Free speech for elearning?

This is the second in a series on narration in elearning.

I have a confession to make: I’m a pennypincher. Free stuff is the strange attractor that creates chaos in my office.

Free is not always better. When it comes to computer-generated narration in elearning, free options are not as robust as paid tools or human voice artists, and I rarely use them for finished modules. However, computer-generated narration is a great tool within the elearning development process, and both the Mac™ and Windows™ platforms offer options that work just fine.

Inserting an audio file into Storyline 2

The basic goal is to create an .mp3 or .wav file that you can import into your elearning development project. I use Storyline 2™ by Articulate, which has a simple command for importing files.  So let’s see how to create the files on the Mac and in Windows. We’ll use this sample text:

Educational technology and e-learning can occur in or out of the classroom. It can be self-paced, asynchronous learning or may be instructor-led, synchronous learning. It is suited to distance learning and in conjunction with face-to-face teaching, which is termed blended learning. Educational technology is used by learners and educators in homes, schools (both K-12 and higher education), businesses, and other settings.

Mac OS X 10.x (El Capitan)

The first question is probably “Why a Mac, when Storyline 2 operates only in Windows?”

The short answer is that I have a Mac. I have used both Macs and PCs forever, and when it came time to buy my own machine, the Mac just suits my needs and my style better than Windows.

Of course, this presents a challenge with Windows-only products such as Storyline. I meet the challenge by creating a virtual environment on my Mac that allows me to run Windows in a separate window. I’ve tried Boot Camp™, Parallels™, and VirtualBox ™ and currently am happily using Oracle’s VirtualBox to host Windows on my Mac. I can design, create content and graphics on the Mac, and with a few idiosyncrasies, transfer across the two platforms almost seamlessly. VirtualBox is well-supported, and it’s free.

Here’s the three-step process for creating an audio narration file on the Mac. All the applications mentioned are included with the OS X operating system.

  1. Start TextEdit and open the file with the script you want to convert to an audio file. 
    001 original text
  2. Select the block of text, then right click and choose Services>Add to iTunes as spoken Track.
  3. When prompted, select a voice for your file, name and locate the file, then click Save. The file will be saved as mp4a file in the Music folder of your iTunes Music folder. (By default, the file goes to: my name>Music>iTunes>iTunes Music >Music>Unknown Artist >Unknown Album> filename.mp4a)

From this point there are a couple of things you should do with the file:

  • Listen to it by double-clicking the file. This will open iTunes and play your file.
  • Place the file into your Storyline content folder where it will be available to insert into your project.

Windows 7

And now for the process for creating an audio narration file in Windows 7.

Windows has a built-in TTS feature called Narrator that will read the screen for you, but will not save to an audio file. There’s also the Sound Recorder application, which will record audio and output it to a file. However, I find coordinating these applications to create a narration file is at best awkward. Fortunately there are better options.

One of several free or low-cost applications in this space is Balabolka™. According to the web site, the name means “chatterer” in Russian. This freeware package is easy to download, easy to install, and works smoothly. I used the default settings and achieved good results.

  1. Open Balabolka. You can either paste your script into the window, or open your text file with File>Open.
  2. Select the SAPI5 (Speech API 5) tab to use Microsoft’s built-in speech recognition and synthesis platform. This may be the default tab.
  3. Select your text, then click File>Save AudioFile.
  4. The Save As window will open. Name your file, choose a file format, and save the file.

And now you have the file which you can preview in Windows Media Player or import into Storyline.

If you are so inclined, you can tweak the setups in both systems to change the speed, pitch, voice, or output location of your file. You can also use programs like Audacity™ to edit the file or export it to another format.

None of these techniques will result in high-quality narration, but they do create acceptable draft narration for development work. And they’re free.



Training the invisible person

Regardless whether you subscribe to ADDIE, SAM, Kemp, rapid prototyping, or all-of-the-above instructional design methodologies, you probably approach a new training project the same way: who is the audience, and what are their needs? But what do you do when your audience is invisible – either too large and diverse to adequately characterize, or unavailable to you?

No, that cannot happen, you say. Modern training is targeted to the specific needs of our audience. Really? What about the company who has been training the same group of people for 10 years, updating their training every year for new technology, but never checking to see whether their people have changed? Or the development firm developing or updating a system for another client, giving you (the subcontractor) no access to the ultimate audience? Or maybe, just maybe, you find yourself working with an IT department head who says (as a client of mine a few years back did) “the users will take whatever we give them”.

We all know why we do audience analyses. Learning is more effective when it is targeted to the needs, preferences, and capabilities of those being trained. By learning who the primary and secondary audience(s) are, what their demographics look like, how much they already know about the subject being trained, how they are most effectively taught, their technology experience, and their expectations about the training, we can make a picture of the “current state” of the audience.

We then create the “future state snapshot” – what the audience should look like if your training is successful – from the project vision and requirements. The difference between the two is the change you are training. Regardless whether it’s an updated computer system, new processes, or a wholesale reorganization of the enterprise, it’s always a change.

But sometimes all you have is the future state. Think about the last software you got from Microsoft, Oracle, or Apple. Their training has to be adequate for anybody, anywhere. The only common denominator is that they have MS-Word (for example) and have to know how to use it. Now we’re in the world of training the invisible person.

Is it important? Commercial product companies make assumptions about their products all the time. Yet when someone is making the investment in training, hitting the wrong mark can be costly and even counter-productive.

The truth is that even when you have no direct access to the audience, information is not completely unavailable:

  • Read any background material you can lay your hands on (specs, scoping documents, strategy documents, etc.). Sometimes someone has done a stakeholder analysis or made a list of assumptions about the audience.
  • Identify assumptions made about the project. Why the change is needed tells you something about how things are now. And it will tell you a whole lot about the expectations for the future.
  • Review the results of the last big change made. What went right, and what went wrong? What can you learn about your audience from this?
  • Look for larger trends. For example, 10 years ago, a 3rd-year accountant would have been spending a lot of time supervising the actions of younger accountants, who were collecting and categorizing information. Today, many large accounting firms outsource this first step, so the 3rd-year and younger accountants are doing more analytical work, and need to be trained accordingly.
  • Talk to your team. They may be more helpful than you expect.

With imperfect data about the audience and its needs, you can still create excellent training. The key is to emphasize what you do know, not what you don’t know.

  • Establish a voice and an image. Create a mental image of your audience or user, and keep that image in mind while you’re designing. It may at first be a hazy image, but use it to guide your work.
  • Be consistent. Your audience image may be hazy, but you need to write as though that audience were reviewing your every word.
  • Work backwards from your known future state to establish principles and competencies. When you don’t know what your audience has, figure out what they need, and apologize to those who already have it. Even experts need to brush up on skills occasionally, and when you find you have such an expert, turn them into an ally who can reinforce (or even help deliver) the training.
  • Keep it simple.

So even if you cannot do a formal audience needs analysis, you can successfully create training. What tips do you have for training the invisible audience? Share them with us in the comments, and happy training!