Mobile Learning vs. Microlearning – Is There a Difference?

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Technology has had a profound impact on the learning industry, from its accessibility to cost-effectiveness. As mentioned in a piece by the blog, eLearning industry, technology impacts learning in various ways. These ways include: allowing the user to be flexible on when and where they learn, and also through accountability of tracking their progress along with help in areas in which they are having difficulties. Mobile and microlearning content can be customized, presented, and taken to the next level—learners can make learning fit their needs instead of the other way around. These modalities allow content to be tailored to learners meaningful bursts. Mobile and microlearning may seem like they are identical, but they also have many differences.

Mobile learning services provide contextual content “Just in time, Just enough, and Just for me” to each user. This effective approach to learning gives users the right amount of information so it is efficient and not overwhelming. A big misconception about mobile learning is that it is just eLearning on a mobile device. It proves this misconception wrong by understanding the differences between mobile learning and eLearning. One of our first blog posts, written by Float partner, John Feser, details the four primary differences between mobile and eLearning timing, including differences in information access, context, and assessment. It’s important to remember that the real “mobile” in “mobile learning” is the learners themselves, not the device. It is that the user is on the go that creates the mobile context and therefore requires the mobile delivery. It has little to do with the size, depth, or interactivity of the content – it’s the user’s context that makes the learning “mobile.” Mobile learning content sources may be as simple as a PDF job aid, or as deep and rich as an AR wayfinding app or a comprehensively searchable wiki.

We’ve been evangelizing this mindset since our foundation. As we covered in conference talks from 2012 on context, going back to the work we did with ATD in designing the mobile learning certificate program in 2013, and defining the best practices for designing mobile learning covered in Mastering Mobile Learning in 2014, it’s clear that our definition of mobile learning fits much more in line with what the industry is attributing to microlearning than we could have expected. There is a gap though. To uncover it, let’s examine what Float views are keys to understanding microlearning.

Microlearning provides bite-sized content on the users’ time, which allows users to absorb and process the information before moving on to the next topic. This requires thoughtful consideration on the instructional designer’s part – curation, reduction, repackaging. This is critical because if the users are given all the information at once, it could overwhelm and impede learning. Content creators must balance the amount of content. In the words of Julie Dirksen, in her excellent book Design for How People Learn, “when you balance the experience, the new material stands out: but your learner has the energy to absorb it.” Julie then discusses in-depth ways on how to keep your learners engaged and attentive so that they can get the most out of the program. This is an excellent strategy for any learning design, but especially poignant with microlearning content. Notice anything here? Nowhere did we say microlearning is required to be on a mobile device or away from your desk at all. It is the form of the content, not the context of the delivery, that matters here, from Float’s perspective.

It’s our opinion that most of the differences being discussed in the industry are due to a lack of understanding of the true power of mobile learning and the miscategorization of mobile learning that has been propagated by software companies and vendors concerned with delivering to devices, not properly serving their users. These two forms of delivery allow users to get the most out of self-directed learning and, when desired, take advantage of the user’s context, device affordances, and mobile use case. So, the differences, upon reflection, are the context of the delivery of content and the form of, and amount of, the content available to users initially.

It is unfair to broadly characterize mobile learning as eLearning content pushed out onto mobile devices. Why? In simple terms, it would create a bad user experience if it was used in this way. This bad user experience could be created, for example, by having the learner sit on their mobile phone for long periods at a time-consuming material, when it could be broken up and made more usable by applying a microlearning mindset. Well, designed microlearning is bite-sized and allows users to later reference back and review the information, when needed, at a quick glance via good mobile learning design practices. So, while there may be an abundance of content delivered to the users, it is all neatly organized for later reference when the user needs it. This allows the user to refresh their memory when they are completing the task they learned and not mess anything up because they misremembered it.

Similarities that connect mobile learning and microlearning are: flexible user pacing, reformatted eLearning content, and adaptation for contextual or environmental factors. All of these similarities and more make both mobile learning and microlearning compelling choices for modern learning systems. Below is a chart explaining some similarities between mobile learning and microlearning.

Similarity Explanation
User pacing Allows the learner to move at their own speed and take breaks or power through the material at their own pace.
Reformatted eLearning content Means that the content is versatile to be presented on any mobile device or computer and the quality of the content would not be compromised.
Search functions Allow the user to retrieve information via querying the content database or repository.
Flexible content design Means that the user won’t become bored and it will keep them engaged by mixing up the media or format of learning content delivery.
Content volume Means you need to supply the user with the proper amount of content needed for them to apply the concept later.
Adaptation to environmental factors Allows the user to study, learn, and engage in any environment where they can control distractions for any amount of time that works for them.


In conclusion, it’s our opinion that both mobile learning and microlearning are far more similar than many would notice upon first glance. These two types of learning delivery can both be effective when utilized properly by both the creators and users. It’s also our opinion it’s really a new name or mindset applied to what we’ve been advocating all along – smart content design and user-friendly delivery.

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On April 30, 2018
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