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When Designing Microlearning, Keep Macro in Mind

From the learners’ perspective, macro learning involves a larger time commitment, a focus on specified learning objectives, and is often used when choosing to engage with content that is largely unfamiliar. In contrast, microlearning is something that can be done on your phone, in the subway on the way to work. It is quick and focuses on specific pieces of information or skills. eLearning professionals are currently grappling with these two types of learning as if they are not interrelated. However, an effective strategy embraces microlearning within the broader paradigm of the system in which it occurs. 


This article identifies how eLearning designers need to keep macro in mind when creating microlearning courses.

Let's start with the definitions:


This type of learning focuses on the whole of a topic or domain. It typically picks a subfield within an entire field. Learners are introduced to that content through what can typically be thought of as a course.

The expectation from the learner is that macro-learning takes longer and is a substantial investment. However, from the designer perspective, macro-learning focuses on the holistic nature and is essential to student-centered learning.


This type of learning focuses on quick bursts of content that are often made through a Google-search type of discovery. A learner can intentionally find this information or serendipitously encounter it through an unidentified information need. The learning in this environment is often implicit, in other words, it is barely discernible to the learner. From the learning designer perspective, microlearning is the ability to chunk content into easily consumable learning moments at the time of need.

Read more: Numbers Don’t Lie: Why Bite-Sized Learning is Better for Your Learners (and You too)

Case Study: Understanding the Difference between the Two

Courtney is a data analyst assistant for her company and is looking to engage in professional development in order to be promoted to Lead Data Analyst. With this goal in mind, she might start searching for information on the latest in Big Data. Undoubtedly, through this search, she will be exposed to information related to certifications or courses online or in the company's LMS. She will also find individual web pages and links that talk about some aspect of Big Data.

Are both of these types of information in the domain of the eLearning designer? While the former undoubtedly has some instructional design behind it, the latter could be considered micro-learning a blog post or introductory website. However, it could also be a chunked micro learning opportunity to engage in a particular aspect of Big Data.

The primary difference between macro and microlearning is that in macro learning the focus is on the big picture and a complete learning series, while in microlearning is very short and there is a specific focus or skill that needs to be learned in a precise moment of need.

Weaknesses and Strengths of Both Individually 

By themselves, both micro and macro design have weaknesses and strengths. Unfortunately, the eLearning design industry tends to move on a pendulum from macro to micro design rather than situate in the middle. 

A weakness of macro design is that the focus on the holistic reduces flexibility for just-in-time learning or the 5-minute walk from the car to the office. In contrast, micro design is especially good at these situations. The weakness in micro design comes from the extreme focus on chunking and getting learners from one lesson to another without reflection on the big picture. 

Conversely, the strength evident in macro learning is that it explains concepts thoroughly. Whenever there is a new process that your employees have to learn or when a topic is particularly challenging, Macro Learning is preferred. This goes back to the focus on Macro Learning being the why of what is needed. Micro Learning excels in situations where people need immediate help or assistance at a granular level. Micro Learning should be considered a subset of Macro Learning.

The question then becomes how do we, as eLearning designers, accommodate both kinds of learning in a way that is flexible and applicable to more workplace learning situations?

Read more: Is Microlearning The Solution You Need?

Design Recommendations

1. Design with macro management principles

According to an article in eLearn magazine, the perceived discrepancy between micro and macro design can be attributed to a misapplication of elaboration theory. One way to bring the situation back to balance is to design micro with macro principles in mind. This allows the eLearning designer to keep the big picture of the student at the forefront of design. Without this, the designer could use micro design that makes sense to them, but that is not central to the student.

2. Consider using breadcrumbs to provide context

Breadcrumbs are those little streams of searching that show up when you are navigating within a website. You may progress from a section on instructional design theory to systems in instructional design to a particular design model. Some websites will show this navigation for you. Consider applying the same principal to micro eLearning design. Add breadcrumbs that give context and a grounding for that microlearning event. This could look like metadata or like a description at the top of the page or module. 

3. Help Learners Master ONE Objective - and Explain How This Module Contributes to the Entire Puzzle

In macrolearning courses are designed to cover several objectives over an extended period. With microlearning, instead, the focus should be on helping the learner master just ONE objective. So, make sure that you give the learner ONE concept to digest and induce ONE change in behavior or attitude to fulfill ONE learning objective.

But besides focusing on presenting this one objective, explaining how it fits in with the overarching learning objectives or "macro" goal of the training program is a great way to guide the students as to why they are learning and what they should be able to do at the end of the entire unit (not just this 5-minute module).

This has another advantage. Learners can review the big objectives that the microlearning falls under and actually explore additional learning opportunities if they realize they have not mastered those objectives. In the case of Courtney, this means that she could start by learning about data visualization and come to the realization that another skill to acquire would be the use of statistical software.

4. Remember the first step in any good design, know your audience

eLearning designers who practice micro design focus heavily on the chunks and the learning activities within those chunks. This tends to neglect a few things.

First, that can ignore the holistic needs of the learners who will take the modules or course. Even when creating a micro learning event, know the audience and their relative level of experience.
Second, this fragments learning. This could be acceptable for the advanced executive who only needs to brush up on one area, but it is not suitable for a novice to the field. Knowing your audience allows you to devote more time to the macro or micro level of design.  

While the latest focus has been on micro eLearning design, this does not mean that design at the macro level should not occur. In fact, it is imperative that the eLearning designer considers both of these types of design. Whether micro or macro is the focus, they should not be mutually exclusive concepts within the design process. By keeping the macro in mind, the micro learning stays centered on the learner and is sequenced within an entire learning experience.



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Karla Gutierrez
Karla Gutierrez
Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT. ES:Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT.

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