How Much Narration in eLearning? Our Lessons Learned

Written By

Don Bair

Mike Dickinson

April 21, 2011

How much audio narration should we use in our eLearning courses? Are we using the right narrators? How good does the quality have to be? Do we have the right equipment?

These are questions our three-person, internal eLearning team recently asked ourselves. We want to share our findings.

When our company first began using asynchronous eLearning about seven years ago, we used text and graphics only, no narration. Then we used audio sparingly, only enough to give a personal “voice” to characters in a workplace harassment prevention course.

Then about four years ago we received a mandate to develop a substantial amount of online compliance training. This would have been no problem, except that we had to ensure each employee met a prescribed minimum contact time. The only way we knew how to do this at the time was by using fully narrated screens, combined with deactivating each screen’s next button until “audio complete.”

This was not an ideal learning method, and full narration presented other challenges. We couldn’t afford paid talent, so we used employees. This added more challenges, such as finding suitable speakers, getting on their calendars, and matching audio quality of updates.

So recently we stepped back to examine how we wanted to use narration going forward.

How much narration?

We started by doing some informal research with industry cohorts and employees. How much narration should be used? Several eLearning gurus said they use little to no narration unless there is a bona fide instructional reason to do so such as augmenting online transaction processing with narration.

We found that providers of audio services and equipment favored a much higher use of audio than did our instructional design counterparts.

We wanted to know the preferences of our employees so we conducted a survey. They almost unanimously said that 1) they do not want the entire course to be narrated, 2) they do not want text on the screen read to them word for word, and 3) about two-thirds of the employees want to be able to turn the narration on or off.

Who should narrate?

Our industry sources all say that, if there is a narrator, the higher the quality of the narrator’s voice the better. We took this as a strong preference for professional voice talent.

However, our employees had a different view. Only 12% said they prefer professional voice talent. A full 85% said the voice only needs to sound good enough to get the point across without having to strain to understand it. Nearly 60% of our employees said “no preference” as long as the voice isn’t irritating to listen to. 40% prefer that the narrator be someone they recognize (i.e., a well-known manager, process owner, or SME). A surprising 9% said the narration could be computer-generated as long as it didn’t sound too robot-like. (We will report on our text-to-speech findings in our next article.)

How good does it need to be?

In addition to the narrators’ voice quality, what about the quality of the audio output itself? We considered upgrading the quality as much as we could. We looked at better microphones and became acquainted with Digital Audio Workstations, or DAWs. But then we realized that the cost and learning curve of these devices was not warranted because the audio will get compressed anyway, and because of feedback from our employees. We ended up simply getting a better microphone (about $150) and controlling the recording environment more.

Our new guidelines

Here are the guidelines we have adopted as a result of this study:

  1. [How much?] We will use audio only when instructionally necessary.

  2. [Control] We will make sure students have the ability to turn the sound on and off, and that they know how to do so.

  3. [Who?] We will continue to use in-house talent, but other than credits at the end, we will not identify the narrator unless his or her name or title is pertinent for the instruction, e.g., having the Compliance Officer introduce a compliance course. This will prevent having to re-narrate when someone changes position or leaves the company. We may audition to get more suitable voices.

  4. [Quality] We only need slightly a higher quality microphone along with a pop filter to raise our technical quality to the practical limit. We also identified a storage room that will double as our sound studio with the use of inexpensive draperies. This location should improve our ability to splice in updates without sounding noticeably different from the original.

  5. We will continue to have learners evaluate the use and quality of our narration and make adjustments accordingly.

References and web sites consulted

“Addicted to Audio?” Cathy Moore, Posted in Audio, Human interest, Instructional design by Cathy Moore on 13 November 2007.

Nuts and Bolts: Principles of Multimedia Learning,” Jane Bozarth, Learning Solutions Magazine (online), May 4, 2010.

Various posts on the ASTD E-Learning Discussion Board.

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