Traditional eLearning vs. microlearning

In this blog post, we compare microlearning with traditional eLearning and examine which works better.

Knowing the best approach to designing new content can be challenging for instructional designers. Additionally, trends and technology change as quickly as the needs of our learners. In New Zealand, a growing trend in the eLearning landscape is microlearning.

Traditional eLearning

With the rise of the internet and personal computers, eLearning took the learning and development world by storm. SCORM 1.2 was introduced in 2001 and represented the standardisation of eLearning format. Today, it is still the most popular eLearning format.

Furthermore, the introduction of a standard format paved the way for the new technologies to support eLearning:

  • Learning Management Systems: An LMS, like Tōtara, hosts eLearning modules and keeps records of module completion.
  • Rapid Development Tools (RDT): These tools enabled eLearning content to be built and published as a SCORM package without coding knowledge. These tools were key to the availability and growth of eLearning.

However, early eLearning was text-heavy, with multiple-choice questions to break up the content. But, as technology improved eLearning began to include more interactive activities, audio and video.

Characteristics of traditional eLearning

Traditional eLearning was an alternative to classroom learning. The common characteristics of traditional eLearning are:

  • Long modules: eLearning modules are typically more than 30 minutes and require the learner to have dedicated time to complete them.
  • Locked navigation: Learners need to complete the module in a particular order. Interaction completion is tracked to ensure the learner has clicked on everything before moving on. Concepts are delivered in order and build on each other.
  • Optimised for at-desk learning: Content is optimised for laptops and desktops and doesn't perform well on tablets and phones.


While the term has been around since the 1960s, it grew in popularity with the introduction of smartphones - we suddenly had access to the internet in the palm of our hand. Furthermore, platforms like YouTube(external link) made it possible for everyone to create and consume microlearning content in the form of short videos.

Characteristics of microlearning

Typically, microlearning is characterised by:

  • Highly focused content – 1-15 minute bite-sized lessons. Each lesson is designed to address a specific concept concisely.
  • Uses a wide range of technologies and media formats.
  • Enhanced knowledge retention: Delivering content in small chunks enables learners to absorb and retain key concepts more effectively. Additionally, multiple lessons can be provided on a specific topic to reinforce learning and support different learning styles.
  • Optimised for just-in-time learning: Bite-sized modules are easy to access as needed.

Traditional eLearning content vs. microlearning

Now, let’s take a look at the difference in benefits of traditional eLearning vs. microlearning.

Traditional eLearning benefits

  • Consistency: eLearning supports consistent delivery of content - this is helpful in organisations to ensure policies and procedures are followed by all staff.
  • Complex concepts: Traditional eLearning can more effectively handle complex concepts by providing deep and comprehensive topic coverage. Additionally, learners can explore the concepts and theories and apply them through scenarios.
  • Flexibility: eLearning can happen at the learner's desk at a time that suits them.
  • Strong analytics: eLearning analytics can be collected and provide learning and development professionals valuable insight into how and when learning is accessed.

Microlearning benefits

  • Highly adaptable: By breaking large courses into small microlearning modules, a more personalised experience can be delivered to learners. Plus, microlearning modules can be adapted to meet the individual needs of a learner or a group.
  • Gamification: The quick completion time of microlearning naturally fits into gamifying courses which can be appealing to learners. For example, achieving badges or points as they progress. Furthermore, adding game-like elements to learning can increase learner motivation and engagement.
  • Tool versatility: Microlearning empowers L&D professionals to explore more modern content creation tools and migrate from RDT and SCORM. For example, H5P(external link) is a great alternative to SCORM and allows you to have many responses and accessible lessons. Introducing a range of tools and activities means you can flex your content to support learning styles.
  • Knowledge retention: These short bursts of learning, delivered just in time, aim to defeat the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve(external link). Microlearning modules also provide the option for learners to revisit and refresh their understanding as they need to.

So, which works better?

When comparing traditional eLearning and microlearning, try not to get caught up answering "Which one works better?". Asking this question can lead us down a path of forcing everything into the same solution. Instead, become comfortable with multiple eLearning design strategies and allow the topic to guide the content design.

There are also concepts from microlearning that can be used in traditional eLearning to improve the learner experience and engagement too. For example:

  • Publish your SCORM modules in small chunks. This improves known SCORM performance issues and makes it easier for learners to progress through the content in their own time.
  • Remove locked navigation and empower learners to explore the content in a way that suits their learning preferences.
  • Explore different content creation tools to add some variety to your eLearning offerings.

There is no one-size-fits-all out there. Instead, focus on the strengths of the two solutions and how to use them effectively to deliver a powerful and adaptable learning ecosystem.

And, of course, if you need support to create engaging eLearning content – traditional or micro - our team of instructional designers is ready to help.(external link)