How small is too small for educational technologies to be meaningful?

Filed Under (e-learning, instructional design, New Media) by Mark A.-W. on 02-05-2009 and tagged

Using small, modular components as the building blocks of educational programs is nothing new to curriculum developers. But many relatively new technologies such as widgets and micro-blogs now provide greater options for delivering educational content in tiny sizes to massive audiences. In nearly every media, “the short version” seems to have growing cachet as users experience growing demands on their time and attention.

The 60-second “microlecture” has recently gotten some attention as a possible viable new format to replace to the traditional college course lecture.


Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station has responded to the needs of the short attention span culture with “Microdocs”: 2-3 minute video documentaries. These videos demonstrate that the minute is the new hour. But do they go far enough? Is the second is the new minute?

Widgets—with their ability to disseminate small packages of regularly refreshed content—lend themselves well to educational “fact of the day” applications.



Other technologies focused specifically on mini-learning applications are growing in availability as well. For example, educators can use commercial technologies such as Nanolearning to package their educational material into small learning objects.

Where does that leave the educational prospects of text on a page? Writing-for-the-web guru Jakob Nielson has studied how users scan web pages.  He found that online reading follows an “F” pattern—that is, people read less and less as they scan down the page. Users often read only about the first two words or 11 characters of a website’s links and headlines. How can educators teach people to write sentences and paragraphs if people don’t read sentences and paragraphs? Meanwhile, the average American adult has at best an 8th grade reading level. So, should materials targeted for the general public be written at a grade school level?

Does teaching to these trends (giving them the short version) lead to reinforcing short cuts? What about the value of inspiring attention and aspiring to depth?

How small is too small? And how can one microlearning experience be connected to larger educational outcomes?

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6 Comments Already, Leave Yours Too

Ken Allan on 3 May, 2009 at 3:19 am #

Kia ora Papyrus!

‘Granularity’ is a term that in some way defines the size of the smallest component of a module. Size and functionality need to be optimally balanced for the resource to be on target – the resource should be neither too large in comparison to the size of its components nor too small to perform the pedagogical function in meeting its learning objective.

There is always a balance to be found between size of a resource and what it offers.

Catchya later
from Middle-earth


[…] May 4, 2009 Posted by bfinkenstadt in Uncategorized. trackback A quick reply to a recent post on Electronic Papyrus regarding questions about the latest online learning technologies. Mentioned in the post: one […]

John on 4 May, 2009 at 8:42 am #

Thanks for introducing this concept Mark. If I was an instructor, I would be tempted to have the students create the 1 minute lecture.

Sarah Chauncey on 4 May, 2009 at 7:15 pm #

After reading about and listening to one of the 60 second lectures, I couldn’t help but have chuckle someone else who believed in brief delivery …

labellec on 5 May, 2009 at 7:33 am #

Here’s the future of nano-news and information taken to the extreme(note the April 1st date on this publication :).

Another quick point…I think it’s important to point out that the F-pattern is generally only relevant for the “conventional” web page that has hypermedia, images and lends itself to scanning, but when encountering documents or articles that have simply been placed on the web (which describes a vast number of online docs), one still reads very much like one does when reading a book in terms of left to right and without the “hyperscan”/bounce technique. So, form and function are still very much in play here.

steve on 14 May, 2009 at 1:48 am #

Looks wonderful

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