Education Educational Formats

The Death of Microlearning

In 2009 Jay-Z released a single titled, D.O.A., capitalizing on the double entendre of the medical acronym for “dead on arrival,” to announce the demise of the frequently-employed Auto-Tune feature. Auto-Tune, introduced in 1997 by AntaTechnologies res Audio, was originally a sound processing feature meant to correct the pitch of studio recordings. By the mid-2010s, the technology was being used as a sound effect to distort voices in almost every popular song. Jay-Z’s D.O.A., or Death of Auto-Tune, was designed to spark a movement in the music industry to move away from the pitch-correction technology as a primary method for producing vocals. Just slightly over a decade later, I find myself empathic to Jay Z’s plight. I don’t have a catchy tune to announce my general ill wishes toward the continued existence of microlearning, but this article is the first shot I’m firing in my campaign to kill it, or at the least the term.

The Rise of Video-Based Learning

The eventual emergence of microlearning can be traced back to the meteoric rise of video as an educational tool. Video has always been a supplemental learning resource, as most of us can recall the days of having to watch the movie version of popular required readings in English class. It was only a matter of making it to the Friday after we finished The Outsiders before I could sit back and enjoy Francis Ford Coppola’s take on gang violence in rural Oklahoma. While those days were fun, watching a movie was never considered the primary learning method in H.S., and it wasn’t until the financial success of a couple of key organizations that video was crowned the “savior of education,” changing the narrative around the format.

In 1995,  Lynda Weinman, a special effects animator and multimedia professor, founded a digital arts school. Eventually, she and her husband would begin offering video versions of their classes through their website, would eventually be acquired by LinkedIn, which was subsequently acquired by Microsoft, resulting in the integrated version of the service we see today. The initial price tag associated with the sale of was reported as a whopping 1.5 billion dollars. That’s enough money to make anyone take up an interest in online education.

In 2006, Salman “Sal” Khan began privately tutoring one of his family members using digital tools, before eventually making the tutoring sessions public on YouTube. By 2014, Khan’s video-based service was receiving attention from major investors, culminating in the launch of Khan Academy. Khan Academy, a non-profit organization, would go on to acquire major donations from AT&T, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as Elon Musk. Sal Khan’s personal net worth is estimated to be 1.5 million dollars, not too shabby for a guy who used to teach math on YouTube.

Instructional Material vs. Reference Material

Image by Anastasia Gepp from Pixabay

After the widely advertised success of the aforementioned organizations, there was an increased focus on video as a primary learning tool. The increased focus on the format eventually became laser, and resulted in the production of the smallest increments possible, also known as “microlearning.” As a derivative of long-form video, the concept was solid, the goal being to retain the successful learning outcomes of long-form videos, but lower the requirements for attention span and duration for the average learner. Much like Auto-Tune, microlearning had humble and well-intentioned beginnings, but its adoption would come with a number of unforeseen downsides.

In the case of microlearning, the switch to short form, from long-form, inadvertently changed the category of learning material from instructional, to reference. Throughout modern learning’s history, educators have always drawn a line between instructional and reference material, understanding one was always used to support the other. The books we use in school are instructional material, providing the core informational resources we require to teach a new subject.   

“Instructional Materials, also known as Teaching/Learning Materials (TLM),[1] are any collection of materials including animate and inanimate objects and human and non-human resources that a teacher may use in teaching and learning situations to help achieve desired learning objectives.”


Learning materials tend to be in long-form, in contrast to reference materials, which tend to be less substantive. Reference materials provide background information and offer reinforcement of primary learning. Most of us are familiar with this use case through writing reports. All of the theories we spewed in writing assignments were useless to teachers without citations of our background information. The practice of reference citations is something that is now more important than ever, as it has become apparent we can’t trust everything we read on the internet.

When the world decided to switch video-based learning to a microformat, we also switched its material type, from learning, to reference. It should come as no surprise, but we probably shouldn’t be touting ourselves as a plumber after watching a 3-minute video on unclogging a toilet.

Not Learning at All

If anything, we aren’t learning at all by leveraging microlearning. Without foundational knowledge, the odds of us retaining the information we witnessed is low, as evidenced by the absurd number of hits those videos receive on platforms. If there is one aspect that truly classifies microlearning as reference material, it is the frequency at which we need to access it because we haven’t learned it.

In contrast, learning through instructional materials is something we don’t normally forget, as proven by the number of times we reference elementary math books to remember how to add. I would argue that when people Google and YouTube something that they’re not learning at all, and if you been following along to this point, I’m imaging you feel the same.

I’m not saying reference material doesn’t have its place in the learning process, because I made that point obviously clear, I’m just saying maybe it would be in our best interest not to coin the term “microlearning” for something that’s not learning at all.

Feel free to comment on this article in the section below. For more information on RTR Digital’s learning services, visit our home page here. RTR Digital is a professional and management development company specializing in interactive digital content. We create digital workforce development programs that support organizations through the entirety of their employees’ lifecycle and offer educational services to assist our clients with building their own digital learning infrastructures.