Audio and Narration in e-Learning: Pros and Cons

First things first, I’m really glad to finally be writing a new blog post because I realize it’s been over a month since I’ve posted and I feel very guilty about it! October was pretty hectic due to the fact that I was attending DevLearn 2012 in Las Vegas. I am actually planning on writing a post about my experience at DevLearn in the near future since it was both my first time attending a conference and my first time public speaking/presenting. It was a great experience and a lot of new lessons learned for me.

That being said, I was recently inspired to write this latest blog post from something that occurred at work! I’m working on an e-learning project now and I was recently looking into the pros and cons of adding audio to the e-learning course I’ve developed. I decided to compile a bit of my research and write about it!

I’ve come to find out that adding audio to an e-learning project is not a decision that should be taken lightly. There is a lot involved in the process, there is lot to know before you get started and finally there is a lot of room for error! So how do you decide if you need narration/audio in your project? As with all media in your e-learning projects, you should only use narration IF there is a clear instructional purpose behind it (and not “just because”). From what I can gather, there are three types of audio used in e-learning:

  • Narration (which has four “subtypes”)
    • Elaborative  (on-screen text summarizes the audio)
    • Paraphrasing (audio summarizes the on-screen text)
    • Verbatim (reading exact words on-screen)
    • Descriptive (audio describes image on-screen)
  • Music
  • Sound effects

After doing a bit of research on the topic I’ve discovered that there is much debate surrounding which “type” of narration is best for learning. The kind of narration you should use in your projects seems to depend greatly on the specifics of the project (time, talent, budget) as well as what the subject matter is. So which content should you narrate? There are a couple of scenarios where it might be more worthwhile to use narration. For example, when you need to explain a complex definition or process, or when demonstrating situations such as interview skills or emotional interactions between individuals.

The pros and cons of using audio:

PROS CONS
  • Good quality audio might appeal to auditory learners (although there is much debate as to whether learning styles even exist…)
  • Audio might help reinforce certain points and may help some learners retain more information
  • Audio can add some personality and a more personal touch to the e-learning
  • Reduces the reading load, less on screen text when there is audio/narration
  • Might add “authenticity” to on-screen characters
  • Adding audio files (which even when compressed can be quite large) will add to the bandwidth, loading time, etc.
  • Bad quality audio will be more distracting and detrimental than useful
  • Writing and practicing a script and recording the audio are time intensive tasks
  • Synching audio with on-screen text and images can also be labor intensive – and if the audio/on-screen are not harmonious it will be distracting to learners
  • If your course needs to be updated often (once a year, maybe more) then it can be difficult and time-consuming to record and add updated audio.
  • If your course will be localized (translated) it can be challenging to write scripts and narrate your course in multiple languages
  • If your course is available in different countries, unfamiliar accents and cultural references can lead to confusion
  • Having exact same audio and text on-screen can be redundant and boring
  • Some research suggests that learners dislike word-for-word narration, because quick readers can often read the whole text before the narrator is done talking

Let’s say you have decided there is indeed an instructional purpose for audio or narration, and you’ve narrowed down which type of narration you will use. The next question you might ask yourself is, who will narrate this course? Three ways to narrate your course include:

  • A professional narrator
  • An employee narrator
  • Text-to-voice software

In addition to “the voice” you will likely need a couple of additional people to be involved in the audio recording process, likely:

  • A scriptwriter
  • A producer (this depends on the technical skill your narrator possesses, and if he/she can do the actual sound recording themselves)

Of course there are both pros and cons to using any type of narration in your project.

PROS CONS
Professional Narration
  • High quality sound recordings done in a professional, sound proof studio
  • Has knowledge about compression rates, “clean audio”
  • Has a variety of consistent voicing styles, pitch, intonation
  • More expensive (they typically use a pay-per-minute model)
Amateur Narration
  • Less expensive than going to a professional
  • Adds realism and a personal-touch (especially if the narrator is an employee the learners know)
  • Lower quality (there may be breathing, lip smacking, background noises, etc.)
  • Inconsistent voice styles
  • Can be very difficult to match audio quality and have the same voice talent if updates are required in the future
Text-to-voice
  • Likely the least expensive route
  • Consistent quality
  • Consistent voicing style/intonation
  • Over the last few years quality has improved and it is now more common alternative
  • May sound robotic, unemotional and fake
  • Less personal
Here are some additional general audio and narration tips and best practices:
  • Narration rule of thumb: 1 minute of talk time = 100 words
  • Try to keep audio clips to 20-30 seconds (to retain learner attention)
  • Find a balance between what learners should read vs. what they should listen to
  • Allow users to have control over volume settings
  • Have an instructional reason for using the narration or audio (not just because)
  • Include a list of hardware and software requirements for learners to know ahead of time if they need speakers or a headset for audio
  • Keep in mind that if your e-learning course requires audio, people who do not have audio capabilities will not be able to take the course
  • Audio might slow down some learners since they have to go at the pace of narration
  • Adding narration will impact on the amount of time it takes to complete your e-learning course

Finally, here are a few links to good articles about narration in e-learning that helped me write this post:

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17 Comments on “Audio and Narration in e-Learning: Pros and Cons”

  1. Ellen says:

    Thanks, I really like your post.

    We only create eLearning with Professional narration because of the quality aspect. Especially when you create long courses (4 to 20 hours) a real voice is a must. Otherwise it requires too much (reading) effort for the learner.

    Also interesting to investigate is the use of multiple voices for the narration. Some courses offer a choice in male or female voice. I’ve also seen courses with different voices for different topics. I am not sure what the benefits are…

    Rg, Ellen

    • Nicole Legault says:

      Thank you for your valuable comment Ellen! Those are two really good points… using narration in long courses to prevent reading fatigue and using different voices … Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you!

    Carly Jennings

    MommyGarten.com Learn How Your Baby Learns!

    Check out the new early childhood blog at: http://blog.chron.com/mommyprofessor/

  3. Samira says:

    Thanks alot

  4. Really good post. A lot useful information :)

  5. Cedric Smith says:

    Great post!

    I am speaking from the perspective of working at an educational institution, so my comments may not apply to everyone. As an instructional designer for a university, I believe I have experienced all of your pros and cons at some point over the past three years. We mostly use subject matter experts (SME) or content experts (CE) to record narrated PowerPoint lectures and other audio, but we have also used professional narrators and text-to-voice when using software like Articulate Storyline and Xtranormal. As mentioned in one of the articles you listed, the form of narration (e.g., professional, employee, text-to-voice) is not as important as the quality of the narration. If the quality of the audio is not good, it will be more distracting than helpful.

    You should always consider the subject matter, target audience, and available resources when deciding whether or not to use audio and the type of audio to use. Audio may not be as beneficial in a technical or financial course as much as it would in a history or English course. Also, think about presenting the content in alternative methods to address different learning styles and ADA standards. If you use a script to record your audio narrations, you can provide a PDF or Word document of the script as an alternative. If you do not have the resources to hire a professional, see if someone in your office is willing to do the voice-overs. Some people possess this talent and don’t even realize it. I find those instructors who are used to giving lectures in a face-to-face setting are usually better at recording narrations.

    This blog post has a lot of good information and tips. I plan to reference this information in the future when working on projects that require auido.

    Thanks for sharing!

    CS

    • Nicole Legault says:

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment and for sharing your personal experience using audio! :)

      You are so right that sometimes you might have some terrific undiscovered voice-talent right within your organization! (That happened at the company I work for, turns out their Instructional Designer has a great voice for narrating!)

      Glad you found the post useful. :)

  6. Chris says:

    Thanks for the tips! What did you decide to do for your project?

    • Nicole Legault says:

      Chris — After doing User Acceptance Testing with some test learners, and after having compiled my research, we decided not to go with audio in that project. We just didn’t think that the time and money we’d need to put into it would be justified in terms of instructional value.

      However, I’m currently in the initial design/storyboarding phases of the next project I’m working on and I think we’ve already decided that audio will definitely add value. So we’re planning on incorporating it right from the get-go which should make things much simpler down the line!! (fingers crossed, anyways)

  7. David Sprouse says:

    Nice post. Very informative, and I love the pro/con comparisons. One thing to note however, is that your reference links do not work if you click them. Instead, one has to select that text and paste it into a browser. (Also, it appears the 3rd reference is no longer available).
    I really appreciate those references as well. They are excellent resources.

    Keep on Blogging!

    • Nicole Legault says:

      David — Thanks for the feedback and for letting me know about the hyperlinks that aren’t working. I’ve fixed the links and everything should be working now. Thanks again! :)

  8. Kara says:

    Love it!

  9. Mark says:

    Really Great article :) this is actually going to be very useful to me as we are looking into this at the moment at work! Thank you Nicole!

  10. Adriana says:

    Extremely helpful! Thanks for the information.

  11. From my opinion professional narration is the most useful and effective audio in e-learning though it is expensive for making but student really enjoyed a lot that type of learning.

  12. Kevin Stall says:

    I wonder about the arguement for audio to suplement for those who might be semi-illiterate. As a person leaves school, a certian percentage never picks up anything short of a magazine or newspaper to read. Is there reading skill really up to following a half hour course on a technical subject? And also what about the old adage ofremembering a higher percentage of what you hear over what you just read?


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