What is Microlearning?

Microlearning and language learning

The What

Microlearning refers to short, easily-digestible pieces of content that learners can use to expand their knowledge, fill a gap in knowledge or just for pure entertainment. It is generally used to refer to digital artifacts (videos, online quizzes, online lessons) rather than traditional ways of learning (lectures, textbooks).

In traditional learning setting, the information is pushed from teacher/trainer to student/learner. Think of your typical classroom. The teacher comes to class with the material already prepared, or follows a textbook. The teacher provides the information, which the learners are required to assimilate, if they want to “see progress”.

In microlearning, the learner has a need for information (often called knowledge gap), accesses a lesson and finds out the answer to their question. The learners take responsibility and decide what they want to learn based on what they need in order to accomplish a certain task or to advance a certain skill. This is called a pull approach to learning.

The Why
If you’re wondering what are the advantages of microlearning, consider this:

  • Microlearning is learner-controlled. You can get topical answers to your problem and learn what you need to fill the gaps.
  • It is not time-consuming. With most learning artifacts taking anywhere from 1 to 10 minutes, microlearning derives instant knowledge gratification, and it is an excellent filler of idle-time.
  • It is measurable. Every lesson has one clear, distinct learning objective, usually followed by a very short review or reflection time.
  • It is flexible. You can easily go back and forth between the lessons if you want to solidify your knowledge, review, or find the answer to a question. This is not something you would likely do with a one hour class. In language learning, spaced repetition is key, and that is something that can easily work with chunks of content.
  • It accounts for levels of knowledge. One of the most time-consuming and motivation-draining assumptions is that all learners start at the same level and have the same interests. Microlearning enables user autonomy, therefore the students can choose the level they start at and the goals that they set.
  • It works with short attention spans. The typical adult learners can focus anywhere between 3 and 20 minutes, if they’re really engaged. Microlearning solves this problem by providing bite-sized learning opportunities that students are more likely to complete.
  • Procrastination-proof. Ok, there’s no such thing as procrastination-proof, but you’re more likely to procrastinate when you’re faced with a twenty page paper than you are when you have to watch a 3 minute video.

The How

Here are a few examples of microlearning techniques and platforms for foreign languages:

  • Mini-lessons

Babbel is a Berlin-based initiative supported by the European Regional Development Fund. It’s a really great tool for building vocabulary and practicing phrases.

BBC Languages features short lessons in over forty languages.

Mango Languages can be accessed through libraries, higher education institutions and K-12 school. It is also a homeschooling platform for learning foreign languages.

Curious has crowdsourced lessons from native speakers.

  • Podcasts

Slow German obviously allows you to listen to a native speaker reading a text in German at a slower speed. It’s useful if you want to learn clear pronunciation.

Survival Phrases teaches the basic conversation starters for when you’re on holiday.

Daily French Pod is a daily dose of real life French as it’s spoken by native speakers.

There is a long list of free language learning podcasts in iTunes.

  • Video language channels

Deutsch fur Euch is a German channel that offers clarifications on certain snippets of language.

Japan Society NYC has a language videos playlist called Uki Uki Nihon Go.

DutchPod101 has a lot of video resources for learning Dutch.

  • Games

Duolingo is obviously the app du jour, that uses gamification and adorable anthropomorphic owls to trick you into learning a foreign language. It is also crowdsourced but it has strict quality assurance.

BaBaDum is a game with well-designed graphics that help you learn 1500 words in 13 languages.

No matter what resources you decide to use, remember that learning a language does not have to be a “only if I have an hour to spare” activity.

Image: Family with a Microscope by Jacob Ernst Marcus (1784 – 1826).


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