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Microlearning: Small Bites of Education that Hit the Sweet Spot
Associations are increasingly embracing microlearning — education provided in small, focused doses. A study by education consultant Tagoras found that 36 percent of associations had microlearning programs in 2017, up from 18 percent the year before. By the end of 2018, another 30 percent of associations were planning to offer microlearning programs.

The trend is due to a growing interest among adults to receive information in short bursts. “There's been a lot of research into how adults learn best and those findings have led to an increased focus on microlearning,” says Holly Amatangelo, Education Director at SmithBucklin.

Microlearning sessions tend to run from just a few minutes to 20 minutes at the longest. The sweet spot is typically in the three to seven minutes range, which syncs well with the attention span of adults, says Amatangelo. Studies show that within an hour people forget 50 percent of new information presented and within 24 hours they forget 70 percent. “How do you make that learning stick?” Amatangelo asks. A recent study by the Journal of Applied Psychology found that the transfer of learning becomes 17 percent more efficient, or “sticky,” when it's done through microlearning.

As a result, the concept is more prevalent than ever, and association boards should be aware that microlearning will likely be a key part of their education strategy, if it isn’t already.

Easily Accessible

At its most effective, microlearning focuses on a specific task or skill — delivering practical, hands-on education that’s more how-to and less theoretical, says Amatangelo. It is designed to be easily accessible, such as online or through mobile technologies, but can also be delivered in person. In short, it should be accessible at the learners’ convenience.

“It's about providing just-in-time learning for professionals that allows them to be more efficient at their job or tackle a new challenge,” says Amatangelo. “It’s about giving the learner what they need right now to solve a problem. Typically, in a traditional conference session or online learning session, you're pushing content to the learner. With microlearning, they're pulling exactly what they need at that time. So, it allows the learner to be in a little more control of what they learn when – it’s more pull, less push,” she says.

Apra Bytes

Apra — an association for professionals who drive their institutions' philanthropic missions through prospect development and research — launched a microlearning program earlier this year called Apra Bytes. “We understand that time is precious. Apra members are looking for quick answers to burning questions and that’s what Apra Bytes seeks to provide,” explained Robin Rone, executive director of Apra.

Apra Bytes features short videos — 10 minutes or less – on practical skills that members need in their line of work. A recent video focused on pivot tables, a feature of Microsoft Excel, while another provided tips related to filling out a Form 990. The videos, which are simple and inexpensive to produce, are posted to Apra’s YouTube channel as well as its website. They are typically presented by a member of the Education Committee, an association member or volunteer, or some other expert in the field.

The goal of Apra Bytes is to not only educate members but engage them as well, says Rone. It’s focused, relevant information that’s readily accessible and easy to digest and retain. A study of corporate learners by Software Advice found that 58 percent said they would be more likely to use their company’s online learning systems if the courses were shorter.

Also, because the videos are posted on YouTube, they are available to the public, which helps highlight Apra as a resource to professionals in the field who are not members. “Part of our Apra Bytes strategy is to make it public and searchable, so it can be accessed by members and non-members alike,” says Rone. “The topics we are covering are the types of things you might do a Google search to learn.” Also, it’s an opportunity to showcase experts from the membership, which Rone says may help with overall member engagement.

Other Examples of Microlearning in Action

In addition to video, microlearning can be deployed in various other forms. One strategy that Amatangelo has employed with associations is to create microlearning content from live conference sessions. Association content developers can carve out five-minute chunks from certain sessions that focus on one particular topic or area and repackage it into a short video. Podcasts could also be created from repackaged content. The content can then be posted on the association’s website. “It's a great way to leverage existing content and take what you already have and deliver it in a different way,” Amatangelo explains.

Another emerging trend is holding 10- to 15-minute in-person flash sessions on the exhibit floor at a conference. Structured similarly to TED Talks, these provide quick bursts of information within a precise format.  

Similarly, associations can hold short 20 to 30-minute webinars, which are broadcast live but can also be viewed on demand. “We realize members may not have the time to sit and watch it at work, so this gives them more flexibility with their schedule,” says Amatangelo.

Other associations use mobile technology to deliver microlearning. One way is to offer quizzes through an app or online module that assess a member’s body of knowledge on a topic. It can even be delivered through social media. Some associations host Twitter chats where members all participate in a conversation that’s led by a moderator or subject-matter expert.

“Microlearning is about meeting the learner where they are, in a space they’re comfortable with,” adds Amatangelo. That could mean emailing how-to articles and tips on topics of interest directly to members or posting them on a web page. As long as it is a short burst of information that helps accomplish a task or attain a skill, it is microlearning.

Part of an Overall Strategy

While science shows that microlearning definitely provides benefits for the learner, it can also benefit the association as it helps increase member value and engagement and is a way to reach potential new members. Before launching a microlearning program, boards should understand how it will help the association achieve its strategic objectives and complement other educational content. Boards should also look at the potential ROI and how success will be measured. Further, a good microlearning program starts with focusing on the needs of your audience. What skills or competencies do they need and how do they want to consume the education? What is the best format to engage the audience? 

Microlearning isn’t a replacement for traditional, deep-dive educational offerings – it is a complement. “The key to successful learning is to make it varied and multi-modal,” says Amatangelo. “You want to hit the learner in various ways — online, in person, on the phone, through a printed article, or on a podcast. You also want to provide various lengths of learning, depending on the content.” Ultimately, members want more education to improve in their jobs and careers, and science tells us that this is how people learn. Microlearning is a way to solve these problems, and associations are uniquely positioned to help.
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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