adapt to our shortening attention spans and distractions. I see microlearning as a way forward. Institutions are already using these tools in conjunction with traditional delivery methods in what is known as ‘blended learning’. Understanding the audience and delivering the content in a suitable manner will be as important for universities as it is for any other industry. In my view, the COVID-19 situation has uncovered a huge shortcoming in several established institutions, especially universities: they aren’t agile, and many have had a hard time adapting to change. As a result, many students have started comparing the content delivered by the universities through online mediums with free knowledge platforms like YouTube.

The situation may have been quite different, had the universities embraced these platforms rather than merely acknowledging them. So maybe the ’perfect solution’ for delivering education will arise when educators and social media platforms work together. Maybe universities are destined to turn into playgrounds for young adults while the actual learning happens on digital devices. For an entrepreneur, these possibilities are limitless. But for the universities, it might really boil down to one existential question- “What do we really offer?”