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Words, words, words: Is screen text narration a waste of time?

It’s a question we hear often: should an e-learning course include narration of on-screen text? With the exception of nursery school children at story time, learners overwhelmingly report that they dislike being read to. As adults, reading on-screen instruction while a slow-voiced narrator recites that exact same content, word for word, can be frustrating. Especially so for quick readers. And, it goes without saying; you do not want to frustrate your learners, right from the get-go.

It’s a fact, audio narration that mirrors on-screen text does not increase learner engagement or knowledge retention. Read-along audio narration provides no added benefit to the learner, and many actually find the audio distracting. Learners do not excel when their attention is split between reading and listening.

We advocate giving the learner as much control of their learning environment as possible and that includes allowing them to determine the time they need to process the information. The beauty of eLearning is that it can be crafted to allow an individualized approach, including pacing. By including read-along narration, you are essentially setting the pace for the learner. You are telling them how long a course should take, without giving them the option to bypass content they’ve already mastered or slow down and take their time with the new, challenging pieces of instruction.

So, why then do so many seem to embrace read-along narration in their courses? Often it can be a long-ingrained habit (that’s the way we’ve always done it!), or an assumption that a read-along provides an extra “oomph” to an otherwise difficult or dry topic. Occasionally, it can be a symptom of forcing the learner to spend a required amount of time with the material. Luckily, there are better ways to increase learner engagement without reverting to the old standby of read-along narration.

Learning professionals should take a big-picture look at a project to find the right balance of audio and visual in their instructional presentation. Different types of information may be better presented in different formats. Solutions to consider may include:

  • A summary-only approach or limited narration to support on-screen instruction. For those who are hard pressed to part with audio narration, consider using narration only to provide a summary of on-screen content, or only to offer supplemental instructions or motivating feedback for learners. If you’re partial to an audio component in e-learning, video-based learning, music or sound effects might be worth consideration.
  • Audio narration as the primary learning tool with limited on-screen text. Conversely, you may wish to consider audio narration instead of on-screen text as the primary delivery mechanism. Audio narration works extremely well in scenario-based learning or when explaining complex graphics or visual aids. Narrators can be used to tell a story or set the scene for a traditional “what would you do” exercise. This approach works especially well in branching exercises or scenarios with multiple “players.” Learners are immersed in a scenario and better able to understand and participate in the learning opportunity. On-screen text would be the redundancy in this instance.
  • Determine if your course must comply with 508 regulations. If your course must comply with 508 regulations, consider designing the course to work efficiently with off-the-shelf screen readers. Visually impaired already use their favorite tool to read screen text, why force them to use an inferior choice.

What is your preferred approach to including a narrator? Please share your thoughts! Connect with us on Twitter: @oe_learning.

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