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Apr 2009

Listen carefully

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Shaping the future of learning

Audio. It’s cheap to produce and quick to make. But so is a pot noodle – and we all know you shouldn’t add those to your e-learning. So when does audio enhance e-learning, and when does it start to be more noise than content? Here are some tips for using it sensibly in e-learning.

1. I can read on my own, thank you

Learners can read faster than you can speak. So don’t require them to read along to the same words you’ve put on the screen. It adds no value unless your learner is visually impaired, in which case they’re probably using a screenreader anyway, so the audio’s redundant. When you have text and audio carrying an identical message, the media will fight with each other and the learner will lose. Cardinal sin with audio: read the bullets that are on the screen, ask learner to click next, repeat until learner passes out.


2. This conversation is being recorded for training purposes…

Audio carries a lot more personality, tone and conviction than text. If the message you’re conveying is neutral – for example instruction text or an explanation – you don’t need personality or tone. So don’t use audio. But if you have an expert with a great example to share or a story to tell, then go for the recording. Their authority and personality (even if they’re not polished performers) brings it to life in a way that text just can’t.


3. Channel your energies

Learners receive graphics and text through the same channel (visually). So text and graphics can compete with each other. If you’ve got a complex diagram, and alongside it is a text description of its elements, then you’ve created potential overload for the learner. 

This is somewhere that audio can add value. Audio comes through a different channel (as in, your ear). So it doesn’t compete. So what to lose? Think about losing the text, or paring it back to the minimum. Then use audio to narrate the elements in your graphic or animation. Different channels, complementary messages. Better all around. Most of the animations that we make use voice-over and it’s far more effective than text. 

Audio + graphics = good combination. Audio + graphics + text = probably too much.


4. Lo-fi isn’t acceptable

Clark and Mayer have done some good research on this. Learners have low tolerance for poor quality audio. Yes, it’s cheap to produce, but it still needs to be audible, recorded with a decent mic, and edited neatly. Radio and TV set a standard for what’s acceptable, and dropping below that standard will have your learners asking ‘What’s that hissing noise?’ instead of hearing the message. Advice for keeping the audio in e-learning at a high quality is:

  • Keep it to 30 seconds if you can.
  • Keep it sounding natural – no odd delays or edits.
  • Keep the volume consistent between clips.
  • Beware of Skype-to-Skype or internet recordings – quality is patchy.


5. Drama hour, great – amateur hour, not so great

If you’re creating characters to tell a story, then using audio to bring the characters to life can be great. Like the point above though, quality counts. Acting is for professionals. Amateur actors will get in the way of conveying your message. If you can’t do it professionally, its generally better not to try it.


6. Love audio? Maybe you need a different version

Audio can be powerful enough to work on its own – as we’ve talked about in our earlier tips about podcasts (and about 120 years of radio). If you find there’s a big temptation to include audio extensively in your e-learning, to the extent that it’s blocking out the other media – maybe you should think about an audio-only version. Some learners may prefer it, and it’s not that much more effort – in fact, often less effort – than creating e-learning.



Shaping the future of learning

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