eLearning, mLearning, and Microlearning Breakdown

In broad terms, education technology has been around since the dawn of education. Things like the abacus, blackboards, and books have been used to teach for over a millennium. But with the recent (historically) explosion of technological advancements, education technology has moved into the digital era along with all of us.

Based on landmark theories in pedagogy and learning, eLearning—or “electronic learning”—breaks through the barriers of the traditional classroom and extends education to wherever there’s a computer with an internet connection. As developments in mobile technology increased, mLearning—or mobile learning—took the classroom completely out of the equation, allowing materials to be accessed from anywhere from a learner’s mobile device. This drastically changed the way we access information, leading to a rise in Microlearning, which focuses on short, task- or goal-oriented chunks of information.

And while all three of these concepts have revolutionized education, the ways these contribute to and differ from each other can be difficult to understand. Below is a breakdown of the eLearning, mLearning, and Microlearning:


Quick facts:

  • Electronic Learning
  • Associated with desktop and laptop computers
  • Structured, formal, timed
  • Individual lessons typically 20-30 minutes

A derivative of distance learning, eLearning offers a more learner-centered education opportunity, affording the learner the freedom to engage with the material outside the classroom and, often, at the time and pace of their choosing. Structuring lessons for the digital realm allows educators to take advantage of the benefits of multimedia learning by incorporating more visual and auditory elements like videos, animation, narration, and infographics. Also, by removing the time and location constraints of a traditional classroom learning experience, lessons can adhere to the segmenting principle, breaking content into shorter chunks to avoid information overload and promote deeper learning.

While eLearning is simply “electronic learning” and encompasses any learning on an electronic device, it is traditionally understood as a more formal, structured form of education, tethered to a computer or laptop, which focuses on deeper retention of a particular set of skills or knowledge. Though not technically “in the classroom,” eLearning is still organized like an online classroom, with an instructor, set lessons, and assessments.

However, eLearning does have its drawbacks. Due to the asynchronous nature of the lessons, learners are deprived of the social interaction of the classroom setting, which can cause issues with motivation and engagement. Also, the time between lesson and assessment is often significant, which can indicate whether the learner has retained the information but often says nothing of real-life application.


Quick facts:

  • Mobile Learning
  • Associated with mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets
  • On-demand, context-aware, and just-in-time
  • Individual lessons typically 2-15 minutes

Born of eLearning, mLearning took off with the advancements of mobile technology. The usage of smartphones and tablets has actually exceeded the usage of desktops, and nearly everyone has a smartphone with them wherever they go. This mobility has created even more opportunities for learner-centered education, as learning can occur virtually anywhere, at any time, and at any pace.

But the similarities between eLearning and mLearning exist only in the fact that they are both forms of digital education. Due to the nature of the platform, mLearning is less structured and formal, instead offering resources that are on-demand or just in time. This represents a fundamental difference in pedagogical approach. Where eLearning is more like a traditional classroom, mLearning functions more as a training tool or a continuation of eLearning. Since information is always available, the focus is less on memorization and knowledge retention and more on performance and experience. Learners are able to quickly access key data and review relevant information about a task to improve their productivity and make better-informed decisions in real-time. Also, as technology continues to improve, things like augmented reality and virtual reality can provide on-the-job training and tools.

See also: Training the Modern Workforce: Mobile Learning for Your Business

A good example of the potential of mLearning is in the hospital. Training to be a doctor requires years of memorizing symptoms and treatments and more, and when in the hospital, mistakes can be deadly. Imagine having all the resources you’d ever need on your mobile device and being able to quickly confirm a dosage or test to run. No inundating your superiors with questions or seeking out medical books or open computers. This not only greatly improves patient safety, but it also helps save precious time that could be the difference between life and death.


Quick facts:

  • Task/goal-oriented
  • Bite-sized chunks of content
  • Individual lessons typically 2-7 minutes

The limitations in display, storage, and bandwidth in mobile learning have favored short chunks of information that are much more task- and goal-oriented—aka Microlearning—such as short videos, infographics, mini-games, and more. These short, skill-based lessons are easy to consume, easy to understand, and can be retained for longer.

Learn How to Make Great Microlearning Content!

Though not strictly tied to mLearning, the mobile format is ideal for the advantages of Microlearning. Since mobile devices are so portable, Microlearning lessons can be consumed whenever and wherever, including during or prior to performance. This is helpful for learning and reinforcing key information and connecting it to its real-world application, leading to higher retention and better skill-building. Another benefit of the Microlearning strategy is its ability to incorporate push technology, which helps reduce cognitive load, supports natural memory formation, and creates a personalized learning environment.

As you can see, eLearning, mLearning, and Microlearning share similarities but ultimately differ in application and approach. It’s important to understand both how they support each other and how they differ before deciding which is best for your learners and designing your course. But whichever you choose, one thing is certain: digital technology is constantly creating new ways to educate, inform, and train.

See also: Glossary of Educational Technology Terms

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