eLearning Audio: Balancing Effectiveness And Costs
Sound (narration, background music, effects) can play a significant role in eLearning training, and audio enhances the learning experience. It builds tension and emotion, emphasizes content, and sets the pace. Most importantly, it enhances memorability. Like all media, if used inappropriately, it can drastically reduce the comfort of the training experience or, in extreme cases, even hinder learning.
This is clearly stated in the research of scholars Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer, who spent many years studying media, its use in education, and its impact on the learning process (their best-known work is the book e-Learning and the Science of Instruction). They assert that the more information we receive in different formats (text, sound, video, animation) at the same time, the more we have to process. Thus, a lack of media organization and a coherent concept leads to confusion and impedes effective learning. We simply do not have the “cache memory” to process so many things.
When designing an eLearning course, during the analysis and concept creation phase, it is worth asking whether audio is necessary for the training. Will users have comfortable conditions to use this audio? Do they work in open spaces, or on a production floor where headphones are necessary to listen? Another important issue is whether we have budgeted for audio production. On average, this is 25% of the training value (if the audio is recorded by a narrator). With the use of AI algorithms, this cost is slightly reduced, but still constitutes a significant part of the budget.
Text On Screen Or Narration?
The two most commonly used audio options in training are reading the exact text on the screen and narration (audio that does not match the screen content). Learners process information through two separate channels (audio narration and screen text). Each has limited capacity: one for visual information and another for auditory information. Graphics and text on the screen, especially in large quantities, can overload the visual channel. Relying more on audio narration, for example, to explain graphics, shifts some of this burden to the audio channel.
People often treat eLearning as a form of audiobook. The training runs in the background while the employee sends emails, fills out documents, and submits system requests. However, some argue that one-to-one audio is distracting because the narrator reads slower than the user (in which case the audio can be turned off).
Narration (i.e., the voice of a leader/narrator read off-camera) requires more effort from the learner. The user, while listening to the audio, simultaneously sees other content on the screen that they are trying to familiarize themselves with. This model is a good solution for training containing a lot of animations or diagrams. The narrator explains these in the audio, which can help in better understanding especially if the content is complex (also based on research by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer).
It’s also worth remembering the average reading speed, which is about 200 words per minute. Of course, there are people who read faster or slower, waiting for the narrator or falling behind. Using voiceover recordings complicates matters in that it sets the pace of going through eTraining.
Narrator Or Text-To-Speech?
When implementing training, we also face the choice of whether to produce the audio ourselves (not recommended), commission a studio and use professional narrators, or use a speech synthesizer or voices generated by AI tools. The text-to-speech option is quite popular and–I must admit–much cheaper than hiring a narrator. Voice solutions generated by AI algorithms are rapidly making their way into eLearning production. In both cases of text-to-speech and AI, we must pay attention–regardless of the technology choice–to diction, intonation, and energy, remembering that poorly chosen audio can definitely disrupt our perception of the training content.
A classic narrator works well for recording fictional content, where we deal with multivoiced scenes. And here it’s important to match the voice to the character in the training, so that a lively older official does not speak in a youthful falsetto unless we aim for a humorous effect.
Conclusion: Audio Enhances The Learning Experience
The article underscores that while audio is a powerful tool in eLearning, enhancing memorization and engagement, it requires careful consideration. The choice between professional narrators and text-to-speech technologies involves a balance between cost and effectiveness. Thoughtful audio integration, aligned with learners’ environments and learning objectives, is crucial for maximizing the impact and efficiency of eLearning courses.