“Can we add audio narration to this eLearning course?”
We get this question a lot from our clients. The easy answer is “sure, we can do that.” The client wants “audio narration” and will pay us to do it. But should we include audio narration in eLearning courses? The answer is more complicated than you might think. We’re all about helping to create the most effective and engaging learning environment that meets your (and your learners’) needs and goals. We’re here to help you balance all of these competing priorities.

First, we usually ask why they want or need audio narration and what type. The most common answer? Most of the time, the client wants simple voiceover reading the text that’s on the screen. Often the claim is that “people like it” or that “people need audio to learn the content.” They usually don’t have any concrete data to back this claim up though.

Many learners say that they want to listen to a course or that they learn better that way. Sometimes, there’s even a discussion about learning styles We’ll discuss this in another blog post but for now, check out this post by Jane Bozarth. However, audio narration sets a specific “pace” for the course. That pace isn’t appropriate for every learner – too fast for some, too slow for others (Cathy Moore). Having text to read or activities to complete requires effort from the learner.

This begs the question: Does audio narration lead to more effective online learning? Is it just something “flashy” that adds the perception of learning? Do people learn better with audio narration or do they just like being read to?

Why Don’t We Recommend Audio Narration in eLearning?

Just like any course element, there are pros and cons to using audio narration. There are certain circumstances when audio narration is beneficial. However, we recommend against narration when it’s direct voiceover reading the on-screen content/text. Let’s take a deeper look at the three most significant reasons we don’t recommend narration.

Reason One: Initial Time and Budget

The most practical reason not to include audio narration is the increased costs – time and money. Audio narration requires significantly more work which translates to extra costs in production time and budget. We won’t cover all of those costs in detail in this post because we want to spend more time on the third reason. However, in short, audio needs to be high-quality, or it detracts significantly from the learner’s experience. That means having a good voiceover artist, quality recording equipment, appropriate software, and the requisite skills to produce the audio files. Finished audio clips then need to be inserted into the course and possibly synced up with animations or other screen elements. Re-recording any audio (e.g., if a stakeholder requests late-stage changes) adds even more complexity. All of these tasks require extra time and budget.

Reason Two: Future Course Edits

Another practical reason to avoid audio narration is that it makes it more difficult to update the course later. Most courses need regular updates as content changes. This usually involves periodically reviewing the course and updating the content. We recommend revisiting eLearning content at least once a year. For most course elements, this is relatively straightforward. If the course includes audio, then it becomes significantly more complicated. Changing audio often means re-recording entire segments.

Outside of a professional recording studio, it’s extremely difficult to achieve the same “sound” between recording sessions. This means you can’t just splice new voiceover into existing audio segments. You also need to find the same voice actor. If they were an internal resource, are they still with the organization and ready to lend their voice again? Were they hired talent and are they still available? If they’re not, then you need to re-record all audio segments from scratch. This adds time, complexity, and cost to what might have otherwise been a straightforward text edit and republish.

What If Time and Budget Aren’t a Concern?

Practical concerns aside, the real question we need to ask is does audio narration help learners? Increased cost, complexity, and editing challenges can be overlooked if narration does make for a more effective eLearning course. The short answer is no, it doesn’t. This leads us to the third reason why we generally don’t recommend audio narration in eLearning courses.

Reason Three: Audio Narration in eLearning Isn’t Effective Learning

There are two things that limit the effectiveness of audio narration. The first is our capacity for processing information. Research shows that humans have limited capacity for taking information in. It takes time for us to convert short-term information to long-term memory. In general, people are much more able to learn at a speed that works for them by reading text rather than hearing the text. Pace matters when learning (Stiller, Freitag, Zinnbauer, Freitag, 2009). They can read as fast as they like and can re-read passages to clarify or reinforce information.

When people read, they can skip around, reflect on the information, repeat if necessary, and pause to digest what they’re seeing. When listening to information, learners are at the mercy of how fast the narrator speaks and it’s more challenging to repeat a passage – if it’s even possible (if the course designer didn’t include a seek bar on the slide, for example). Research shows that written explanatory text is more effective than spoken explanatory text even when learners have control over the pace of the media, presumably due to the absence of a time pressure allowing learners to process the written text strategically (Tabbers, 2002).

Different Processing Channels

Second, humans take information through auditory and visual channels at different rates. Generally, we read text much faster than we speak or listen. When we’re presented with text on a screen, we begin to read but then the audio narration is out of sync with how fast we’re reading. This creates a mismatch between the auditory and visual channels which complicates the learning process. Research shows that not only does presenting the same information through auditory and visual channels make one of the channels redundant, but it also actually impairs the retention of information compared to using audio or text on their own (Mayer, 2003).

Bonus Reason

We should also at least mention another, less significant, consideration – increased file sizes. Any multimedia content in an eLearning course produces larger final file sizes. Although audio files are generally not the biggest contributors to file size, it’s something to keep in mind when deciding whether narration is necessary. This is especially important if end users will be in remote locations or don’t have access to stable, good-quality high-speed Internet.

What if the Audio Doesn’t Narrate On-Screen Text?

We should clarify that we’re talking about audio narration of text that is on the screen, duplicating the presentation of information. It’s completely different if the information isn’t duplicated. For example, voiceover on a video clip or during an animation. In these cases, audio can enhance an eLearning course as long as the same information is not being presented through different channels.

When learners are presented with a video clip or animation that doesn’t contain text or only contains a few keywords of text, voiceover audio helps them retain that information very well (although you should still include a seek bar so learners can re-play segments) (Kalyuga, Chandler, Sweller, 1999). But this isn’t at all the same as when a narrator reads information that’s already on the screen in text form, which is usually the type of audio narration we’re asked for. Narrating on-screen text mainly frustrates learners (whether they know it or not). It impedes their ability to learn by imposing an unnecessary cognitive load.

To sum up, if a project calls for informative, attention-grabbing video clips or animations with limited text as a means of conveying information, we’re happy to include an audio component. Another great way to include audio is in short segments like interviews or short intro segments. But simply having a narrator read the text that’s already on the screen is counter-productive to learning, not to mention an extra expense in both time and money that can lead to further problems down the road.

Do you have questions about how people learn or don’t know the best way to increase learning transfer? Do you get internal requests to include audio narration in eLearning? We’d love to discuss your next project with you. We offer free 30-minute project consultations. Contact us today to start the conversation.