Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Audio in eLearning...What Is Your Vote?

By Shelley A. Gable

Do you include audio narration in the eLearning lessons you develop? Why? Or why not?

I was working on a project several weeks ago where the team debated whether to include audio narration in a series of eLearning lessons. The team was split in their personal opinions. This post outlines pieces of my thought process.

Let's think about this from a learning styles perspective...

To start with the obvious, listening to an audio narration would likely appeal to those with an auditory learning style.

I've read in various sources that the majority of people are visual learners (in fact, I heard 70% in a seminar I attended a couple years ago). One of the characteristics of a visual learner is a preference for flowcharts and diagrams over text. As a designer, if I know I can use an audio narration to complement an eLearning lesson, then I can focus on using images to convey information without cluttering slides with a lot of text. So it seems that audio narration would be beneficial for the visual learner too.

To further this point, I think a lot of us have seen various statistics suggesting that people are more likely to recall information that they see and hear (as opposed to just one or the other).

And what about those tactile learners? Well, I suppose if you have simulations and other types of hands-on activities built into an eLearning lesson, any guidance could potentially be in audio form, reducing the need for learners to toggle their attention between text instructions and the task they're completing.

(If you're interested in reading another post on this blog about learning styles, click here)

Pros and Cons of Audio...from the Blogosphere

I know there are other perspectives to consider beyond learning styles, so I also opted to scan the blogosphere to see where others stood on the issue of audio narration. It appears that the jury is still out.

Why might audio be worthwhile? Some of the reasons I came across were similar to what I had thought through in considering learning style preferences. Here are some of the pros I found:
  • Appeals to the auditory learning style
  • Can be effective for walking learners through flowcharts or explaining complex images
  • Can create a sense of human touch
So why not include audio? Here are some of the "why not" reasons I found:
  • Can be distracting for learners who prefer to read content
  • Can slow down learners (since many would read faster), increasing the length of training
  • Might promote multi-tasking, if learners opt to read email or do other tasks while listening to the audio
  • Requires learners to have access to speakers and/or headsets to hear the audio
My Conclusions

When I consider all of this, it seems to me that including audio narration is move advantageous than not. From a learning styles perspective, all signs appear to point to yes. And I feel like I can explain away most of the cons:
  • Learners who find the audio distracting could opt to mute the narration and read the transcript instead (assuming this option is offered)
  • Although audio narration might slow learners down, perhaps this is a good thing...I've received feedback from a couple of projects that some learners tend to click through eLearning lessons too quickly to really absorb the information
  • If the lesson is designed in a way that strongly intertwines the narration and the images, this might deter some from multi-tasking
Unfortunately, I have no way to explain away the last "cons" bullet point. And this is what nixed the audio on the project I was working on - a very small proportion of our learners had access to speakers or headphones. Although offering a transcript is a potential workaround, it wouldn't be optimal.

So here's my vote: Unless resource constraints get in the way, it seems like including audio is the way to go.

What's your vote? And why?


  1. Good, thought-provoking post, Shelley!

    The following comment was submitted by Todd Thurston of Creative Warehouse.

    'Here's my vote:
    In almost all of the eLearning apps I have created I have audio and text even if they do not have the ability to play the audio. Things change and they may have it in the future. Hopefully the app will still be viable in the future as well. Along with the audio I have the option to turn it off or mute the audio. That covers those who want to go faster. With the text I will either put on screen all of the text or at least enough to get the point across. This doesn't quite make it 508 compliant for hearing impaired but it makes a big difference. It also adds emphasis and captures one more learning style. I believe and have been taught in grad school and later that by adding as many learning style attributes to the program as possible the more every learner will be able to capitalize on the application. There are obviously many other factors that go into the instructional design and the interface design that will determine just how much should go into the development of a course but this is my overall vote.'

  2. Liz

    I typically like a combination of audio narration with visual images, and a minimum of written text. I'm not a fan of visual text that duplicates narration, because the reader's tempo is likely to be different than the narrator's. But Jay's comments about ease of use for hearing impaired users certainly makes sense.

  3. The following comment was submitted by Drucilla Owenby.

    'Depends on audience, bandwidth, & need. Is it 4 assessibility, optional? is it a repeating reading? is it to meet learning style, podcast?'

  4. What a great concept that should be incorporated in any elearning opportunity! As a visual learner, I feel using audio only enhances the information. I can scroll through and see the material and the accompanied audio only enhances the material. If there are distractions around me, I can focus on the audio to give me the information temporarily. I think adding audio can open new avenues for increasing learning and retention. Both hands up for me on using audio in elearning.

  5. I am working on a project and we are struggling with this issue. The problem is our course must be 508 compatible and it must pass 508 testing. The screen reader reads all of the information on the screen. Problem: while the screen reader is reading the audio would be playing. How do you make it work seamlessly? Yes, we've thought of adding an on/off button. Or should we not worry about the overlap?

  6. In response to the 508 question, I think you do need to worry about overlap. You might consider automatically turning off the audio narration if a screen reader is being used.

    Does your audio narration currently provide additional information not on the screen? You'd need to ensure that nothing critical is left out.

  7. It's great to see you all casting your votes! Looks like "yes audio" is in the lead. =)

  8. I find with audio narration or someone lecturing to you, it is easy to miss something and then it's gone. With text you can simply go back.


Thank you for your comments.