Audio plays an important role in eLearning, but it can be handled poorly. When it’s done correctly, audio breathes life into an eLearning course. It makes the lesson more engaging and provides an emotional response. However, including audio in a lesson is tricky. If you get it wrong, learners will struggle to take away valuable information.

There are other considerations when including audio. It’s more expensive to produce and update than its text counterpart. A text file can be easily rewritten to update information. With audio, you would have to redo the narration and even then, the new sections might not sound the same.

Audio has its time and place, so consider all the options available before including it. Let’s look at the most common types of audio in eLearning so you can understand when and how to properly utilize it.

1. Identical text + audio

In the book ‘eLearning and the Science of Instruction,’ Mayer and Clark explain the detriments of cognitive overload by having on-screen text that’s identical to audio. It’s more effective to use audio or text-only formats than it is to combine the two. There are a couple of reasons why this is true.

Audio in eLearning can’t keep up with the speed at which learners read. People read at about double the speed of listening to audio, so they end up reading ahead while the audio lags. This is too much to process and leads to cognitive overload which hinders the learning experience rather than enhancing it.

2. Audio only

Storytelling has a profound impact on learners. It improves learning by creating a memorable experience that engages the learner in ways that other methods cannot. Audio is an excellent way to use the storytelling approach to enhance the learning experience. Other common examples of an audio-only approach are with embedded videos, animation-rich designs, or gamification eLearning approaches.

Keep in mind that the speed of narration should be kept around 120 to 140 spoken words per minute. Any more than that and the learner will struggle to keep up. However, if the narration is too slow, it’s difficult to keep the learner focused on the lesson.

According to a study done by Kalyuga, Chandler, and Sweller, learners’ performance improved by 64% with audio-only lessons in comparison to groups that studied using text and audio combined.

3. Text only

Text will always have its place in eLearning since it’s an efficient way to communicate information. Producing text is quicker and easier to edit than audio and video. Certain material is also easier to communicate with text. It lets individuals process the information at their own pace, which is a foundational element of eLearning. Learners can stop reading to give themselves time to absorb information. This is much more difficult with audio since the learner would have to pause it and then go back a few seconds.

The problem with text is that it becomes static if it’s overused. Learners skim walls of text and could miss important information. However, some lessons should be presented in a text-only format. For instance, instructions should be with text so they remain on screen while the learner carries out the task.

4. Audio with only key points on screen

This is a common method where audio covers all the information in the lesson, and it’s complimented by on-screen text that displays only key points. The text does not repeat what’s being narrated in the audio. Instead, short text or bullet points on screen emphasizes the overall point of the audio. The audio may be long but the on-screen text is short which can provide better visual aesthetics.

One drawback of this audio-heavy version is that the course can be tedious if there is too much information to convey with audio. As mentioned, people read quicker than they listen so the eLearning become boring without well-timed animations. Additionally, the default screen designs of yesteryear look like bulleted PowerPoint narrated with a dreary narrator.

If this approach is used, it’s best to abandon a typical PowerPoint bulleted eLearning design and instead ensure the graphics and supporting text on screen complement the message and animate at the correct time to provide a fulsome learner experience. It’s also imperative to ensure the audio is focused and meaningful.

Graphics like charts and tables are a good tool for summarizing audio. It’s important that whatever is displayed doesn’t require a lot of thought to process. Otherwise, it could lead to the same detrimental cognitive overload as identical text and audio.

5. Very short audio for context before the words appear on screen

This approach uses audio to provide transition context from the last screen or a brief audio summary of the information that’s going to be expressed on screen. This is the exact opposite of the previous method. The audio is short and the text on screen may be longer. For example, the audio on the page may iterate that the topic is important for learner success. Then the text on screen would further itemize in more detail why it’s important. One advantage of this approach is that the course duration is shorter as learners are reading most of the content rather than listening to it.

Keep in mind that it can still lead to cognitive overload, but the risk is less if the audio is kept short and occurs before the on-screen text appears. Avoid cognitive overload by having the audio run before the words appear and not at the same time. It’s critical that the audio is very short.

6. Audio for sound effects

Sound effects demand attention. The problem is they demand so much attention that it distracts learners from essential information. When used correctly, sound effects can create a connection between a specific point and the real-life context of the information being presented. However, this is situational at best and generally not worth the risk.

Most of the time, sound effects distract learners more than they help. Sound effects should never be used simultaneously with learning points. Use them before or after the point has been described or leave them out entirely.

If the sound effect doesn’t directly relate to the context of the message, then it should not be included. Forgo the sound effect of the “screen-advance” in an eLearning.

7. Music in eLearning

In most cases background music is more of a distraction than a benefit but there are rare instances where it enhances the learning experience. For instance, game shows use background music to set the tone during important moments to get the viewer emotionally invested.

Even though this isn’t an example of eLearning, the concept is comparable. Background music and sound tracks in eLearning enhance the suspense and sparks a learner’s motivation when used prior to a lesson. But including it during the lesson content itself results in sensory overload.

Stay away from music when learners need their full focus. Used thoughtfully, background music sprinkles a lesson with a dash of emotion and creates a more memorable learning experience.

Final thoughts

The key is to understand when audio adds to an eLearning program. There are certain types of learning that require audio. Some examples include call center training, music lessons, language lessons, and anything where proper pronunciation is required.

However, there are many pitfalls to using audio. Don’t use audio for the sake of having it in an eLearning course. Have a plan and use audio strategically. Audio will enhance the overall learning experience as long as it’s not overdone.