The Story Behind Micro-Learning

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Until recently, I hadn’t heard the term “micro-learning.” Then I received an e-mail from Coursmos, “the world’s first micro-learning platform,” inviting me to attend a special meet-up, “Education for Generation Distracted: Micro-Learning.”

I turned to Wikipedia for some clarifcation : “Micro-learning deals with relatively small learning units and short-term learning activities … More frequently, the term is used in the domain of e-learning and related fields in the sense of a new paradigmatic perspective on learning processes in mediated environments.”

Micro-learning is still a loosely defined term, at least as far as I can tell, but mastering a concept by watching a short “how to” YouTube video–or participating in any quicklearning activity–fits the bill. Rather than slog through hours of formal instruction to learn something of value, or perceived value, learners instead turn to the Internet and Web 2.0 to get exactly what they want. In this respect, oddly enough, I engaged in micro-learning by going online to search for the topic itself.

Doing more online digging, I found that the micro-learning movement isn’t unique to America. In October, another conference, “Micro-learning Conference 8.0,” will occur in Krems, Austria.

“This conference is the only conference world-wide which focuses on micro- content and learning as a singular area of technology enhanced learning,” the website advertises. “It is an invitational conference which features talks, multi-session workshops, and worldcafes on current research and findings regarding the use of technologies for designing effective learning environments.”

To get a more informed perspective, last week I connected with Curtis J. Bonk, Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University, and author of The World is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education. Bonk tells me that the term “micro-learning” isn’t used in mainstream educational psychology, and he has some reservations about its practice.

“The cons include a narrow mindset in terms of what learning is,” Bonk says. “It decompartmentalizes the contextual cues that we pick up on a social plane, and the importance of a social-cultural viewpoint on learning: The fact that we learn with our peers, the fact that we collaborate, the fact that we internalize the strategies that we see used by others.”

To be clear, though, there is nothing inherently wrong with using Web 2.0 to learn something quickly, like solving a certain type of math problem. I’ve certainly relied on online tutorials to get me through some frustrating situations with video- and photo-editing software.

“When you’re struggling, something might come up to help you out, to ramp you up, to overcome some difficult task that you’re currently facing,” Bonk says. “And that could also help your self-esteem and your confidence, knowing that there’s a little piece or a nugget that’s there if you need it, but you don’t have to use it right away.”

But problems arise when the learner becomes overly dependent on this mode of instruction.  “For the learner[s] themselves, they will lack a larger perspective,” Bonk says. “They will lack synthesis. They will lack a sense of the macro structure of a field or discipline if everything’s a lot of little teachings. If you want to learn how to spell a certain sentence in Spanish, we can do some micro-learning pretty quickly. But will you really understand what you’re saying? Will you really understand when to say it, and how to say it, and the contextual cues in that environment? Will you misuse the language because you missed some subtle cues from others there?”

For what I gather, micro-learning can and should be used as another tool, but not as a replacement for any type of formal instruction. As is, I worry about students who too quickly turn to the Internet for answers, rather than use their own deductive reasoning powers to solve their own problems. With the future development of micro-learning platforms, in whatever form this will take, teachers will have to work even harder to help students develop faith in their own abilities, without the aid of computers.

Bonk echoes my concerns. “The problem becomes overreliance [on] and misunderstanding of how to use [micro-learning], and not having a theoretical perspective or a teaching philosophy from which you’re using it,” Bonk says. “Who weans [students] away from the micro‑learning? If it’s always available for you in algebra or in geometry, some little hint or cue, well then, you know, I can make it through this class and get my A‑ or B+ and be happy with it. The system’s going to help me get that far. I don’t have to push myself beyond that.”

There are no easy answers, but one thing is certain; teachers and students alike will have to grapple with these issues for a long time to come.

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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