Microlearning: Responding to New Learning Styles

Microlearning Associations Now January/February 2018 Issue By: Mark Athitakis

Attention spans are shrinking, mobile use is expanding, and the need to update skills is constant. Microlearning is a response to the new demands of lifelong learners.


Education is an endlessly disrupted technology: In a matter of decades it’s gone from rote memorization to interaction, physical classrooms to MOOCs, four-year programs to just-in-time training. So microlearning—delivering education in small bursts, often via video—is just the latest shift in an ever-shifting landscape. Attention spans are shrinking, mobile use is expanding, and the need to update skills is constant as tools and technology upgrade more often.

Microlearning makes a lot of sense for many associations. But when the Ohio Society of CPAs began to pursue its own microlearning program, it ran into a force that’s less quick to adapt: regulation.

Scott D. Wiley, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of OSCPA, wanted to ensure that the short videos it was delivering through its Quick Byte series would be accepted for continuing-education credits. But in 2014, when the association began exploring microlearning, accountancy boards only accepted learning delivered in increments of an hour or more.

Learning research demonstrates that digestible, smaller chunks are a better way to acquire and retain knowledge. —Scott D. Wiley, FASAE, CAE

After several months of appeals by OSCPA to the Accountancy Board of Ohio, the state approved a new rule allowing increments as short as 10 minutes to be credited. “We demonstrated that the learning environment is changing significantly, and learning research demonstrates that digestible, smaller chunks are a better way to acquire and retain knowledge,” Wiley says.

Ohio was the first state to allow credits for microlearning for CPAs; since then, 13 more have followed suit. Wiley expects the number to grow further, if only because the learning style of younger professionals will demand it.

“Five years ago, two-thirds of our members would have been boomers and Silent Generation,” he says. “Today, two-thirds of our membership is made up by gen X, gen Y, and gen Z. Creating an experience that’s relevant and meets the needs and expectations of a new generation, I think, is critical.”

Those demographics have also been on the mind of Hannes Combest, CAE, CEO of the National Auctioneers Association, for the past year. “When I came in nine years ago, I was told that NAA was dying, that the auction industry was dying,” she says. “The average [member] age was 55.”

She, too, was alert to the shift to shorter, video-based training. But NAA doesn’t have the resources of a large professional society—it serves 3,800 members with a $2.4 million annual budget—but it’s begun to create a microlearning platform by encouraging members to be part of the solution.

In February, NAA will launch a microlearning site with about 10 videos, with 10 to 15 more added each year. A task force identifies topics it wants to cover and solicits members to produce them. Some training is involved—one of the first videos is about how to shoot video—but Combest says the program meets members where they already are. Many members focus on online auctions, where quality videography and photography are essential. “While they may not be professionals in video production, they are professionals in terms of taking videos,” she says.

That work helps further alleviate some of those aging-member concerns Combest faced when she came aboard. The average NAA member age is still 55, but its median age is 45, and she believes microlearning can help further connect with those younger members.

“What we have to do in order to continue to be healthy is make sure we’re paying attention to what their needs are,” she says.

Wiley anticipates that to serve those needs, future microlearning platforms will need to be more responsive. OSCPA’s Quick Byte series is an optimal way to get members up to speed on rule changes, but other content needs may require other formats. And it may be that 10 minutes is practically an epic film when it comes to learning.

“On YouTube, the best videos are often the ones that are two or three minutes,” he says. “We’re thinking about how can we get [Quick Byte videos] down to a five-minute increment, to make sure we’re actually capturing people’s attention."

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.