Silence, in eLearning, is Not Always Golden

If you’re creating your first eLearning course with a new LMS, here’s a tip: Grab your slide deck (PowerPoint, Haiku Deck—whatever you use) and upload it. You can always delete this “test course” later. But in the meantime you’ll get a good feel—very quickly—for how your LMS works. And, you’ll also quickly learn that simply uploading an existing slide deck doesn’t (usually) create an engaging online course in and of itself.

audioUsually, when you give a presentation or facilitate a workshop, you talk to (and hopefully, with) your audience. Your spoken words bring your slides to life and make your content meaningful and relevant. You ask questions and catalyze your audience to internalize the content in preparation for on-the-job application. You facilitate the ability of your audience to make connections between your content and the real world. So, when you upload slides for your eLearning course, you need to add those crucial user engagement pieces—often oral and auditory pieces—into your course as well.

With the explosion of technology tools available, crafting engaging training with multimedia is ever-changing and full of possibilities. Here, we’ll focus on enhancing the learning experience with (great) audio as pure text or graph-based learning can be, well, excruciatingly mind-numbing.

So, what is audio “good for”?

Combining Auditory and Visual Learning Styles

Yes, there are instances when no audio is needed in your eLearning at all. However pairing auditory and visual learning will often enhance the learning experience.

But, you must use best practices. Out of the seven horrible mistakes you’re likely making with eLearning, two-and-a-half out of the seven mistakes are audio-related:

1. Nothing but text on the screen
2. No audio
2 ½. Plopping a recorded webinar online and calling it “eLearning”

The need to address these overly-common mistakes is supported by the stats in Dave Paradi’s latest Annoying PowerPoint Survey. The top three annoyances are:

  • “The speaker read the slides to us” (72%)
  • “Text so small I couldn’t read it” (50.6%)
  • “Full sentences instead of bullet points” (48.4%)

Combining auditory and visual learning is useful. But using audio to purely regurgitate what can already be read on the screen is a subpar practice. Also, text overload (with or without audio narration) is overwhelming. And, the audio in most recorded webinars is not suited to smooth eLearning experiences since unnecessary pauses, awkward transitions between presenters, the inevitable technical glitches, and irrelevant “here’s who we are and what we do” introductions will be recorded for posterity.

Many of these annoyances can be addressed by adding (great) audio to your visual eLearning content—as long as you use good judgement.

You Do Need Audio—And It Must be Well-Done and of High Quality

In his article How to (and Why) Produce High Quality Audio in e-Learning, Bill Cushard writes: “’Should you use audio narration in your e-learning courses?’ Ruth Clark, author of E-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning, answers this question clearly when she recommends that you should have all speech as audio rather than as text on the screen, especially when describing a visual of some kind.”

And, if you’ve bought into the need for creating audio narration in your eLearning, then in the same article, Bill covers the details of how to add high-quality audio to your eLearning. Think about getting a good microphone, writing excellent and tight scripts, how to “do-it-yourself” and when to hire a voice-over professional.

Learning Objectives are Paramount

So, having established that audio in eLearning is important, let’s back up for a moment and clarify something: Audio is required in your eLearning only if it supports the learning objectives of your eLearning. If the audio you are thinking of using detracts from the learning objectives, you have two choices: consider using a different audio technique, or ditch the audio altogether. The deciding factor? The technique that best supports your learning objectives.

Backtracking to the scenario of uploading your existing slides into your LMS, think about the original premise under which those slides were created. Were those slides meant to communicate data (perhaps the plan or the latest performance stats)? Or, to encourage an experience that might result in a behavioral change or transformational learning? When creating multimedia content for eLearning, don’t think “presentation”…think “learning”. Most presentations simply communicate information. Most learning enables a transformational experience for the learner. For your training content, think, “Will this content, as I’ve presented it, encourage real learning? And, can audio enhance that learning experience?”

Narrative vs. Non-Narrative Audio

When adding narration to slides, remember that the narration must be 100% related to the visuals (text, images, charts, infographics, etc.) the learner is seeing on the screen. The learner should not be distracted by mismatched audio and visuals. Be cognizant of syncing the audio to visual transitions in the slides. And, in that vein, remember that eLearning doesn’t have to be a one-way lecture. Make sure that you ask questions (direct learners to social media tools to gather their answers) and pause the narration to allow time for self-reflection.

For that matter, audio doesn’t need to be solely narrative. Consider sound effects and music. Just don’t add audio, be it narrative or non-narrative, solely for the sake of adding it.

Throughout 2009, The New York Times introduced 54 “characters” from the City in sound and images, as part of an oral history project entitled “One in 8 Million”. Note how the slides, which combine images, text, narrative and non-narrative audio—and moments of silence—create a memorable multimedia viewer experience.

Think Like a Producer

When designing eLearning, borrow from other creative disciplines to incorporate principles of audience engagement. Think about film-making, writing, marketing / advertising and gaming. And consider using multimedia techniques from those disciplines, such as:

  • Using text versus images
  • Creating well-written audio scripts
  • Adding narrative versus non-narrative audio
  • Using silence intentionally for maximum impact
  • Using ambient audio to set the mood
  • Syncing audio to visual transitions
  • Hiring a professional versus DIY
  • Purchasing the right audio recording equipment
  • Creating downloadable audio files for later use (performance support)
  • How audio file size affects performance

Be thoughtful. Be creative. Have fun.

What additional recommendations or experiences do you have for those of us who are looking to use audio to maximize learning retention and impact?

Gauri Reyes is a talent developer and learning leader with extensive experience in roles ranging from software management to managing the learning function in organizations. She is Principal Learning Strategist and CEO at Triple Point Advisors and Founder of the YOUth LEAD program. Follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+.

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