To hear or not to hear (your eLearning), that is the question.
With the rise of, well, Rise courses (and similar) there has been a decrease in narration for eLearning also. But is that a good thing?
Some may say it’s a good thing while others will say otherwise. There are definitely pros and cons of having an eLearning voice over vs just letting people read it themselves.
Then there’s the entirely different yet closely related issue of synthesized voice overs. That’s a whole other conversation, though, so we’ll keep it simple with just narration of any type for eLearning. I won’t promise not to mention AI voice-over again, though.
Our ultimate question: Is narration a beneficial addition to online courses, or does it detract from the learning experience?
The answer to that can vary a great deal depending on the type of course, what’s being learned, etc. Then there’s the question of the tool. There are tools like Articulate Rise, which lacks narration capabilities (unless you’re embedding a podcast), and then there’s Articulate Storyline which easily accommodates it and seems to be built for it.
Videos are for narration and courses are for reading, right?
It’s also not that simple.
It’s crucial to weigh the pros and cons of incorporating narration into eLearning. You could make the argument either way but the ultimate conclusion we come to is that narration adds tremendous value. Not only that but some studies back up the use of narration in eLearning.
Most people hate to read, unfortunately. That or they just hate reading learning content that can be a bit dry. I like reading a good book but when you put an eLearning white paper in front of me it’ll likely sit there for a few months.
Before we get into the details, let me paint a nice picture for you when narration is in a course.
Imagine a complex subject. As you navigate through the content, a soothing or happy voice guides you, effortlessly explaining concepts and providing real-life examples.
A professional voice adds a human touch, captivating your attention and easing your understanding of the material. This compelling scenario highlights one of the key benefits of eLearning narration – its ability to engage on a deeper level.
However, as with anything, there are drawbacks to consider. Imagine that eLearning narrator is monotone, boring, robotic, and makes you want to put earplugs in. Then there’s the issue with AI voice over which even the best of them sounds mostly pretty bad.
When we’re on a mission to create the best online course possible, striking the right balance between narration and not becomes paramount to ensure the most effective course.
So, should eLearning courses have a voice?
That’s what we’re here to answer for you and hopefully make it a bit easier to make that decision for you. We’ll dive into the pros and cons of incorporating narration in eLearning.
By the end, you’ll have a better understanding of how narration can enhance or hinder the learning experience. It’ll empower you to make informed decisions when designing and implementing your own online courses.
Before jumping into the pros and cons, let’s take a look at some important studies.
The Science for Narration
If you want to learn more about the science of instruction which can be applied directly to eLearning, definitely take a read through e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer.
The specific place you need to start your reading on this topic is chapter 6 in the 4th edition. It’s all about applying the modality principle. The premise? Present words as audio narration rather than on the screen.
That’s pretty encouraging but that would be too easy to leave it that with absolutely no additional information.
…there is considerable evidence that presenting words in audio rather than on-screen text can result in significant learning gains.(2016). Applying the Modality Principle: present Words as Audio Narration Rather than On-Screen Text. In e-Learning and the Science of Instruction (eds R.C. Clark and R.E. Mayer). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119239086.ch6
There’s a very clear reason for this which is summed up in the first section based on research that is summarized throughout the chapter.
Why is audio narration so powerful?
The advantage is as follows:
…incoming information being split across two separate cognitive channels – words in the auditory channel and picture in the visual channel – rather than concentrating both words (as on-screen text) and pictures in the visual channel.(2016). Applying the Modality Principle: present Words as Audio Narration Rather than On-Screen Text. In e-Learning and the Science of Instruction (eds R.C. Clark and R.E. Mayer). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119239086.ch6
Yes, when information is split between two channels it’s more impactful. So, if you have a visual and then some written text attention must go back and forth between the two. This is the same reason multitasking doesn’t work.
With audio narration, you can show the visual in the visual channel while explaining the visual in the auditory channel. As long as you’re not also putting the text on the screen in addition to a graphic then that’s a winning combination.
I also created some visuals that are also available in the book. I’m giving direct credit to the book, but they don’t have a version I can use on the internet, so I had to recreate them.
And then there are balanced channels:
But there’s more to it than just the science. Let’s take a look at some real-world pros and cons of using narration in eLearning.
The Pros & Cons of Voice Over In eLearning
Just like with anything there are pros and cons. The science is definitely on the side of pro narration, but the darn real world tends to get in the way. Let’s take a look at some of those real-world pros and also real-world cons which are real and powerful.
The science is behind using audio narration for eLearning. It provides less of a cognitive load on employees and makes it easier for the most part to learn content.
Our expertise is technical instruction which often involves software, walking employees through how to use it, and explaining important information about using it. That’s heavily visual which means people simply can’t process the visuals and read an explanation effectively.
What does that mean for technical instruction? Audio narration is a must in nearly all cases. There’s no way to get around that since software is such a visual thing. Of course, you always want to make the audio available in captions or notes of the eLearning too.
These are some of the pros of audio narration in eLearning beyond the science.
If you pull up a course and it’s a wall of text, that’s not very inviting. On the other hand, when you get visuals with a friendly narrator explaining information that’s a lot more engaging. Unless the topic and narrator are absolutely beyond boring then narration is going to help make content more engaging.
Humanity is more engaging than computers or technology. Hearing a real person (not an AI voice please) walk you through a complex topic adds humanity to the topic.
Most people would rather have someone explain a topic to them than have to find it in a book or long document. That’s why video platforms are so popular. A real human narrator adds that humanity into a course which is what makes video platforms like YouTube and TikTok so popular.
While it’s important to provide a written version of what’s being spoken, audio is generally more accessible than written text. For those who can’t see very well or at all, the narration is a helpful way of understanding the content. Paired with closed captions or at least subtitles, audio narration is more accessible than text only.
When we have to read ourselves then we’re more likely to skim and miss important information. Not only that but many people’s reading comprehension simply isn’t that great. Audio on the other hand is a different story.
As long as there’s audio plus accompanying (but meaningful) visuals then audio narration is easier to comprehend. The problem is when it’s just audio and then distractions such as email or looking at Facebook come in.
While narration offers numerous benefits, it is essential to consider its potential drawbacks as well. Even with science backing the use of narration, even Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer admit that it’s not always the best choice.
There’s even a section dedicated to the limitations of the modality principle. Here’s a good quote that illustrates some of those limitations.
…the creation of sound may involve technical demands that the learning environment cannot meet…or may create too much noise in the learning environment.(2016). Applying the Modality Principle: present Words as Audio Narration Rather than On-Screen Text. In e-Learning and the Science of Instruction (eds R.C. Clark and R.E. Mayer). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119239086.ch6
That covers some of the cons that we’ll cover. So, let’s take a look at those.
Some environments are so noisy and distracting that you simply cannot use narration in a course. Some manufacturing or warehouse floors are so loud that even with headphones audio wouldn’t come through. If there’s nowhere else to take a course, then the audio narration is essentially useless.
Then there’s the safety issues it could present. Nurses must listen for alarms and such therefore they can’t plug in headphones and listen to narration. If the expectation is that they take training while on call, then narration is a poor option.
Unfortunately, it’s extremely common for practiced instructional designers as well as those moonlighting as an ID to implement narration poorly. It completely defeats separating cognitive channels when the words being spoken are also displayed on the screen.
If you do that then the audio narration isn’t effective. Not only that but many subject matter experts may not like when nothing is moving on the screen and ask for the words to be displayed instead. If you don’t fight against that then the audio narration will be poorly implemented and more of a hindrance than help.
Audio narration is expensive. You have to write the script and then record it yourself which costs time or hire professional voice talent which costs money. Either way, eLearning voice overs can be expensive.
There are a lot of expenses and costs that can be added by having audio narrations in eLearning. Any updates you make also require additional cost.
Having separate audio recorded for multiple languages can be cost-prohibitive and too complex. Each language must be translated from the original script and then a native speaker must record the audio too. That’s complex, time-consuming, and expensive.
It takes more time to write the script and record it for audio narration. Then if any change is needed the entire process must start over again. What happens if you can’t get the same narrator? Now you have to redo the entire course again!
For content that changes rapidly and often it may not be possible to have audio narration.
The science behind the modality principle and the benefits of audio narrations don’t apply when there are no visuals. If your topic simply has no visuals that need explaining or that add value then there’s not always a need for audio narration.
That’s not always the case, though. You can tell a story with audio and have nothing but a still picture, yet it could still add value. But if you find you have only a white screen with audio for 2 minutes then that’s not good. Just don’t get pulled into the trap of feeling like you need visuals every second by going the route of putting the spoken text on the screen.
Maybe in quantity but overall, the benefit is still firmly on the pro audio narration side. But is there a way to strike a balance between the two?
Striking the Right Balance: Optimizing Narration in eLearning
To optimize the use of narration in eLearning courses, it is essential to strike the right balance between audio and other instructional elements. Also don’t feel like you must have narration on every screen either.
It’s perfectly acceptable to alternate as long as it’s not confusing with the expectation that audio will start playing but then doesn’t.
Here are some things to consider to strike the right balance.
- Align narration with performance objectives: Ensure that the narration supports the intended learning outcomes and enhances understanding, rather than being a mere add-on.
- Use narration selectively: Identify areas where narration can provide the most value, such as complex concepts or scenarios requiring additional explanation. Just be sure that people know there’s audio on a screen so they can accommodate.
- Provide alternatives: Accommodate those who can’t hear the audio or can’t use it by making closed captions available or providing the narration in the notes section of your course.
There are many different factors you must take into account to decide if you use audio narration or not. You have to factor in employee circumstances, available budget, project timing, and more.
Then sometimes you are forced to use a specific tool for development. If you’re using Articulate Rise, then audio narration is out of the question. If you’re using Articulate Storyline, then you can choose to use narration or not.
Incorporating narration into eLearning when done well offers significant benefits in terms of engagement, comprehension, creating a human connection, and more. However, it’s nice to consider the cons that do exist when deciding whether to use narration.
Yes, even something as beneficial as audio narration isn’t going to be the right choice for every project, company, or employee. There is a myriad of different factors to take into account. That makes it something that has clear benefits but still must be weighed intelligently.
By understanding the pros and cons of narration in eLearning and making informed decisions, eLearning can be made to be engaging on a deeper level with maximize impact for your company.
Our specialty is in custom corporate technical training using digital learning solutions such as custom eLearning development. We tend to go the route of mostly using audio narration since many visuals on the screen must be explained.
If you’d like to discuss your project and whether audio narration is ideal or not, schedule a free consultation. We’d be happy to help direct you and decide what the best option is. We’re also available to help your employees perform better in the technical aspects of their jobs.