Meeting the Rising Demand for Microlearning

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Monday, July 25, 2022
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo by iStock/HAKINMHAN
Educational providers test the market for micro and “bite-sized” courses that allow learners to quickly learn applicable skills exactly when they need them.
  • The World Economic Forum estimates that at least 54 percent of workers will need to refresh their skills on a regular basis, and 35 percent will require training lasting six months or less.
  • Rutgers Business School recently introduced its Build Your Own Course model that allows students to stack weeklong modules toward one-credit courses and one-credit courses toward full certificates.
  • Gies College of Business will track demand for its own micro and bite-sized courses to understand how this approach motivates learners to consider education in longer formats, from MOOCs to certificate programs to full degrees.


More adults are seeking out lifelong learning opportunities than ever before—both by choice and by necessity. While some individuals are embracing the new opportunities that online learning has created, others have realized that they must continually refresh their skills to stay competitive in an ever-changing job market.

In its 2018 The Future of Jobs Report, the World Economic Forum predicted that by this year, at least 54 percent of workers would need to upskill and reskill on an ongoing basis. Thirty-five percent are likely to require training lasting six months or less—particularly in subject areas such as analytical thinking, innovation, and active learning.

Likewise, two-fifths of respondents to a 2021 survey of 363 chief learning officers—conducted jointly by AACSB, Unicon, and the Financial Times—cited growing interest in self-paced just-in-time learning. And as busy learners manage the accelerated pace of their work and lives, they do not have time to sit in classrooms to complete long degree programs. They are looking for short, compact learning experiences that allow them to acquire knowledge and develop skills in days, hours, or in some cases, even minutes.

Enter microlearning and its even smaller sibling, “bite-sized” learning: short, easily digestible courses that people can complete on their lunch breaks. These often take the form of self-contained blog posts or videos that focus on narrow learning objectives, such as better understanding the basics of a business concept, conquering a skill in a foreign language, or using a single function in Excel.

This spring, several business schools and industry organizations announced that they are introducing their own microlearning offerings to the market. Their goal is not only to meet the growing demand for short-format courses, but also to test the market to see whether they can parlay microlearning and bite-sized offerings into enrollments in their longer programs.

A Market ‘Experiment’

Rutgers Business School in Newark, New Jersey, piloted its microlearning strategy in 2021 in its undergraduate program. In the pilot, students could stack four weeklong modules—on topics such as accounting, auditing, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and visualization—into a one-credit online course. The school calls the approach BYOC, or Build Your Own Course.

For instance, students who wanted to earn a credit in Blockchain, Crypto and Cybersecurity first took a single required module, Introduction to Blockchain and Smart Contracts. They then could assemble three additional modules of their choice, choosing from topics such as Introduction to Crypto Currencies, Basics of Cybersecurity, Crypto Currency Markets and Ecosystem, Fair Value Measure of Crypto Currency, and Information Risk Management.

In the pilot program, 200 students registered for 190 BYOC courses; in the fall 2021 semester, 150 students registered for BYOC offerings to complement their major courses of study. To reinforce their BYOC learning, students have access to nearly 4,000 hours of content housed in the school’s digital library, amassed over the last decade.

BYOC is “an experiment” to see how the market responds to such short offerings and whether students will actually stack them toward long learning experiences, says Hussein Issa, assistant professor of accounting information systems at Rutgers Business School, in a school statement. “Think of BYOC as an appetizer" for learners, he says. “They can take a taste and if they want more, they can take a whole course.”

This year, the business school launched Short Courses in Business Innovation, a series of online one-credit BYOC courses at the graduate level. Designed to help working professionals upskill at their own pace, the microcourses target in-demand skills in areas such as auditing and forensic accounting, data analytics and machine learning, supply chain management, marketing analytics, and managing in the global business environment.

BYOC supports the Rutgers Stackable Business Innovation Program (rSBI), in which students can stack the credits they earn toward nondegree certificates, all as they build their expertise in a particular subject.

“Our new programs are designed to allow students to study the topics they choose, linking together classes to build job skills needed for future work in a digital era,” says Lei Lei, dean of Rutgers Business School. These options, she adds, “answer the demands of students who want to learn with greater flexibility.”

Programs such as BYOC and rSBI promise to be a prominent part of the future of higher education, says Miklos Vasarhelyi, distinguished professor of accounting information systems and advocate for the BYOC program. “Education is going through a paradigmatic change analogous to the invention of the Gutenberg press,” says Vasarhelyi. “Pre-set programs will give way to modular-based variable content educational packages with expert software guiding students and detecting student difficulties.”

Supporting Teaching and Learning

Schools are finding that their faculty also can benefit from microlearning. William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, for instance, just launched its Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation (STLI), which will offer faculty and staff opportunities to earn microcredentials in areas such as creating assessments, developing or revising a syllabus, engaging students, mapping course goals, and planning class sessions.

The studio’s offerings include STLI Academy, a professional learning platform for the school’s faculty and staff. University partners also can take courses in fields such as business, law, and government.

As participants master each skill, they earn completion badges through the digital credential network Credly. “On-demand professional learning opportunities are extremely popular and are becoming recognized by more industries as acceptable education or experiences,” says Amanda Morris, STLI instructional design specialist and manager of the STLI Academy platform.

The school plans to expand its online course catalog to include everything from one-hour microcourses to 10- to 20-hour courses.

The academy is “a unique opportunity for faculty members to build their teaching skills in a flexible, supportive learning environment and earn recognized credentials for their efforts,” says Morris. “It is also a chance for them to find support from STLI team members and find a community of educators that they can collaborate with.”

Fast, Flexible, and Focused

Business schools and universities aren’t the only ones investing in microlearning. Two other organizations serving the higher ed sector are testing the waters with their own short-format educational options. These offerings include a series of three microcourses delivered by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). Called GMAC Business Fundamentals, the self-paced courses cover statistics, accounting, and finance and each take between 12 hours to 20 hours to complete.

The courses—which students can access for 99 USD each or 199 USD for all three—were developed in partnership with educational and training services company Kaplan. The partners also received input from business faculty at schools such as the George Mason University School of Business, Georgetown University McDonough School, Northeastern University D’Amore-McKim School, and University of Pennsylvania Wharton School.

The courses are designed to help prospective students refresh their skills on core subjects prior to pursuing graduate management education, particularly students who are coming to business school from nonbusiness backgrounds, explains Joy Jones, chief product officer and general manager of assessments at GMAC. They are intended to give aspiring students “greater confidence in their ability to do well from the start.”

In early July, online educational platform Coursera introduced a new series of bite-sized videos called Clips. These videos, intended to support enterprise training programs, are focused on teaching focused, actionable skills in just five to 10 minutes. Starting with more than 10,000 short videos, the company plans grow its Clips library to 200,000 videos by the end of the year. Individuals can turn to these videos to learn everything from “how to use the sum and autosum functions” in Excel to “what machine learning can and cannot do.”

Around 60 percent of today’s employees have less than an hour at any given time to spend on learning, says Leah Belsky, Coursera’s chief enterprise officer, in a company statement. By providing quick learning experiences, accessible at any given moment without a formal enrollment process, companies can improve their employee retention and universities can introduce a wider range of students to longer certificate and degree programs.

“Business needs are constantly evolving in today’s workforce, and employees are expected to acquire new skills at an increasingly rapid pace to perform in their roles,” says Belsky. “By delivering easy access to shorter, actionable content on job-relevant topics, we are enabling employees to quickly develop the role-based skills and human skills needed to do their job successfully.” 

Short Courses, Long-Term Learning

One four-minute short video in Coursera’s Clips library, “The Challenge of Everyday Leadership,” comes from the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Gies College did not choose the exact content of its Clips videos. Instead, Coursera selected individual video clips from Gies College’s broader portfolio of MOOCs on its platform.

Even so, the school will be watching the format carefully to gauge student interest. Gies College faculty also will apply what they learn from these short-format offerings to Gies’ own portfolio of microlearning offerings, its iCademies skills-based courses. These three- to four-hour courses teach students immediately applicable skills in leadership and business analytics.

The school will track student demand for micro- and bite-sized learning, in order to understand how this approach delivers access and motivates learners to continue their learning journeys, by enrolling in everything from MOOCs to certificates to full degrees, says Amanda Brantner, the school’s director of content and educational portfolio strategy.

Short, immediately accessible content enables Gies to reach learners “who may have historically found access to higher education impossible,” says Brantner. Each course, she adds, “is a building block at the very beginning of our stackable model that enables learners to create immediate value while laying a foundation for a future path to deeper learning and credentials.”

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Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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