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Microlearning and Why It Matters

Dr. Conrad Hughes, Education Advisory Board Member

Updated: April 8, 2024 | Published: March 29, 2024

Updated: April 8, 2024

Published: March 29, 2024

a graphical depiction of microlearning

Why is it that we learn in the configurations that we do? Throughout the Middle Ages and Enlightenment, courses of study were not standardized and, therefore, varied greatly in length and assessment method. The length of a course and the way it was assessed depended on the teacher. In the 19th Century, as universities started to grow across the world, particularly in the United Kingdom and in the United States, admissions teams expressed frustration at the disparity in contact time that different students had experienced in their schooling. Some might have spent over 200 hours learning a subject, others under 100. How would universities compare such situations and vouch for the right amount of learning to be eligible for entry into the university?  
Harvard President Charles William Eliot responded by proposing units considered necessary for the correct amount of study to have taken place. For Eliot, students would have to study a subject for 120 hours to gain credit. At the end of the 1900s, this credit system was endorsed by the American National Education Association. From then on, institutions would have to ensure that students followed courses for 120 hours to be awarded credit. However, adoption was slow, and it was only between 1906 and 1910 when the Carnegie Foundation made this unit of study (120 hours) a mandatory institutional condition for college professors to receive their retirement pensions, that adoption became widespread. This is why the 120 hours of study, split into periods, is called the Carnegie Unit. 

However, over the last twenty-odd years, universities have been offering units of study called micro-credentials. How can we define microlearning in simple words? Microlearning means that students focus on smaller, sharper, and more focused courses ranging from one to twelve weeks in general. This allows for more flexibility and prevents the tedious experience of sitting through hours of study to satisfy the length rather than the content exigencies. 

Why does it matter to the future of learning? Microlearning might well be the future of learning across many systems as courses are broken down into tighter expressions of knowledge and skill development. Online education ensures learners get to focus and absorb more. Fully remote online educational institutes like University of the People promote microlearning by allowing students to study at their own pace.