I recently had to install a new printer and my first thought was to read the manual. My teenage son, of a generation born with phones in their hands, turned to YouTube instead. Guess who ended up installing this printer?
There is a name for this concept: microlearning. We have known for a long time that our mind can only absorb so much. According to German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, we forget 90% of the information we consume in seven days. Yet by breaking our intake into bursts of five to 20 minutes — and using more immersive means like podcasts or videos — our retention is higher.
Gen Z has taught us that such learning is more in line with our busy lives. This younger generation has a much higher rate of cellphone ownership: about 96% of 18- to 29-year-olds own one, compared to 61% of people over 65, according to the Pew Research Center. And when Gen Z is on their phones, they are a lot, with one in four people spending more than five hours a day on their device, according to research by IBM and the National Retail Federation. They often use the phone for self-education, with 36% using devices to do homework and 28% to learn new things.
Microlearning can be used with virtually any subject. If you want to change the oil in your car, dozens of videos are waiting for you to show you how to do it. If you want to learn French, Duolingo will have you converse with a digital clerk to order a baguette from a Parisian bakery. If you want to talk about a specific subject, TED Talks are at your service.
This kind of learning can be amplified by memory apps like Anki. Say you are studying for an exam. You want to remember the critical points of the materials. You simply create digital flashcards, and the algorithm will quiz you in the days leading up to the exam, using spaced repetition to reinforce your knowledge.
Think of it as building a hiking trail in the forest. In traditional learning, you would walk the path so infrequently that you would have to reconstruct it each time you returned. Instead, through microlearning, you walk the path steadily, the repetition preventing vegetation from growing there and etching the route in your memory.
The beauty is that it’s easy, wastes little time, and is often free. You can dip your toe anywhere, knowing you can bail out if it’s not for you.
Start with what you want to learn and what your goal is. Suppose you need to learn some basic organic chemistry in order to work with a new client to whom you have been assigned. You can find a YouTuber who offers tutorials, such as the Organic Chemistry Tutor, to get you up to speed.
An onslaught of Excel instructions isn’t the easiest to digest, especially if you’re not proficient in Microsoft Office. To help you, you can pay for nano-courses taught by an expert like Miss Excel.
Perhaps your job requires a range of practical knowledge, rather than specific expertise. Maybe you need to know a little more about marketing, product management, and cybersecurity so you don’t get stunned in meetings. You can spend 20 minutes on LinkedIn Learning once a day to understand the key elements of these disciplines.
Micro-learning goes beyond simply acquiring professional skills; it is also essential for lifelong learning. If you want to be healthier, for example, you can follow social media influencers who model and give tips for living a healthier life. A good example is the Instagram account @eatinghealthytoday, which shows you how to prepare healthy meals in less than a minute.
As the metaverse expands in the coming years, this mode of learning is likely to become more experiential. Consider using virtual reality (VR) to visit ancient Greece and listen to Socrates. A full body and mind experience, targeting all the senses, will help you remember what it says.
It’s not science fiction. Some companies are already using virtual reality, for example, when it is difficult to train employees from a manual. Suppose a retailer wants his sales force to learn how to deal with angry customers. Using virtual reality to have them practice placating a seemingly real customer with specific issues opens the door to learning that simple text cannot. It’s also more effective and efficient than conducting long role-playing sessions in a conference room, allowing entire departments to learn at once, even from their office or home.
The older we get, the more reluctant we tend to be about changing our habits. Maybe apps and social media seem outside of your field and you think microlearning isn’t for you. But don’t be scared of the technology; this is just one aspect of microlearning. In fact, you’ve been using microlearning your whole life.
When you first learned to ride a bike, you didn’t turn to a manual. You learned by experience through repeated attempts to get off the pavement. Today’s microlearning is not much different. You’re just using technology to get there faster, the same way you’ve used this bike before to get to the playground faster.
Barbara Petitt is the Executive Director of Professional Learning at CFA Institute.