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Is Audio Narration Indispensible for Online Learning?

Written By Shalini Merugu

Is Audio Narration Indispensible for Online Learning?

Yesterday afternoon, I spent a fun hour with our Learning Design team in one of their brown bag sessions on presenting content effectively. Each team member was to make a brief 10 minute presentation on their home town, which would be judged by an in-house panel and the rest of the participants on various parameters such as clarity (style, potential to enable retention), visuals (relevance, appeal, potential to enable retention), engagement (fun, interest, enjoyment), etc.

The assignment was simple enough – the presentation was to be brief, contain text and images and other elements such as animation, trivia, other media etc. However, the most interesting requirement was that it was Not to be presented but to be viewed as a slideshow, minus audio/narration.

The results were terrific (by the time the presenters finished, the audience was ready to pack its bags and visit each presenter’s home town!). And eye-opening. Each slideshow was a refreshing demonstration and a powerful testimony of how well-thought out content and visuals can ‘speak’ volumes even in the absence of audio and actively engage an audience.

my home town

So what does all this have to do with eLearning? For me, there were several takeaways, but I will limit this post to a brief discussion of how powerful each of those presentations was even in the total absence of narration. (An aside: movies in the silent era had a lot going for them – because every element of the ‘presentation mix’ spoke really loud!)

A lot of times, we as course designers feel that a course cannot be effective without being supported by audio narration. In the early days of course development, we used only text and graphics – no narration. Then audio began to be used, though not extensively. Just enough to give a personal feel and help the learner make an emotional connect with the course. But today, it seems to be used by default. And many times, not used very effectively at that. Without getting into the controversial debate on audio catering to a specific learning style or using audio narration to meet accessibility requirements, here are a few thoughts:

Yesterday’s presentation reminded me that in the absence of ‘noise’, wel-crafted online text and powerful visuals still continue to be the most compelling way to engage learners, create a sense of anticipation, grab the audience’s attention, anticipate and ask questions and provide answers. The effectiveness of the ‘silent’ presentations made me wonder if sometimes, in our eagerness to engage learners, we may have gone overboard with audio that does nothing more than annoy learners.

I don’t know whether I belong to a silent majority that wants little or no narration unless there is a valid instructional reason to do so or whether most online learners do really prefer audio to invariably accompany a course. That said, I do feel that if used correctly, it has tremendous potential. We’ve all experiencedthe power of effective audio in online courses.

What is your personal preference with regard to the use of audio in online courses and what would you strongly recommend we avoid?

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  • Erica Andersen

    You have asked some great questions. Sometimes reading or looking at a visual is so much faster than listening to someone tell you about it, so your right on. ie “A picture is worth a thousand words”. If I were listening to something explained that can be inferred quite easily, or that you have told me already, that would distract me as a learner and I may start multi-tasking and stop engaging with the content.
    Thanks for your perspective.

  • Marya Danihel

    Are you talking about synchronous or asynchronous courses? In asynchronous courses, I usually mute the audio because I prefer to read, but people are different. In synchronous courses, my pet peeve is an instructor who is petrified of any silence and talks too much. People need pauses for comprehension. Another annoyance is someone with an unpleasant voice

  • Thanks for your comments Erica! I agree with you that it is counter-productive to have someone tell me something that I can easily figure out for myself. It’s true, a lot of times learners switch off because the audio insults their intelligence.

    Marya, I had asynchronous courses in mind for this post, but I like the points you’ve raised in the context of synchronous courses…An over-talkative instructor is one of my pet peeves too. As far as an annoying voice goes, it can ruin the entire learning experience. I think a best practice for virtual instructors is to really listen to how they sound and how they come across. Sometimes, the ‘fillers’ such as ‘Umm…you know’, ‘well..’, actually’ and so on could be seriously annoying as well.

    Thanks for your inputs everyone! If you have any favorite samples/demos of the most effective use of audio, I’d love to hear from you!