Should You Narrate Your eLearning Course?

A person's hand hold a set a blue headphones over a laptop computer on a desk.
This post shares reasons to narrate eLearning, considering research-based instructional design methods and best practices for accessibility.

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

Introduction

To narrate, or not to narrate? That is the question I asked last week in a LinkedIn poll. The results, as of this writing (with 353 votes), are pictured below.

Screenshot of a poll with the question, "What kind of eLearning experience do you prefer?" Responses are: full narration: 21%; no narration: 12%; some audio (user-selected): 59%; other (please comment): 8%.

What kind of eLearning experience do you prefer?

  • Full narration: 21%
  • No narration: 12%
  • Some audio (user-selected): 59%
  • Other (please comment): 8%

The poll generated some thoughtful discussion, with many great points brought up on all sides of the issue. Most of the comments had to do with making the learning experience more engaging or making it accessible.

In this post, I’ll share what I consider three bad reasons to use audio narration in eLearning and three good ones, based on research-based instructional design methods and best practices for accessibility.

Bad Reasons to Include Narration in eLearning

Simply adding narration doesn’t magically make a course engaging or accessible. Nor does it ensure better learning outcomes.

Even with the best of intentions, narration can go wrong if not informed by sound instructional design practices. Let’s look at some bad—or at least insufficient—reasons for including narration in eLearning.

Bad Reason #1: To Accommodate Different Learning Styles

In case you haven’t already buried them, repeat after me: “Learning styles don’t matter.”

It’s not that learners are all the same. But research doesn’t provide credible evidence that adapting our teaching methods for different learning styles has an effect on learning.

Furthermore, categorizing learners can have harmful effects. A person who’s been told she’s a “visual learner” might limit herself with the belief that she can’t learn in other ways. And an organization might spend a lot of time and money creating differentiated learning materials that aren’t effective.

Bottom line: Instructional design choices should be made based on sound research.

Bad Reason #2: To Make It Accessible

Okay, maybe saying this is a “bad” reason for narration in eLearning is a little unfair. I’m including it because there are a lot of misconceptions out there about what does and does not make a course accessible. 

A course doesn’t have to be narrated to be accessible.

Likewise, a course with narration does not automatically mean it’s accessible.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say narration is required for blind people. Actually, narration can interfere with assistive technology that blind learners use. They can’t simply turn the screen reader off, because then they will have trouble accessing the navigation buttons or interactive features of the course. And listening to a narrator at normal speed can be a frustrating experience for someone who’s accustomed to speeding up their screen reader to 600 words per minute.

That doesn’t mean we can assume all learners with visual impairments will use a screen reader. Users with low vision may only need to magnify their screens. Having audio narration available can be beneficial to those learners and many other types of learners. For example, conditions such as dyslexia or chronic migraine can make reading large amounts of text challenging.

If your course is text-heavy, or it includes many unfamiliar terms that users may need help pronouncing, having audio available can be helpful. But users need the option to toggle the audio on or off.

Bottom line: Having audio available can be beneficial for some learners; however, narration does not ensure accessibility.

Bad Reason #3: Because That's What You Like

Personally, I would much rather read information than listen to it or watch a video. Listening to a narrator feels like it’s slowing me down. I also like being able to go back and reread a passage if needed, rather than rewinding a video or scrubbing an audio track to find the information I want to return to.

But these are individual preferences that I shouldn’t let dictate my instructional design decisions. I need to consider what’s best for learners rather than what I like or don’t like.

The same goes for designers who strongly prefer audio or video.

Bottom line: When we’re designing courses, it’s not about us or our preferences.

Good Reasons to Include Narration in eLearning

Design choices should be rooted in what we know contributes to better learning—considering Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning. The Redundancy Principle tells us that “people learn better from graphics and narration than from graphics, narration, and on-screen text.” So, we shouldn’t be narrating text that also appears on the screen.

You might be thinking, “But if a learner turns the audio off, how will they access the content if it’s not on the screen?” Two words: closed captions. I also encourage you to provide transcripts in addition to closed captions, because many learners benefit from using them for later reference.

Good Reason #1: To Explain Complex Graphics

Mayer’s Modality Principle tells us that using audio narration to explain a complex graphic is more effective than showing the graphic alongside on-screen text that explains it. For learners with hearing and sight, this kind of strategy makes use of our dual processing channels and helps us makes the most of our limited cognitive resources during learning.

As I mentioned above, Mayer’s Redundancy Principle means we should explain visuals with audio or text, but not both. Using both inputs (audio and on-screen text) can increase the cognitive load, because a learner might be reading faster or slower than the narrator.

Bottom line: Use narration to explain complex graphics without redundant on-screen text.

Good Reason #2: Because the Content Requires It

We have to consider the best way to teach the content at hand. For example, if your course is about developing oral storytelling skills, you’d be hard-pressed to teach that without narration. A course on instructional facilitation skills would benefit from videos of instructors demonstrating those skills. You’d also need audio if you’re teaching language or music.

Bottom line: Use audio when it makes sense based on the content.

Good Reason #3: To Provide Options

As I mentioned earlier, narrating a course doesn’t automatically make it accessible for all. It can make the course more accessible to some users, while, for others, it might make it less accessible. The key is to give learners a choice.

User choice is also important considering Malcolm Knowles’ andragogical model and the learner’s self-concept.

“Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions, for their own lives. Once they have arrived at that self-concept, they develop a deep psychological need to be seen by others and treated by others as being capable of self-direction. They resent and resist situations in which they feel others are imposing their wills on them.”

Malcolm Knowles

I read an article recently in praise of eLearning narration which said narration “dictates the pace of learning.” In my mind, that’s exactly what it shouldn’t do. I’d rather let learners control the pace of their learning.

Bottom line: Give learners as much control over their learning experience as possible.

Summary

Here are the takeaways from this post:

  • Instructional design choices should be made based on sound research.
  • Having audio available can be beneficial for some learners; however, narration does not ensure accessibility.
  • When we’re designing courses, it’s not about us or our preferences.
  • Use narration to explain complex graphics without redundant on-screen text.
  • Use audio when it makes sense based on the content.
  • Give learners as much control over their learning experience as possible.

I’ll expand on this topic in future posts with some examples of how to use audio in eLearning courses as well as some use cases showing how different types of learners experience the same course. Let me know in the comments if you have specific questions or use cases you’d like me to address.

Recommended Reading

Here are some books I have in my personal library that I highly recommend for learning more about the topics in this post:

I earn a small amount if you choose to purchase a book from one of the above links. This does not affect the price you pay and helps to support this blog.

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