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The Value of Voice

By Lisa Neal, Mark Notess / December 2005

TYPE: OPINION
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Many online courses provide text and optional audio of someone reading the text in a well-modulated voice. Can this audio track deliver any pedagogical value?

Online courses are not intended to serve as entertainment, yet these voices are oddly reminiscent of Morgan Freeman narrating March of the Penguins—pleasant to listen to and a bit hypnotic. The voices speak slowly and enunciate well and are not meant to supplement course information but merely deliver the text without the emphasis or enthusiasm that might add meaning to it. For example, in a recent course from the American Medical Association, the voice did not place any additional emphasis on words like "risk" and "pain." There was no obvious credit for the voice source, and the reader was almost certainly not a subject matter expert. But using a reader identified as an expert might add not only meaningful inflection, but credibility and authenticity.

Because people read faster than they listen to the same text, use of the audio track means courses take longer to complete, which students don't appreciate. But the main reason to avoid gratuitous text-reading is that learners just don't like to lose control over pacing, skipping, and browsing. And, if they do look at the text while listening, their eyes invariably move to a different section than the one being read aloud, causing interference. There are times, however, when an audio track proves beneficial:

  • If the person doing the voiceover is a personality of interest to the learners, the audio can be interesting in its own right. Still, learners may want to skip to the transcript after the novelty of hearing (and preferably seeing) the expert or celebrity has worn off.
  • When the text's reading level is greater than the reader's literacy level or when the reader is a non-native speaker, the audio component may be very helpful. Two examples that do this effectively are a course for Alzheimer's caregivers that targets high- and low-literacy learners in both Spanish and English, and a history course for elementary school children that similarly assumes not all students are strong readers.
  • If speaking is a component of what is being learned, the audio will be essential. Language-learning and public speaking are two obvious examples of this category.
There may be additional scenarios where an audio track is worthwhile. But in any case, the combination of text and audio has become the de facto standard for self-paced online courses without clear justification. Research is needed to examine the laboratory findings of verbal redundancy researchers like Richard Mayer to determine how different e-learning designs affect learners in real course contexts, where the distractions and pressures of real life sometimes sabotage the good intentions of instructional designers. Additionally, we would like to hear learner feedback on the value of voice, since, in conversation with friends and colleagues, we have yet to find anyone who prefers to listen than read in an online course. The current popularity of podcasting for e-learning shows that many people like to listen, but that may be true mostly when text is not an option-or when mobility or the unique qualities of the speaker are paramount.



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