Episode 1 – Amit Garg speaks with Sam Taylor
As part of our Go Beyond campaign on Microlearning, we are having conversations with learning leaders on their experiences with microlearning.
On the first discussion of this series Microlearning Thoughts, I was joined by Sam Taylor, Jr. who is a Sr. Learning Specialist at The World Bank Group. Sam shared his personal L&D journey and talked about his experiences with #microlearning. Sam also points out ‘urgency’ as one of the rationale behind the decision to use microlearning, he also emphasizes on the importance of intentionality behind the decision.
Watch the insightful podcast here:
Below is the transcript of the full discussion:
Amit: Welcome Sam to this Microlearning Thoughts discussion.
Sam: Thank you very much.
Amit: Great to have you here, I really appreciate your time. Sam, why don’t we start with a little bit of background to how’s your journey been in the L&D domain?
Sam: Sure. When I was in college and graduate School, the kind of a learning field that we’re in now didn’t really exist, and so it was kind of probably evolving at the time, we just weren’t aware of it, but my formal training was in international relations and in national security issues. So when I came out of graduate school, I was doing arms control analysis for the Defense Department, specifically for the Air Force. But a lot of what we were doing and what I was working on were compliance programs, for how we would comply with arms control agreements and a lot of that developed into training programs so that our Air Force officers understood their responsibilities and their requirements. And so I kind of learned by doing, I mean you know it was on-the-job learning at the very beginning, and then some formal stuff in between, but I eventually by circumstance ended up coming to the World Bank Group, and I’ve been there for about 18 years now, and doing learning programs and advising groups all across the bank group on how to develop mostly online learning programs because it was fairly new when I came into the bank. And so it’s just kind of evolved from there.
Amit: Fantastic that’s a wonderful story if I can say, picking up stuff while you were doing it and learning on the job yourself. And 18 years – it’s commendable!
Sam: It’s been interesting, I mean, you know it’s a little bit of a tightrope act sometimes, but the nice thing about working at the bank and working with different groups from across the bank group is that no project’s the same. One week I’ll be working with Urban Development, another week I’ll be working with our Health and Safety Directorate, at another time with ethics it just bridges the gap of everything that we do at the bank toward our, you know, our main missions at the bank are to eradicate poverty and to create sustained prosperity. So all of our programs kind of tangentially, if not directly, impact that mission. So it’s a really great place to work, it used to be really nice offices, I think that’s still there, we’ll find out one of these days. Yeah, it’s just been fascinating, a fascinating experience and a quite a little bit of a culture shock coming from a defense background into international development, but it’s been a great experience.
Amit: Yeah, yeah. Fantastic, really happy to learn about that. We’ve met so many times and talked so many times, but we’ve never known about this part of the journey. Thanks for sharing that, Sam. So let’s get started with how do you define microlearning, because I think there are different ways people see microlearning and how to define it. How do you go about defining microlearning?
Sam: Yeah, I mean for me and the way that we’re kind of looking at it at the bank, I mean microlearning is… it’s kind of our next evolution of how we’re planning or are thinking about delivering learning to our staff and to clients, and so we serve both an internal and an external community of learners. So for us, microlearning for me at least is those short, very compartmentalized pieces of information or bite-sized learning that gets enough information to someone so that they can carry out a task, or maybe understand something a little bit better, but it’s not really to my mind it’s not the deep level understanding, the intrinsic knowledge, the ability to kind of really take something on and be able to replicate and apply it over and over again; it might be more directed at just solving an immediate problem or taking care of an immediate task.
Amit: So what you are suggesting is not for the core and deep learning, but more for the support sort of learning opportunities.
Sam: Yeah, exactly, I mean so it’s not going to replace one of our more involved learning programs that teaches someone how to go manage a project with a multimillion dollar budget, you know you can’t teach that through a series of… well, I don’t think you can teach it effectively through a series of short microlearning assets. But you certainly could augment a deep formal training program with those microlearning assets to reinforce the learning to remind people and to, like I said, address those immediate needs.
Amit: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I recall in one of your previous chats you said ‘it is outside the formal which is quite light’.
Sam: Yeah, that was kind of one of my early attempts at trying to distinguish between formal learning, which are large scale learning programs with very clearly defined learning objectives, measurable outcomes, metrics, as opposed to the microlearning which could be a little lighter and don’t necessarily have to have those deeply defined learning objectives like, “By the time you finish watching this video, you will be able to…”. It might just be that I understand how to which button to push on to create a pivot table in Excel. That’s why I’d say it kind of sits alongside formal, but I don’t think it replaces formal, at least not at this point.
Amit: Absolutely, and I like what you said, you know by saying that it does not have an elaborate objective that has been listed out. Probably it is very much evident from the title of that short piece, because that’s how people are inching towards that if they know this is what it will help them do.
Amit: Excellent. That makes sense to me. So moving on to the next question. For you and your team at the World Bank, what makes microlearning attractive?
Sam: For us, it’s kind of, you know, we’re always talking about another tool in the toolbox, so it’s another way of delivering information to people that need it. It’s a great way for us to try to kind of compartmentalize some of our bank expertise, and get it out to both staff and to clients so that they can make use of that information. While formal learning programs are wonderful in educating people around a topic or theme or skill, they take a long time to create, particularly at the bank it seems. So by the time that you create that formal learning program, maybe the need has almost past you by. So microlearning for us really is a way to kind of get information out more quickly and still be effective. And then we’re trying to look at ways particularly to bring in some of our experts who may not have the time to develop a formal learning program, but still want to communicate what they’ve been working on or what they have a deep expertise in — microlearning is another great way for getting that message out.
Amit: So yes, absolutely, and I think that’s great benefits that you listed out there. Little faster to do bringing in the experts to participate in that and they don’t have a whole lot of time many times to be involved in such program. Yeah, and it does a great job of capturing the experts’ knowledge if you develop it with a very focused mindset, specially around how do you do stuff. If you don’t know how to do this, you can go to our expert and ask and that could become a great microlearning piece.
Sam: Yeah, an example for us would be going to some of our test team leaders who manage projects and say what are the first three things you think about when you’re assigned a new project? And then they very quickly could do know a short podcast or a short note, or anything really, to capture that little bit of information. It doesn’t need to be a formal course, but that information could then go to a new TTL who’s never done this before and go, “Oh this guy’s done 20 projects before and these are the first three things he thinks about. Maybe I should think about the same thing.”
Sam: That really I think is the power behind the idea of microlearning for us.
Amit: Absolutely, and we’re seeing that being utilized in more organizations and there is a great power and learning from your colleagues and peers that you respect and you know they have been great performers. Fantastic. Okay, so in your journey what have you learned over the years in implementing microlearning that you would like to share?
Sam: We’re still probably pretty early in our journey in microlearning, I mean we’re definitely doing more of it. I think the things that we have learned have been that you still need to be intentional about microlearning. It shouldn’t just be, “Oh, let’s just capture this guy’s PowerPoint presentation and put it up on the web, and that’s microlearning.” I think that you got to have a purpose behind it. And I know even when we’re developing some of our formal online learning programs, we’re already talking with groups about what other things could you do while we’re developing this to create some microlearning assets that could sit alongside this so that if somebody… we know that when staff or clients complete a learning program, they are not going back to their training history in the LMS to review the content; they’re trying to find a quicker solution than that. So what are the critical elements that you would want to make sure that someone has access to beyond this course and maybe make some microlearning around that and make that available, because it can both encourage people to take the course if they see that microlearning and say oh I’d like to learn more about that or it becomes that reinforcement mechanism for after the learning has occurred that they can go back to more easily and get the information that they need or get those reminders. So that I think for me is, it’s not just learning by another name, it’s still learning and it still needs to be done properly in order to be effective. And so I think for us really is treating it with the same seriousness that we would treat a formal learning program, but without some of the extra – for lack of a better word – ‘baggage’ that comes along with creating a formal learning program.
Amit: I especially like the word you used about it, it was ‘intentional’, so it cannot be something that happens and you start calling it “Oh this is short piece so it is microlearning.” But if it is planned that way, it is going to support program or it is going to support the users in a certain way. I think that intentionality will really drive the value of that microlearning. To me that stood out as the key word when you thought…
Sam: Yeah, and that was probably learned through a few missteps when we first started doing some of this, so it’s like “Oh, we’ll capture these documents and make them available as downloadable content” and kind of thinking of it as microlearning but it’s not the same thing – that’s more of a resource. So there’s definitely a distinction. Microlearning still has that learning word in it, so it needs to communicate, it needs to educate, needs to guide. So like I said there does need to be that intentionality behind it when you’re thinking about creating something.
Amit: True. Yeah, and absolutely I agree. Sometimes resources may not lead to learning, it may just lead to get the task done. So you may want to not classify it as traditional microlearning.
Yeah, absolutely. Alright, so the next question Sam is what tools and tech have you been leveraging to create, deliver, track microlearning?
Sam: It’s kind of a little bit of everything, I mean obviously for podcasts and videos we’re using, video recordings of WebEx sessions or we use Teams or something like that, somewhere where we can capture the video and record that. We actually have a couple of people on the team in the Open Learning Campus team that have expertise in developing podcasts and video production so they tend to work on that a lot. We’ve done certainly some work with companies like yours where we’ve developed short animated videos around our staff rules or around coming back to work safely after the pandemic, that have been very interesting and a very educational experience for us too because it was something we’d never done before. But in terms of tracking: Well, the Open Learning Campus is the bank’s platform for delivering all of our learning programs, both formal and informal. We have a learning management system that sits at the back end to do the administration of our formal learning programs. But we have an entire what we call a school of informal learning of World Bank talks that’s kind of like Ted plus YouTube plus a document repository, but it’s where we can collect these microlearning assets. And we can do some rudimentary statistics on number of times a piece of content is used or by whom even. So it’s very rudimentary at this point. We’re looking into bringing in other systems to allow us to do a better job of tracking the use of our informal content and integrating it with some of our more formal programs. So it’s not just ‘watch a bunch of modules’ or ‘sit through a workshop’, but it could be a blend of a lot of different modalities and because we’ve got the xAPI functionality built in, we could start to track and integrate and build a more complete picture of a learner’s training history than just taking reports. But that’s still being developed, so bringing that in.
Amit: That makes great sense, and my experience with some of our clients has been – SCORM has been some sort of a limiting factor, especially for initiatives like microlearning. So xAPI is probably a little more powerful and some are really just launching it without any tracking. And that’s interesting because some of them are not really interested in tracking a lot of it; almost like Google Analytics they will see how much of access is there and which ones are popular ones, etc.
Sam: Yeah, that’s where we started and then we realized that we wanted to know and understand more about what a learner was doing with our platform. So we built more capability into the portal side of things; the microlearning stuff is on a Drupal platform, so we’ve got some programmers at the bank that have kind of customized some pieces there to allow us to better track what people are doing, but it’s still not linked back to the LMS at this point, so we’re going to have to look for a better solution for that in the next year. And we’re a very data driven organization so as soon as you start to tell people that data exists, they want to see it, whether they understand what it means or not. So it drives a lot of what we do in terms of our learning programs, particularly in the monitoring and evaluation component.
Amit: Yeah, I can completely understand that. And yes, you mentioned about some of the work that we’ve done with you. We’ve been very happy with some of those microlearning pieces that we got done.
Sam: Yeah, they were fun.
Amit: Very interesting. Just extending the tracking bit, because sometimes it may be slightly different in the way we see it. How do you measure or even define success of any microlearning initiative you have?
Sam: That’s a good question because you know, like I said, if you differentiate it from a more formally structured learning program where there are clearly defined objectives, and by achieving those objectives you should be able to measure changes in behavior, microlearning is a little bit harder to draw those connections, I think. I think it may depend on the circumstances, so if you’re trying to address a particular problem at the office, say ineligible expenditures or something like that and you just want to see a reduction in the error rate. You could create a learning program to put everybody through, or maybe you figure out where people are making the most mistakes, so maybe it’s just they are entering stuff in the wrong place at the wrong time and you just need a microlearning. So if you could create a microlearning that directly addresses a challenge that you’re seeing in work then you can probably draw some sort of correlation between changes in that behavior sort of there are reduction in error rates, that sort of thing. We had an interesting case years ago when I first joined the bank actually, where we developed a learning program that was kind of around that, but it was more formally structured one, and at the end of it all we were looking at the evaluation data and we were saying, “Well, look, for the course we had ineligible expenditure of this much, after the course we now have ineligible expenditures of this much; it’s an improvement, therefore the course works”. Then our evaluation teams are like, “We have but you can’t prove one to one causality”, and we’re like “We really don’t care because we’re not having the same problem over and over again, so we don’t really care if we take credit for it or not. All we know is that things improved”. So I think you know microlearning may fall into that area that because it may not be designed specifically to map to a one-to-one relationship between problem and solution, but you still should be able to draw some sort of correlation between the two activities to at least feel better about maybe it’s doing its job or something like that. I don’t know, it’s that we’re kind of new at this and just kind of we’re learning as we’re going and learning from others that have done this better than we have so that we can borrow from their experience.
Amit: Yeah, absolutely and I think correlation is a great next step from what we have been doing in past in terms of trying to prove the real impact of what training or any learning solution does. So correlation, while it may not always mean that there is causation, but I believe there is a greater degree of certainty when you can prove that correlation over a period of time consistently across groups, across conditions, across various things, so that you start utilizing some of the other factors. So possibly yeah, but I think it’s a good second step. Of course, we need to do a little more there.
Right, yeah, okay. But that’s very interesting and I really like that eventually we should have something there that we’re trying to link it back to ‘Did it improve something on the ground?’ Or just my thought that maybe with microlearning if it is very task focused, those tasks can be monitored, so there may be a link if there is a way to monitor those tasks on a granular basis. Possibly there’s a link or towards whether it is impacting performance or anything.
Sam: A funny example, kind of that proves that point I think is I remember several years ago we were going to some event and it was coat and tie and my son was going with us for like the first time and so I was thinking ahead already of how I was going to help him tie his tie, and he came down and he’d tied it already and I’m like “Did your mom help you?” and he’s like “No I found it on YouTube and it showed me how to do it”, and I’m like “Okay, well you know…” so there was that one-to-one relationship, so he had problem, he found a solution and it worked.
Amit: Yeah that’s exactly where I think microlearning possibly has a great application opportunity and if we have a good tie-in with the task then also a good measurement and the ability to prove that it is working and helping the business.
Amit: Fantastic. Okay, so very interesting stories Sam, some personal ones, but just as a last question for you, what advice would you give to fellow L&D people who are just starting on their microlearning journey?
Sam: My advise will be, going back to that ‘intentionality’ word – figure out what place you want microlearning to serve or what purpose you want it to serve in your overall learning portfolio. It’s not going to replace all of your formal learning programs nor should it, but think about how it could best be used to address the challenges that you’re facing. I think it’s a great way to get information out quickly, certainly with the pandemic now, not having the time or the space necessarily to build more formal programs. So what small things could you get out to your learners that they would need to continue to operate properly or to carry out their jobs. So I think it’s really just, you know, think about it – microlearning is not a replacement for other types of learning. Like I said it’s another tool in the toolbox is the way that we look at it. So how can we use that effectively to… it still goes back to knowledge, skills, and attitudes — what can people… what do they know more of, what are they able to do, or change behavior? Microlearning can do all three of those, so like I said it’s still learning, but think about how you want to do it and do it effectively, because if you’re just putting out lots and lots and lots of information in very short bites, but there’s no real thought behind it or no ideas of how you’re going to use it and make it effective, then it’s just putting out information. And so pretty quickly it becomes white noise and your learners can kind of disengage, so be intentional about it, think about really how best to use it and when to use it, and recognize that it’s not the solution for everything, so don’t try to force everything into the microlearning bucket just because it’s the latest ‘widget’ that everybody is talking about, because it won’t work and it will probably set you back in a lot of ways.
Amit: You’re right, you know, and if you go down that route thinking this is the thing to do now and it is going to solve all our challenges, you’ll be disappointed and you’ll actually move away from whatever else you would have really done and achieved with microlearning. So yeah, very important.
Sam: A lot of the conversations that we have with clients around microlearning starts from the premise of, “Well, my learners are really busy so what can we do that’s really quick and short?” And that’s not your learning strategy. Quick and short is not your learning strategy. It may be a constraint, but you’ve still got to put some thought into it, put some effort into it, and make sure that if it’s going to be quick and short it’s gotta be really effective. And sometimes that’s really hard. There used to be an old adage, probably still is, about eLearning it’s like good, fast, cheap — you can have any two of them, not three when you’re developing a learning program. It can be good and fast, but if it is, it’s not going to be cheap. It can be fast and cheap, but if it is, it’s not going to be good. And that’s my concern is that if it’s fast and cheap, microlearning is not going to be good microlearning, and it’s really not going to serve your learners at all.
Amit: Yeah I like that, but it might just be the headline statement for our talk, which is quick and fast or quick and short is not your strategy of microlearning. But you at the same time added that we need to make it effective and I’ll just pick on another word that you said while you were answering this question, which is ‘focusing on the challenges’, which is identifying what our people are not able to do today, what are they facing challenges with and creating stuff which is directed at that. You know, possibly that’s what you meant there, right?
Amit: Yeah, interesting. Right Sam, this has been a great short conversation but very insightful. Thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.
Sam: I really enjoyed it. I’m glad to do it. I’ve enjoyed this a lot. It’s definitely something that we’re interested in and we want to take advantage of but you know we’re trying to learn from others and share what we’ve learned as well, so this has been a great opportunity I really appreciate it.
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