Thursday, May 16, 2013

4 Steps to Microlearning Mastery

Is it cheating if you read the Cliffs Notes version of War and Peace instead of Tolstoy’s? Or is it resourceful?

Your answer probably depends on why you’re reading it and how much time you have; whether you’re in school or business; and whether you’re a kid or an adult.

As an instructional designer in the corporate world, I always assume that learners want to gain a business edge in the shortest amount of time. To me, the Cliffs Notes’ microlearning model is, therefore, not cheating. 
The dilemma though is that microlearning is extremely difficult to build. It requires instructional designers (IDs) to be minimalists with their words and interactions, but virtuosos at user-friendly delivery methods. As E.F. Schumacher, author of A Guide for the Perplexed and Small is Beautiful, said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” 

So how does your team get into the microlearning mindset and then use its power?

  1. Tattoo a rectangle the size of an index card on your forearm.
    Just kidding, of course. But an index card is about the size of typical mobile phone screen, and you need to be very cognizant of how much information you can fit on it. Practice boiling down your PowerPoint decks to this size; offer one learning point at a time and try to limit the deck to 5 slides. Then start thinking about media that could substitute for words but fit in the same space…video, for example.

  2. Research examples of microlearning.
    Microlearning isn’t just phone-sized bits of information. Check these sites out for ideas like Google’s post-a-lesson-on-the-back-of-the-toilet-door:
  3. Dump the “Tell me, show me, let me” model of instructional design.
    Jump directly to the “Let me” portion of the learning. Give your learners a problem, let them try to solve it, and give them feedback. Microlearning requires you to cut to the chase, and adult learners are ready for it.

  4. Don’t push learning.
     Let learners pull it when they want or need it ( To evolve from a “push” to “pull” organization, your team must become adept at marketing; learners must know where to get the information just when they need it, so you have to burn it into their brains.
With that, this “Cliffs Notes” version of Getting Started in Microlearning is complete.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Top Tips to Avoid Ineffective Virtual Classrooms

“Experts” of the virtual classroom recommend limiting sessions to less than an hour. So what do you do if you have to make a four-week face-to-face (f2f) training program virtual? Is it possible? Definitely.

Six years ago, my learning & development (L&D) team and I tackled this challenge numerous times for clients who wanted to create at-home call centers.  We had to on-board and establish skills for agents all over the world without relying on in-person classrooms or travel. And we had to achieve improved on-the-job performance in comparison to bricks-and-mortar call center agents.

Can you imagine being a student in a virtual classroom for four weeks though?  I’d rather suck the hairspray out of Donald Trump's comb-over.

To make a long story short, we did it. Through ruthless respect for adult learners, constructivism, and adherence to the “flipped classroom” model, we created a wildly efficacious training program that was significantly shorter than the original. 

What steps did we take to success?

  1. Cut the fluff. We went through the original f2f facilitator guide and identified all “icebreakers,” games, and other non-essential training activities. Instead of using training time for these, we posted them as messages on a social network like Google Groups. Learners controlled the discussions. By doing so, we reduced the time required for instructional designers to create interactions, as well as the trainer’s time to deliver them, and the learners’ time to suffer through them.
  2. Turn lectures into YouTube videos. Instead of listening to the trainer drone on in the virtual classroom over PowerPoint slides, learners watched shortened lectures on their schedule and used Rewind if they needed to. While we didn’t reduce instructional design time because we had to create the videos, we reduced classroom time. (We could have created self-paced elearning to cover the lecture materials, but in most cases this was overkill.)
  3. Create a non-graded workbook of activities. After learners finished watching each lecture video, they tackled workbook activities related to the material. They did it on their own and they often found they had to go beyond the video lecture, Googling to go in depth, or returning to the social network to ask questions of their colleagues. Trainers didn’t need to grade the workbooks – they could tell who was doing the work when the learners came into the virtual classroom.
  4. Use the virtual classroom to practice skills. After learners watched the lecture videos and attempted the workbook activities, they came into the classroom to ask specific questions, role-play, and practice job-specific skills such as searching the electronic performance support system. The trainer merely introduced the activities. Learners guided each other through, creating an atmosphere of camaraderie and collaboration.
  5. Build a targeted performance support system. The L&D team used its saved time to create a user-friendly, smart knowledgebase for agents to find answers quickly when they were on the job. As a result, the training program didn’t require learners to memorize tomes of information. It was like Google, only specific to the job. 

The results speak for themselves:

  • Training time for each program was cut in half.
  • On-the-job performance improved by 20%.
  • First-month attrition dropped by 50%.

While L&D can’t take full credit for these results (older, more educated agents, for example, had something to do with it), we definitely contributed. When it’s time for you to contribute too, take the virtual classroom “experts” with a grain of salt. Don’t just do a straight conversion from f2f classroom to virtual classroom. Rethink the whole program.


Brian Bishop, PhD, is virtualwirks’ Practice Leader for Workforce Performance. He harnesses the power of emerging technologies to launch global training programs that improve employee, organizational and industry-wide success.