Talking about narration

This is the first of a series of posts on computer-generated narration in elearning.

Back at the turn of the century when I was getting started with online training, there was a debate among designers about whether courseware should be seen and not heard. At the time, broadband was not widely available, so the burden of the extra soundtrack on transmission speeds was something to consider. For my client who was sending courses to affiliate stores in twenty states across a 9600 baud dial-up modem, the answer was easy: no audio.people-1099804_1280

Today the bandwidth issues are largely gone, and the discussion is more likely to be when to use narration than if. Based on my experience, there are times for narration and times for silence.

Do use narration when:

  • You have a very short, highly technical lesson for a technical audience. Show the graphic on the screen, and explain the fine points of what they are seeing.
  • You have a highly graphical subject and narration adds to the graphics. An example of this might be a module on filling out a complex form: show the form on the screen and use the narration to explain how to fill it out.
  • You have a moderately complex subject and narration expands on the key points shown on the screen. This could be considered the “SME with PowerPoint™” model – the screen shows the bones of the subject, but it’s the experienced speaker that puts meat on the bones.
  • Your course design allows learners to easily stop and replay audio. This prevents one of my personal pet peeves about online learning, which I call the “YouTube™ effect”: there’s a video teaching a skill you want to learn, but the speaker talks so fast that you have to stop and rewind every few seconds to keep up.  Your course should allow the learner to pause, reflect on the content, and replay the audio as needed to clarify a point.

Do not use narration when:

  • Physical delivery will be an issue. There are still places where bandwidth is not sufficient to support rich media (this goes for video as well as audio).
  • Narration reads the content on the screen. Learners never read and hear content at exactly the same speed, and having the same information coming at two different speeds will cause confusion and reduce learning effectiveness.
  • The client doesn’t want you to include narration. Clients may have any number of reasons for not wanting audio in their elearning, and you have to respect that.

There are a lot of discussion points around narration, but for now let’s just say that there are times you should use it, and times you should not, depending on the content, the audience, and the purpose of the course. But that brings us to the next question: what type of narration? Do you need an expensive voice-over artist to be able to include good narration in your course?

In the last few years, a large number of text-to-speech (TTS) products have appeared that let the computer read a script aloud. These are not new – the Talking Moose™ appeared on the 1986 Macintosh™. But more recent versions do two things the Moose could never do: first, they can capture their narration in a file that can be inserted into an elearning module in products like Storyline™ or Lectora™, and second, they sound roughly like live human beings.

There are dozens of products that include TTS features, and in another post, I’ll review a few of the major ones. TTS is part of both the Mac and Windows operating systems, which would seem to eliminate the need for external applications. However, the built-in applications are limited in the voices you can use. External products such as those by Nuance™, Natural Reader™ and iSpeech™, have a wider range of more naturalistic voices (iPhone’s Siri for example, is in part powered by Nuance technology). Some of them allow you to tweak the output so that it sounds more natural. (By the way, I am not endorsing any of these products, just saying that they exist.)

At the end of the day, none of them are (yet) as good as a human voice. But TTS has a definite place in the online designer’s toolbox. Here are four good uses for low-cost computer voices:

  • Proofing your narration script. No matter how many times you review a script before sending it to the voice-over artist, you will miss something. For me, it’s usually punctuation or pronunciation of an acronym. Listening to a computer generated draft of your script lets you find those places and correct them, saving you time and rework.
  • Timing your narration to the activities on the screen. Animations and page builds of all sorts are more effective when timed to the narration.
  • Reviewing draft courses. When you are building on a budget, this lets you and your clients review the courses before sending the scripts to the voice-over artist. While the effect won’t be as smooth as a human voice, you can get a draft out for review and feedback quickly.
  • Converting screen content into narration for specialized purposes. The most common use for TTS allows sight-impaired or dyslexic learners to “hear” the text on the screen. While technically not the same as voice-over narration, TTS can fill the gap when you provide no other narration.

I want to thank my Storyline user group, who got me to thinking about narration in elearning. Next time, I’ll talk a bit about how to get computer-generated narration for free.

Building a portfolio – episode 1

empty portfolioI’ve been building elearning products for clients since 1999, and what do I have to show for it? Lots of proprietary notes and drafts, and precious little in the way of samples that I can show potential clients.

Mind you, I’m not complaining. Until recently, I worked for large organizations where I could point to other projects for the same company as my portfolio. Because these large firms generally held that their information was proprietary (and the fact that most final products were stored on secure course management systems), I could not take any of my finished work with me when the project was completed.

But now I am on my own again, and trying to increase my elearning business. For that I need a portfolio. Some things are fairly easy: I’ve kept written descriptions of most of the projects I did over the years, so I have the raw materials for case studies and resumes. Templates for some of the work, like stakeholder analyses and user guides, can be made into vanilla forms and checklists. But finished courses, especially elearning modules, are a different matter. Those I must create from scratch.

Over the next few weeks, I will be documenting the steps to creating an elearning portfolio from personal experience. I’ve read a number of helpful websites and blogs, but at the end of the day, it’s down to me to build it (and hope that, having built it, they will come). So stay tuned for new adventures in learning.

The first step is probably the hardest: deciding what to build.

The sample should be relatively small (a short module or two, maybe a quiz), and I should be able to create a complete package showing the process from initial thought process to final output. Check.
I am fluent in three elearning tools (Lectora, Articulate, and, to a lesser degree, Storyline 2), so to cover all bases, I could create a sample in each of them (I’ll address my adventures with these programs another day).

Now all I am missing is the content – what will the modules be about?

At first I thought, “perhaps some side issue with my latest project?” I’m just completed on a series of virtual classroom sessions tangentially involved with Common Core standards for schools, so I thought perhaps a short history of Common Core might be interesting. Did some research, and maybe that will become one of the new modules.

Then I got to thinking about other projects might lend themselves a short, interactive, colorful, interesting elearn. Lots of things there. But perhaps the most critical thing was updating my resume. Now there’s an idea: encapsulating my past so that I could pull it up for interviews. Let’s see where that goes.

Stay tuned for the next episode: high level design and storyboards.


In many ways, MOOCs (massively open online courses) are not new. When introduced in 2008, they were seen as extensions of the existing distance learning model (which itself had evolved from correspondence to radio to closed-circuit television broadcasts) to the internet. But then it became something else: a way to extend the university itself to anyone in the world with an internet connection.

The idea was tried by many universities over the next few years, and became wildly popular when it teamed up with the OER (open educational resources) movement, which added the idea that the MOOC should be free for anyone to take. In 2011 the first MOOC organizations (Udacity, Coursera) appeared. In 2012, the New York Times declared the Year of the MOOC, and one year later, the Times declared MOOCs to be failures. But not everyone agrees with the Times. In December 2014, an MIT Technology Review article asked What are MOOCs good for? . So who’s right? Are MOOCs a superior educational experience that allows the students to learn from the best instructors, or just another over-enthusiastic technology application?

I’ve taken several courses through Coursera, one of the major MOOC platforms, and have heard many of the standard complaints. Non-completion rates as high as 96% wasted the time of serious students. Instructors who acted as though their university were forcing them to make their courses available to the unwashed masses, and instructors who did not seem to acknowledge that anyone was outside their classrooms at all. Assignments made on the premise that the student had no responsibilities other than the course (honestly, 8 short stories and 2 novels in one week?).

But I’ve also seen some genuine innovation in teaching: science courses that brought current field research into class in an easy and seamless way, and comparative literature taught through video games. So are MOOCs really a failed form, or can we learn from these issues to continue this experiment in genuine adult education?

The first rule of communication is “know thy audience”, and this is where I believe many MOOCs have disappointed. When first proposed, MOOCs were intended to provide college-level courses to the masses for free. I won’t comment on the “for free” part, because while producing a MOOC isn’t free, the business model that allows students to take the courses is still very much unresolved.

Once a MOOC is released into the wild, however, anyone and everyone can sign up for it. The model intended for college students becomes a learning resource for everyone. This has led to some interesting, although probably predictable, results. Huge numbers of people sign up for courses, but those who complete the course (the common measure of success) are typically self-motivated, interactive, diligent, and disciplined. So in one respect, the initial audience analysis for MOOCs is spot-on: successful students are those who would be successful on-campus college students. But who are the rest of the audience, and why are they not successful?

Well, most of them are adult learners. The difference between the two is a matter of focus and experience: adult learners generally have more experience to draw upon, and less time to focus on learning than the traditional 18-22 year old college student. Adult learners may not be looking for a college credential – they may be looking for a resource or to learn something interesting and new. Non-native language speakers may be looking for a way to practice English composition (this was the case in the literature courses). Others take courses to try out new skills and career options. So for these learners, the credential is not the goal – it’s the content. But the content is not organized for those audiences.

Other people simply may not learn well in the traditional academic structure. Maybe they are night owls, or learn experientially rather than by reading or listening. They may succeed in learning the content, but fail at the course. The content is in most cases not organized for those audiences either.

Still others do not have the time to devote to a traditional course (the literature course that took 15+ hours a week). For them the traditional structure may be appropriate, but not the deadlines.

The basic idea of the MOOC is a good one – providing access to learning for everyone. However, developing courses with audiences other than the college student in mind will make it more successful. Here are my suggestions, for what they are worth.

Keep the college courses.
Even if it’s only 4% of the total population, traditional college students are an important audience for MOOCs, and will help universities broaden their total audience.

Develop for adult learners. Designing for adult learners is different from designing for college students, but it will be worth the effort to address the audience of non-degree-seeking learners.

Hands-on and group learning. Some audiences require group discussion and / or hands-on projects to complete in order to master a subject. Book club members already understand this concept, and a growing number of researchers are finding that science is often better when people share data and discuss findings.

Abolish the semester. To address the student’s lack of time, courses could be offered with a six-month or one-year deadline instead of the typical 10-12 weeks. This is tougher than it appears, as the support system for a MOOC includes interacting with instructors and facilitators who would be bound to a longer time commitment.

Describe the approach in the catalog. Let your audience know how the course is designed and they can choose for themselves. MOOCs have been accused of being one-size-fits-all, but I’ve found that much of that reputation comes from placing existing classroom courses, sometimes unaltered, into the structure of the MOOC platform. Yet within that structure many find ways to provide innovative learning techniques. Describe the intended audience for the course along with the content and let the learner decide.

The good news is that most of these suggestions are being tried. A recent report from Columbia University discusses the proliferation of various forms of the MOOC, and in a later posting, I’d like to start a discussion on the merits of xMOOCs, cMOOCs, and corporate MOOCs. But that’s a tale for another day. The success of Coursera, Udacity, and other similar open knowledge resources suggests that the form is evolving as practitioners continue on the grand experiment. My prediction: there will be many types of MOOCS, addressing the needs of learners throughout their lifetimes. Stay tuned!