Microlearning in Foreign Language Courses: A Threat or a Promise?
Pavel Brebera
Language Centre, University of Pardubice, Czech Republic
Abstract: Microlearning represents a broad concept which has been emerging in recent debates on the nature of dealing
with information by the new generations of learners, and besides, its potential is currently being widely discussed in the area
of corporate learning and development. Although it is often presented as a completely new phenomenon which has been
developing massively over the past few years mainly in the North America, the studies which were published in the European
context over the last decade, such as Hug (2007) or Buchem, Hamelmann (2010), clearly demonstrate not only its global
nature but also its long-term development, resulting in establishing its firm position in the current educational discourse. In
the L&D Global Sentiment Survey 2016, microlearning was accented as one of the upcoming global trends predicted by the
learning professionals across the globe and therefore, there is an urgent need for some empirical evidence illustrating the
predictive validity of its implied potential. This paper attempts to address this particular issue and thus, its aim is to analyse
some specific aspects of the phenomenon of microlearning within the field of English language learning in the area of higher
education. The analysis is supported by means of providing empirical data on microlearning, used as an underlying principle
of implementing some e-learning, mobile learning and blended learning strategies into the English language courses taught
at the university level, such as the interactive platform Kahoot, the language learning app Duolingo and the social network
Instagram. The quantitative analysis of the relevant data was conducted by means of a questionnaire survey which was
carried out within the group of university students and focused on their attitudes towards the selected microlearning tools.
These findings are complemented by the qualitative data representing the students’ perceptions of the selected tools and
by the categorisation of their Instagram posts according to the relevant criteria.
Keywords: microlearning, English language teaching, e-learning, m-learning
1. Introduction
Over the past decade, the attribute “micro” has been repeatedly entering the educational discourse, especially
in the area of e-learning and blended learning. The inspirational attempts which were initially carried out in
German speaking context with the intention of defining the concept of microlearning by means of establishing
the solid theoretical framework of the didactics of microlearning (Hug 2007) or via its basic conceptualisation in
terms of microcontent and its potential contexts of use (Buchem, Hamelmann 2010) were later “enriched” by
numerous additions coming mainly from the area of corporate / workplace learning in global perspective. While
some of these emerging “microconcepts”, such as for example microcredentials in terms of open badges have
already achieved a significant degree of theoretical justification and subsequently, a basis for a well-clarified
practical application in various learning contexts or within the particular scenarios of education of future (for
more see Brebera, Pospíšilová 2015), other related concepts have unfortunately remained at the level of
vagueness and superficiality. Paradoxically, these obscurities mainly concern the basic term of microlearning
itself, which can be documented within two dominant perspectives on microlearning, observable in the area
corporate / workplace learning. These are represented on one hand, by expressing high expectations and opting
for its broad acceptance (as summarised in the following recently published influential reports on learning and
development – Taylor, Dedhar 2016, Taylor 2017, Boller 2017) and, on the other hand, by openly questioning its
generally perceived potential (Clark 2016, Jimenez 2017) or presenting it from a certain perspective even as a
“learning myth” (Burns-Johnson 2016; Boller 2015b, Dillon 2017). Our main aim is to broaden this perspective
and to identify the areas – primarily in the field of language teaching methodology – where the perceptions of
microlearning both in terms of a “threat” and a “promise” are justifiable and verifiable by empirical evidence.
2. Microlearning in foreign language courses
2.1 The scope of microlearning in foreign language courses
At the end of the year 2015, a global survey carried out among the representatives of corporate learning and
development revealed the tendency to perceive microlearning as a “hot” (Taylor, Dedhar 2016) issue for the
forthcoming year. The attractiveness of this emerging educational trend seems to be understandable if we have
a closer look at the main concepts included within the definition of microlearning in the glossary of the
document. Apart from the descriptive part of the definition of microlearning in terms of “incorporating small
learning ‘units’ or ‘objects’“ (ibid., p. 25), the proclaimed “promise” consists in “making use of variety of media
and technology” (ibid.) and in presenting this trend as “learning designed according to our understanding of

neuroscience, memory and recall” (ibid.). In connection to the latter “promise”, the non-critical appeal to
microlearning is being constantly fed by numerous references to an average eight-second-attention-span of the
generation of the so called “millennials” (e.g. Designing Digitally 2016, ProProfs 2017, etc.) which is, however,
based on a misinterpretation of one of the Microsoft studies and thus directly labelled by some authors as a
“learning myth” (see e.g. “microlearning millennial myth” formulated by Burns-Johnson 2016, or the summary
of workplace learning myths by Dillon 2017). Besides, presenting microlearning solely in the form of “response
to ongoing technological developments” (such as by e.g. Mitu 2017, no pagination) and with the assumption
that “unlike the classic approach, micro learning is tailored to meet the needs of today´s learner” (ibid.) still lacks
a solid empirical basis. As an illustrative and highly inspirational response to the above mentioned proclamations
expressed by numerous advocates of omnipotent microlearning, Clark (2016, no pagination) poses an urgent
call for “a real analysis on what it actually means” as “if this is the great trend for 2016 in learning, we´ve branded
ourselves as a profession that simply forgets its past and is too lazy to define its future”.
In order to clarify the concept of microlearning, a well-balanced conceptual framework for these issues should
be proposed. It is useful to start with a broad perspective on the scope of microlearning as suggested by Hug
(2007, p. 19). According to him, “it can be utilised with a range of pedagogies, including reflective, pragmatist,
conceptionalist, constructivist, connectivist, or behaviourist learning, or action-, task-, exercise-, goal- or
problem solving learning”. Thus, though we are certainly aware of the power of current e-learning and m-earning
tools our basic standpoint is represented by a more open approach capable of applying multiple perspectives to
the area of microlearning, embodied within the concept of blended learning. This assumption is also in a perfect
agreement with one of the “takeaways”, i.e. interpretations of the results, of the above mentioned 2017
Learning & Remembering Report (Boller 2017, p. 12) that “blended learning is the norm, not the exception”.
Therefore, the microlearning scheme applied within our teaching context is also primarily formed by blended
approach as the e-learning components of the language courses consist of short interactive activities created by
means of the software HotPotatoes with their explicit focus on the particular language means (topic-related
vocabulary and grammar structures) taught and tested within the complex language development course.
Further enhancement of the effectiveness of microlearning approach can be seen in exploiting its potential by
means of extending its scope “beyond the walls of the classroom”. The subsequent steps of microlearning
schemes within the foreign language education might to a large extent draw on the potential of informal
learning, i.e. “opportunities to practice a foreign language in a non-threatening context, thus building positive
attitudes towards the language as a means of communication” (Brebera, Hloušková 2012, p. 275). From a more
general perspective, Buchem and Hamelmann (2010, p. 4) conclude that “microlearning facilitates self-directed
lifelong learning, as short activities can be easily integrated into everyday activities” and label this type of
learning as “learning in-between and on-demand” (ibid.). In the area of language learning, the study carried out
by Beaudin et al. (2007, p. 56) reveals the potential of m-learning in informal contexts as “ubiquitous technology
can be usefully applied for microlearning because it can reach users throughout the day, when they have idle
time, and in contexts that are related to the information being learned”. In our microlearning scheme, this kind
of extension of the formal learning scope is represented by using the language learning platform Duolingo (for
more see e.g. Munday 2016).
The highest degree of effectiveness of microlearning activities with a further extension of their framework across
the fields of blended and informal learning seems to lie in the area of social learning. According to Buchem and
Hamelmann (2010, p. 3), “microlearning supported by social software enables not only short and flexible formats
or rapid delivery of content, but also social interactions based on that content”. Therefore, a voluntary Instagram
project based on the students´ microblogging activities was chosen in order to exploit the power of social
learning within our microlearning scheme. In our attempts to use this particular microlearning task, we
formulated the same basis as Beaudin et.al (2007, p. 56), in terms of the assumption that “learning that occurs
without formal instruction, such as first language acquisition, seems to be based on meaningful exposure and
interaction”. As the aspects of social learning implemented within the Instagram project primarily draw on
personalisation and thus occur to a large extent regardless of the specific classroom situations, an explicitly
blended alternative was searched for in order to complement our analyses of microlearning in our teaching
context. The desired complex of blended, informal and social learning was then found within the platform
Kahoot, which serves as a very powerful tool for stimulating the interaction among students directly in the
classroom setting (e.g. Zarzycka-Piskorz 2016).

2.2 Key issues in applying microlearning to foreign language courses
A justifiable framework for applying microlearning within the area of foreign language teaching / learning as
described above in terms of blended approaches, informal learning and social learning has been developed with
the primary intention of emphasising its potential, i.e. at the level of “promise”. Nevertheless, a well-balanced
overview of the key aspects of this complex concept needs to be provided by listing several crucial considerations
which represent possible contradictions related to the implementation of microlearning into foreign language
courses, thus identifying the areas of potential “threats”.
2.2.1 Complexity of foreign language acquisition vs. single topic-focus of microlearning
From the perspective of analysing the potential and limitations of microlearning within the area of foreign
language development, the example of language learning platform Duolingo is often used to illustrate its
strengths and weaknesses. It is due to Krashen´s generally accepted distinction between “learning” and
“acquisition” which challenges the proclaimed potential of the Duolingo courses in terms of its incapability of
getting beyond the level of conscious learning of the selected language means (vocabulary and grammar
concepts). In his response to the results of Duolingo effectiveness study, Krashen repeats his previously
expressed claim about the inevitability of subconscious acquisition, referring to the fact that “there is a great
deal of evidence showing that conscious learning does not produce true language competence” (Krashen 2014,
no pagination). Also individual testimonies of Duolingo users presented in topic-relevant blogs on microlearning
confirm this assumption, as summarised for example by Shepard (2016, no pagination): “Well, Duolingo is
definitely improving my French vocabulary and grammar, although I´m short on conversation practice –
something I will be remedying with numerous trips to France”. These facts prioritize the role of microlearning as
a partial component of a complex course – primarily of a blended nature (see the chapter 2.1) – serving as a
means of providing conscious focus on the selected language means which should be subsequently used in the
contexts where subconscious language acquisition is provided.
2.2.2 Long-term language development vs. episodic microlearning
Another group of critical comments is related to the requirements of temporal dimension of foreign language
acquisition compared to the limited amount of time provided by microlearning schemes. For example, the
summary of estimated amounts of time required to achieve the particular language level represented by
generally accepted standardized tests (Inlingua 2016) shows that in order to reach the intermediate level (B2
according to Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) the learner needs 600-800 hours of
formal language instruction. In this way, the assumptions that “micro-learning is NOT useful when people need
to acquire/learn complex skills, processes, or behaviors” (Boller 2015b, no pagination) and that “completion
doesn´t (necessarily) result in skill (Burns-Johnson 2017) or that “microlearning can´t help learners go from
novice to expert” (Hilton 2017, no pagination) are to a large extent confirmed.
However, as we perceive microlearning primarily in terms of “special moments or episodes of learning while
dealing with specific tasks or content, and engaging in small but conscious steps” (Hug 2007, p. 18), its power
can be perceived mainly as a “valuable reinforcement method” (Hilton 2017) and its benefits can be observed
at the level of “spaced practice” (accepted even by the biggest critics of this approach, such as Clark 2016). In
the area of foreign language learning, Duolingo is often presented as a successful example of “spaced learning,
interleaved practice, and retrieval practice” (Tucker 2017, no pagination) or as an example of how “microlearning has quietly worked itself into [one´s] daily routines” (Shepard 2016, no pagination). In connection with
that, some valid comments have been formulated from the perspective of curriculum design, such as that
“choosing the right bits, the right frequency, the right duration, and the right ramp up in complexity, is nontrivial” (Quinn 2017, no pagination), which is based on the obvious assumption that “if we want to systematically
develop somebody over time, it´s not just a steady stream of ‘stuff’“(ibid., no pagination). In this way, a call for
meaningful integration of microlearning elements within the complex learning curricula is being expressed.
2.2.3 Social contexts of foreign language learning vs. microlearning via personal devices
In her analyses of motivation for microlearning, Boller (2015a, no pagination) formulates several
recommendations, including the following point: “Make sure someone else – besides the learner – cares about
what someone is learning”. In our view, to provide microlearning opportunities by means of social learning as
implied above by Boller and simultaneously, to support the idea of “micro-moments” in terms of the moments
“when people reflexively turn to a device – increasingly a smartphone – to act on a need to learn something, do

something, watch something, or buy something” (Huhn 2016, no pagination, referring to Google 2015) are very
likely to result in genuine interest in the subject matter. Informal learning contexts seem to be perfectly suitable
for this type of microlearning activities, such as for example the use of social networks (in our case Instagram),
as they are not only capable of satisfying the learners´ immediate communicative needs but they also encourage
the learners to provide mutual support within the particular “micro-moment”. In accordance with the socioconstructivist theories of education, this kind of support within the particular microlearning activity can be
perceived in terms of the so called “scaffolding”, or we may even speculate about the highly beneficial role of
microlearning activities within larger learning units similarly to Tucker (2017, no pagination), who suggests that
“maybe the microlearning itself is the scaffolding”.
2.2.4 Holistic view on foreign language learning vs. microlearning training strategies
In addition to the issues of complexity of foreign language acquisition, some remarks on the holistic nature of
the development of foreign language competence need to be added. Current views on the communicative
competence as the key category of language instruction comprise the whole complex of its components,
including the intercultural competence (Usó-Juan, Martínez-Flor 2006). Therefore, it is logical that the use of
microlearning strategies is not capable of fulfilling the ambition in terms of holistic development of
communicative competence only by means of manipulating with the pre-selected content. However, a well
thought-out plan of implementation of microlearning activities within a larger course, such as the use of short
interactive activities carried out by means of the multiplatform tool Kahoot in the classroom setting, may
contribute to the complex language development in a very positive way. An inspiration can be also found in the
analyses of workplace learning carried out by Jimenez (2017, no pagination) who suggests that rather than
“learning” we should think of “micro-decisions and actions” as “this view is holistic and returns our attention to
helping the worker through the process of making decisions and taking action – away from content”. Besides,
Rening (2017, no pagination) emphasises the aspects of careful planning of microlearning schemes, and poses
an urgent call for having the “big picture of microlearning” since “without a big picture plan, what is coming to
be called ‘content curation’, we will simply have a hodge-podge of learning objects with no rhyme or reason as
to how and when they are put to use.” Therefore, if we take into consideration the key aspects of course design,
including not only the aspects of conceptualising content but also the ones of assessing needs, formulating goals,
etc. (for more, see Graves 2000, p. 3), the development of a meaningful and effective microlearning scheme
might be guaranteed.
3. Empirical evidence
3.1 Research context and methodology
The empirical investigation is based on the combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis of the data
obtained from the university students who directly experienced the particular microlearning tasks within their
foreign language courses. The research was carried out in Czech educational context and the primary data
collection tool was a questionnaire survey of students´ subjective perceptions in the area of microlearning.
Secondarily, the authentic materials developed by students at the platform Instagram served were analysed by
means of content analysis.
The first research stage is based on purely quantitative data as it is represented by the summary of students´
general perceptions which were collected during the period of previous 4 semesters in case of Hot Potato
activities and Duolingo (winter 2015 – summer 2017) and 3 semesters (summer 2016 – summer 2017) in case of
Kahoot. The numbers of respondents vary due to the specific focus of the particular courses (e.g. higher-level
vs. lower-level courses, courses for full-time students vs. courses for part-time students), which means that in
case of Hot Potatoes as the most widely used microlearning activity 654 responses were collected, while 320
responses were gathered in case of Duolingo and 245 responses in case of Kahoot. The second stage of data
collection and interpretation was carried out during the first half of the year 2017 with the direct focus on the
specific aspects of microlearning for all three previously used microlearning activities according to the predefined theoretical structure (see the chapter 2.1), i.e. HotPotatoes activities representing the microcontent of
the blended courses, Duolingo representing the shift toward informal learning contexts, Kahoot illustrating the
power of social learning within the classroom setting, and Instagram integrating all of these aspects. This second
phase was based on both quantitative and qualitative data from 89 respondents in case of Hot Potatoes
activities, 51 respondents for Duolingo, and 51 for Kahoot.

3.2 Research results
3.2.1 First stage of investigation: general perceptions
Quantitative data from the first stage of research reveal a high degree of acceptance of all three microlearning
activities but simultaneously, a need for further investigations is being implied. In case of e-learning courses
consisting of Hot Potatoes activities, the majority of comments on their perceived difficulty show that 70% of
the respondents view the level of the course as adequate from the perspective of successful mastery of its
content, while 24% of the researched group considered the courses to be to a certain extent ineffective in terms
of their high difficulty and 6% owing to their easiness. The content itself was mostly labelled as interesting (54%)
or always interesting (15%), while 29% of the respondents manifested partial interest in the content by choosing
the option “sometimes interesting” and 2% of the group commented on it as “absolutely uninteresting”.
In case of the Duolingo course, the level of acceptance proved to be slightly higher. Its motivational strength was
appreciated by 42% of the respondents as “very encouraging” and further 39% as “rather encouraging”, 14% of
the group manifested neutral approach and only 5% revealed certain degree of its unacceptance. As for the
perceived usefulness, Fig. 1 shows the perceived huge learning potential of the Duolingo course and at the same
time, it poses an indirect call for further investigations related to certain aspects of its ineffectiveness.
Figure 1: General perceptions of the usefulness of Duolingo
The motivational power of Kahoot proved to be even higher, as 87% of the students who experienced its use
within the language course labelled it either as “very encouraging” (62%) or “rather encouraging” (25%) while
certain degree of its non-acceptance was shown by mere 3% of the researched group. A qualitative insight into
the reasons why Kahoot is so much appreciated by students was one of the aims of the follow-up stage of the
3.2.2 Second stage of investigation: microlearning aspects of Hot Potatoes, Duolingo and Kahoot
The results of the quantitative analysis of the particular aspects of microlearning perceived by the respondents
are presented in Fig. 2. According to this summary, Hot Potatoes activities are primarily perceived as a means of
learning the new material, while their time-framework is considered to be more demanding, thus demonstrating
the lowest level of congruency with the conceptual definition of microlearning. On the other hand, the focus on
interaction and social aspects of learning places Duolingo and Kahoot into the group of genuine microlearning
activities, with Kahoot being presented as more useful in terms of the active use of the previously mastered
material. The differences between the perceptions of Hot Potatoes and Duolingo can be also explained in terms
of their content as the Hot Potato based e-learning courses focused primarily on the area of English for Specific
Purposes, thus representing a higher probability of meeting new concepts, unlike the General English course in
Duolingo offering logical opportunities for re-visiting partially acquired material.

Figure 2: Students´ perceptions of key aspects of the selected microlearning activities
Deeper insights into the learning potential of these particular microlearning activities – primarily used within the
formal learning context but potentially overlapping into the area of informal learning – were gained by means of
the qualitative data. In this way, the students´ perceptions of both the strength and drawbacks of Hot Potatoes,
Duolingo and Kahoot were collected, categorised and illustrated by representative comments as follows:
HotPotatoes: strength in terms of on-demand learning (“There is an unlimited number of activity completion
attempts so it is a good preparation for final exam.”) and drawbacks as insufficient scaffolding (“Difficult
matching in case of unknown vocabulary”; “The need for searching unknown words elsewhere – dictionary,
Duolingo: strength in terms of its in-between practice (“The possibility of learning anytime and anywhere.”)
and drawbacks as its low cognitive demands (“The phrases are easily learnable; after some time I complete
it automatically and there´s no need for thinking.”)
Kahoot: strength in terms of its whole-group engagement (“An interesting and entertaining way to learn,
compete, relax and have fun at the same time.”) and drawbacks as its connectivity pre-condictions
(“Impossible in the classrooms with no or weak Wi-Fi connections”)
3.2.3 Second stage of investigation: Instagram project and the concept of “microproduction”
Instagram project represents one of three options of completing credit requirements for the English course
taught at B2 level. The following analysis is based on the data collected from 20 participants who completed the
project, and the findings are structured into the following categories:
students´ reasons for choosing Instagram project, expectations and previous experience:
One group of responses could be summarised as extending the previous experience with Instagram and another
tendency can be labelled as expecting new kind of learning experience. A big variability in terms of prior
experience with Instagram is shown in the following Fig. 3.
Besides, all students agreed on the fact that this project should not be compulsory, and 70% of them fully agreed
with the pre-selected range of broad topics (“Transport and travelling”; “My job”; “Me and English”), while the
remaining 30% would appreciate more “freedom”. Various expectations concerning the teacher´s role in the
project are shown in Fig. 4.
outcomes of Instagram project
The prescribed total amount of the text (including both the photo descriptions and responses) was 100 lines per
person (counted on the Instagram wall displayed via link in the e-learning course). Altogether 2709 lines of the
text related to 99 students´ photographs were collected from 26 participants (20 of them have already
completed the project; the remaining group consists of students with individual deadlines of completion).

More interesting findings relate to the specifics of the students´ production, which shed more light on them in
the role of prosumers, i.e. the ones who consume and produce media at the same time. As for keeping the focus
on the three predefined topics, professionally related posts (i.e. transport as the students´ professional focus
and the topic of jobs) appeared in 65% of all cases, while the rest of them were more free-time oriented (though
they mostly concerned relevant intercultural issues). As for the language requirements of B2 level, due to the
authenticity of the way the students expressed themselves, their microproduction would fulfil the strict criteria
of B2 writing only in 73% of all posts, mainly owing to neglecting the aspects of grammatical accuracy and the
coherence of written production.
4. Conclusion
Even after providing an overview of the potential perspectives on the concept of microlearning and offering the
outcomes of the particular empirical investigation, the key question of our analysis, i.e. whether microlearning
in foreign language courses should be viewed more as a “promise” or as a “threat”, still seems to be unanswered.
It is mainly owing to the obvious fact that both the existence of commonly accepted positive aspects of
microlearning as well as of its drawbacks has been to a certain extent confirmed by the students´ perceptions as
well as within the analysis of the students´ personal “microproduction”.
Nevertheless, we hold a strong view that in case of the educational concepts such as microlearning, which
sounds as a “buzzword” across multiple layers of pedagogical discourse, it is rather helpful to formulate careful
conclusions rather than to come up with seemingly unquestionable common sense propositions. Yet, the above
presented individual microlearning activities proved their obvious potential at the intra-personal level by means
of creating opportunities for increasing the conceptual understanding of the partially acquired language material
via guided manipulation directed towards its reinforcement (the case of Hot Potatoes and Duolingo), and at the
intra-personal level through providing stimuli for self-expression and meaningful social interaction (the case of
Kahoot and Instagram). To conclude, all the arising indirect implications reveal the crucial role of foreign
language course / curriculum designers who not only should keep their clear focus on the goals of foreign
language learning but also continually consider the suitability of the particular teaching techniques with regard
to their use in both formal and informal learning contexts and besides, develop the evaluation tools capable of
generating genuine feedback on language microlearning.