Of all the media in online learning, audio is the one most likely to be catastrophic. If the learner is not bombarded with beeps, buzzes and bings, they’re assaulted with corny and needless background music or subjected to tinny, echo-ridden, variable volume-level voiceovers from people with all the charisma of a soggy lettuce. Having built a sound studio, just for online learning and done many dozens of voiceovers, here’s a few tips to avoid the most obvious blunders.
1. Quality matters
In The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, research shows that that users are more sensitive to the quality of audio than they are to that of video. The quality of audio production matters more than the quality of video images. This is because our eyes cope well with twilight, different light levels, distance and so on. Our ears, however, expect high quality audio, as that’s the norm in real dialogue. Record quality audio. If you don't, the learner will sound you out as an amateur.
2. DON’T use background music
Background music adds nothing to the learning experience. In fact, it can inhibit learning. Moreno and Mayer (2000) did an experiment with and without background music, showing that (even with low-level, barely discernible music) the same learning experience was 20-67% better in the sequence without background music. As a postscript, the Mozart Effect is nonsense.
3. DON’T use sound effects
Moreno and Mayer (2001) found that extraneous sounds damaged learning. Unnecessary sounds create unnecessary cognitive load and distract from, rather than increase, learning. This also applies to sounds, such as beeps or applause, that reinforce right and wrong answers. This may be appropriate in a games or young children, but not for most online learning. Ear candy is as bad as eye candy.
4. DON’T do voice and text
The same words in both text and accompanying audio narration can damage learning. Mayer and Clark argue, from their own research, for the use of ‘audio and graphics’ - without screen text. According to Clark and Mayer (2003), ‘audio or text on their own’ are better than ‘text and audio together’. This is confirmed by another study by Kalyuga, Chandler and Sweller (1999) where the group with audio scored 64% better than the group with both text and audio. They claim that one or other is redundant and will overload the visual and aural channels.
5. DON’T double up for accessibility
It’s tempting to add audio for everything to meet accessibility standards but that’s a big mistake. Ruining a good learning programme for the vast majority, for the needs of a small minority, is a mistake. There are other ways of handling the accessibility for blind users.
6. DO get levels right
It’s easy to record audio. Cameras do it, even smartphones do it, but it’s less easy to keep the quality and volume-levels the same across different recordings at different times, without extensive post-production. Users are very sensitive to sudden drops and rises in volume and you run the risk of seeming amateurish, losing the respect of the learner, if they vary.
7. DO use professional voices
Tempting though it may be to use the subject-matter-expert or someone in the team, to record the voiceovers, don’t do it. Or, at the very least choose someone with a strong voice, that can sound genuine and enthusiastic in a real recoding. You may save yourself a considerable amount of time and money by using professionals.
8. DO buy a good Mike
A good microphone is a sound investment, as it’s easy to rely on the in-built camera mike or cheap iPhone accessories. A good mike will make all the difference and remember - the quality of audio is more important than the quality of video in learning.
9. Consider podcasts
Consider podcasts, especially for mobile learning but also where you want the learner to use their imagination. Radio has been doing this well for a long time. Think about the interview format or, as in the ‘In our time’ podcasts, one interviewer and three or four experts. Listening is a far more common skill than reading.
10. DON’T assume that audio is good learning
As I outlined in my 10 reasons for using text in online learning, we can read much faster than we can listen. Audio sometimes introduces a rather ponderous pace to online learning, especially for adult and experienced learners. It is also, difficult and expensive to update, as you need to have the same voice, same levels and same recording environment. It can, at times, seem almost patronising. So think long and hard before spending all that time and money on audio - it's difficult to do well.