Is using voiceover adding any value to e-learning?

I have just come off a conference call where we were discussing whether the use of voiceover in e-learning adds any actual value to your content. I cannot find any articles online about this and thought I might pose the question to the community.

We have just completed a large part of a project for a major client and we made the active decision to not include voiceover and they are very happy with the results, but other people seeing the content from outside that organisation have asked "Where is the audio" because that is what they are used to hearing in e-learning. No-one at all has said that the content would be enhanced with the use of voiceover (the content does utilise some video).

Our argument is that the use of audio does not actually add anything to the content if you have just a verbatim voiceover reading the content on-screen, in fact we believe this to be a distraction and will encourage the user to switch off and just listen to it and do something else in tandem and subsequently tuning out entirely.

Does anyone have any opinions? I would love to hear them. Also, I am really interested in some statistics and actual research into the use of audio with online learning. There must be something out there.

14 Replies
Phil Mayor

When scoping a project I think the use of audio is the 4th or 5th question on my list, it helps to manage client expectations.

It really depends on how you plan to use the audio, repeating the text on the screen will mean that either the audio or the text are redundant, people read faster than the audio so will always be waiting for the audio to finish. I am not aware of any research that categorically states audio is better for learners or no audio is better for learners and it is normally a client preference thing. I have seen research for and against audio but often it falls short of a definitive decision, and I do wonder if some of the research is biased towards the authors preferences.

I would also be aware of the market you are producing content for, most US based learning is audio led, whereas in the UK, I feel it is about 50/50 with/without.

In my opinion if you design a course without audio, it is not simply a case of bolting audio on, at this stage will (ideally) need some redesign of the course.

I have built lots of great courses with audio and without audio. One place where I find audio to be a real benefit is in Microlearning where a good pacy audio will move the users through the course quickly.

 

Gerry Wasiluk

This is just anecdotal from when I was working in a corporation.  Normally I'd prefer to read the e-learning course myself when the audio was a verbatim reading of the on-screen text.

But sometimes, during a particularly exhaustive and challenging day,  and I was then taking some e-learning at the end of the day, I appreciated the fact if a course had the option of my hearing the course read to me.  I'd often use it as "educational rest" until I was ready to read the course on my own at a faster pace.   Sometimes it was the whole course, other times just a portion.

Also, for non-native speaking/reading learners, the option of hearing and seeing the text may help them better grasp the material.

For one of my clients, we always put the narration script in the Notes tab for learner access if they need it.  I then use the screen to only highlight the critical/most important messages in the narration with text and images in a creative build.

susanne flynn

I think voiceover can add value. However, we should ask ourselves if it is
necessary and if we want it, ask what value it provides. After all, it adds
time and money. Is there a decent return on this investment?

A client recently decided they didn't want voiceover to save money. For two
of the modules, it really wasn't needed. The slides (This was a storyline
360 project.) had, for the most part, a content title or label, some kind of
interesting and supporting visual element and text with key points. There
might also be a sentence or blurb set off from the rest of the text giving
an interesting statistic, piece of data or a reference to where the learner
can find more content. The notes contained more text with information
written in complete sentences so it was easy to understand.

For a third module, most of it was a conversation between various people
with only two on a screen at a time. This was a little trickier. On screen,
I put the two characters with speech bubbles. There the conversation was
very brief and included either the start of the conversation or the key
points. I put the more full conversation in the notes. I think the learners
may find some redundancy. Hopefully, it won't be annoying. The client liked
it. I think it works but would love to hear how others deal with this.

When there is a story and conversation, I prefer to use voiceover. A good
voiceover person can make it come alive and make it more engaging and
memorable. However, in this module, I had about 10 characters and this can
add to the cost and complexity. Eliminating voiceover avoided that.

Another thing I think about is where will the learner view the elearning
course. Most likely it will be in the office, often with cubes or a more
open setting. Or they may view it at home or even a public place like a
Starbucks. Wherever - probably no one else in the area wants to listen it so
the learner typically uses earphones or earbuds. If there is no voiceover,
this is no longer an issue.

So there is no single answer. This is a design element and therefore we need
to ask what is the value, will it help the learner be more engaged, and what
is the client's preference and budget. This is why instructional designers
should start with analysis and design before jumping in to creating a
product.

I would love to hear more opinions. Thanks!

Kind regards,

Susanne Flynn

www.SDCsite.com

Christy Tucker

The research supporting audio is discussed in eLearning and the Science of Instruction. Clark and Mayer call this the "modality principle," and it essentially says that people remember better from words spoken as narration than as on screen text, especially if you're using accompanying graphics or animation. In one study cited, students who heard narration produced twice as many solutions on a subsequent test as students who read identical on-screen text. Another study showed a 29% increase. The modality effect matters more for less experienced learners--if you're training doctors or engineers, it might not make as much of a difference as if you're training retail or hospitality staff. It makes more of a difference for complex material at a rapid pace than easy material at a slow pace (or where learners frequently pause or control the pace).

You are correct, however, that you should not have the voiceover read the on screen text verbatim. You might have the graphics and a few key phrases or maybe one sentence on screen, and the rest of the text is in the narration. Having the voiceover duplicate on screen text is called the "redundancy effect" in the research. You should either have on screen text or audio, not both. Multiple studies have shown that redundancy leads to lower transfer and application of problem solving.

If you search for the specific principles above or for "multimedia learning theory" or "multimedia learning principles," you'll find plenty of articles on the topic. You can also search for "dual coding theory," which is the underlying psychological theory. Research on "cognitive load" will also sometimes be relevant, although a fair amount of that is about other related topics.

You can start here with Google Scholar. There are over 1 million hits. https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=multimedia+learning+theory&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart

Ray Cole

For the past couple of years, I've been moving aggressively away from voice-over narration. Voice-over narration only seems appropriate when your course is content-oriented. The more you move toward a performance-oriented style--in which learners are asked to practice doing whatever it is you are teaching them--the less useful or appropriate it is to narrate to them.

For example, here's a sequence of screen-captures from a recent Emergency Management course we created, from a section on how to respond to earthquakes:

Set the context and the challenge

The small text boxes fly onto the screen one after the next, with a slight pause between them. As the learner rolls over the various possible places to take cover, those places receive a yellow outline. The learner is invited to click where he or she will “drop, cover, and hold on!” during the earthquake and then gets feedback about the choice:

Get Feedback

Then there is a little bit of non-interactive information presentation:

Telling

Still no narration. We try to put the descriptive callouts right next to the parts of the image they describe and we try to keep the amount of text to a minimum.

Set up the next choice

Judicious use of the Continue button allows us to parcel out the narrative in small chunks so the amount of text on-screen at any one time hopefully never becomes overwhelming and doesn't obscure too much of the high-context imagery that makes the learner feel immersed in the space.

Out in the hallway, context for next decision

Then we’re into the next decision the learner must make, and so on…

Since the learner is more or less constantly making decisions (and even when we're not asking the learner to make decisions, we try to keep him or her in the workspace so it still feels like a rehearsal/practice for the event), there doesn't seem to be a need for or benefit to voice-over. The course is more action oriented--you are practicing how to respond to an earthquake, not just listening to someone tell you about it. Since you are doing it, what purpose would voice-over narration serve?

As we move toward this kind of action/decision-oriented e-learning design, we find ourselves leaving voice-over narration behind more and more.

Judy Nollet

Here's my understanding of Clark & Mayer's research. It showed improvement with audio when the narration was accompanying graphical content, for example, describing parts of a machine as the slide highlight them on an illustration. In such cases, the combination of audio and visual helps because it uses two input channels (ears and eyes) that each take in different but related info. In other words, narration is great when you've got something besides text to show on screen. Of course, the transcript (as Notes, closed captioning, or other text that can be turned on and off by the user) should also be available to accommodate those who can't hear.

However, when the audio is merely reading the text on screen verbatim or almost verbatim, that actually increases cognitive load and, therefore, decreases learning. Not to mention that it's frustrating for users if you force them to stay on a slide until the audio finishes, when reading is faster.

In my experience, it seems some people want audio mostly to enforce a given seat time, with the hope that if they make users wait for the narration to play, the users will have to learn something. But if you don't trust your learners to read what they're supposed to, you can't trust that they'll listen to what they're supposed to. And that's a motivational issue, not an eLearning issue.

Karl Muller

Some logistical issues related to voice-over for those considering its use:

  • It adds to the course production time and cost.
  • If you need to produce your course in multiple languages it has a ripple effect
  • Creates content maintenance issues. If your course content is subject to frequent change, you also need to change the voice-over. This leads to several related problems: your original  voice talent may no longer be available, so you could end up with multiple voices in the same course. Editing audio and matching levels is time consuming and cumbersome
  • Voice-over adds to the overall size of the course. If bandwidth is not an issue, then no problem.

Note: our organization does not use voice-over at all.

Ulises Musseb

My two cents. For a properly design course that requires audio, based on the design approach used for it, the audio is not only useful, but essential to the learning experience.

For what I read, I have the impression (and I might be completely wrong) that the discussion about the audio was made based on looking at un-curated, un-developed content, which means that to the owners it can look like the audio would be redundant.

Part of what we do as developers is letting content owners know how we decide if/how to use audio. A storyboard can provide a good idea of how audio plays in the delivery of the content.