How do you educate and train a workforce that is more easily distracted than ever?

For some companies, the answer is short digital learning sessions that are available at employees’ convenience.

The average attention span—the amount of time a person can stay focused on a single task, filtering out distractions—in North America dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015, thanks in large part to smartphones, on-demand entertainment and social media infiltrating people’s lives, according to a Microsoft Corp. study.

In response, large employers including Uber Technologies Inc., Gap Inc. and Pernod Ricard SA are using “microlearning” apps and websites to deliver training to workers in bite-size lessons.

“The way that people learn has shifted,” says Calvin Ng, director of learning and development at Pernod Ricard USA.

“Employees are not necessarily engaged by sitting down in a classroom and looking through hundreds of slides and being talked at today,” he says. “And time is a big concern, with regards to training.”

There’s never a good time to take an employee out of a busy workday, but training is still requested and people want to feel like the company cares about their development, Mr. Ng says.

Pernod Ricard provides on-demand, bite-size lessons to them to get around that challenge, he says.

Hard and soft

Among e-learning companies that offer microlearning formats are Grovo, Udemy Inc. andLinkedIn-owned Inc. for corporate-skills training and Duolingo for language skills.

Most produce or distribute a mix of video and interactive lessons that take under five minutes to complete and include a quiz component. They also make their lessons available to users whenever they want to access them online or via their smartphones.

The approach can be used to teach workers both hard and soft skills, like how to use a particular piece of accounting software or factory equipment, or how to manage conflict and motivate teams.

In Uber’s case, the company makes the Duolingo app available to drivers in Colombia, Brazil and Mexico who want to brush up on their English-language skills so they can attract more fares. When drivers have proved their English proficiency through the completion of a certain number of lessons, their cars are listed when English-language travelers seek a driver who can speak their language.

Pernod Ricard, which makes wines and spirits, offers about 300 different courses to its thousands of employees each year. About 20% of its courses are delivered through microlearning formats, according to Mr. Ng.

Limited approach?

The company still offers in-person, instructor-led courses and longer-format online courses, though. And that’s a good thing, says Priya Rajasethupathy, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University whose neuroscience specialty is learning and memory.

Microlearning is effective but limited, she says.

Microlearning encourages learning through spaced repetition, which is more effective than cramming a lot of content into one long, in-person seminar or digital equivalent, Ms. Rajasethupathy says. But it doesn’t guarantee users are paying the same attention they may when they’ve escaped their daily routine to sit in a classroom together, she says.

And bite-size lessons aren’t likely to carry emotional weight for students—a critical component in learning—the way that discussing and debating a topic, or practicing something they’ve learned in a workshop, clinic or field trip can, the Stanford scientist says.

Ms. Kolodny is a former reporter for Dow Jones VentureWire and The Wall Street Journal in San Francisco. She can be reached at


Source: Wall Street Journal

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