Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Audio in eLearning: When Rough Around the Edges is Better

At our seminar today on using Articulate and Moodle and "Doing More for Less", the conversation turned (as it always does) to using audio in eLearning. One of the participants talked about a focus group/research project his organization did.

I don't have the specifics and I'll try to track him down to find out more because the results were fascinating. For now, this is all heresay.

Here's what I recall:

They created a set of powerpoint slides. (Perhaps the subject matter expert had created them?) Let's just say, a set of slide were created by someone.

They had the SME record the audio for the slides. I'm not sure if the SME was reading a script, reading the notes, or just speaking from the heart.

So that's one version.

Next, they had a 'professional' clean up the SME's transcript, cut out the ums and ahs and record it 'professionally'.

So that's the second version.

So you've got one version that's pretty rough around the edges and one version that's smooth and polished. They piloted these two versions and got feedback.

Something like 60-70% of the learners preferred the rough version, created by the expert. They said it "sounded more real" and they trusted it more because they knew this person was talking from experience.

So here's to more guerilla audio recording!

Go out and get your SME to say it like it is into a microphone and share their expertise. Eliminate the middle-(wo)man. Put the content where it can be accessed. And create content that learners will trust.

[We'll be hosting another seminar this week in Chicago on Thursday, June 11! More details on the Articulate/Moodle seminar.]

17 comments:

Steve Howard said...

Our Instructional Designers are planning to include interviews and similar 'expert speaks' sections in our training. They want to script these carefully to make sure they are accurate, don[t miss important poits etc.

I, on the other hand, have suggested that they sit down and chat with the experts, record the chat and then light;y edit the chat. My argument is that if the information is presented as 'real' conversation it is more believable, more engaging and ultimately more effective.

Time will tell :-)

David Anderson said...

This past year we started doing more video interviews with SMEs using Flip cameras over the XL1.

There's something about using smaller cameras that puts people at ease better than the pro-looking cameras. Sure the quality isn't as good but for internal clips embedded in Articulate courses, they're "good enough" for us. What we lose in video quality we gain in authenticity.

We discovered this more by accident after some folks in marketing borrowed the XL1.

Long live authenticity:-)

Rupa said...

It makes a great impact when you have a expert speaking. Its natural and comes out of experience.

For example I like Tom Kulhmann's demos because the audio is very natural and demonstrated expertise :)

Sumeet Moghe said...

I think you've hit on something here. Its the larger case of making the best of our SME's. I wrote an article recently about this -> http://cipher-quaker.blogspot.com/2009/05/ways-of-effectively-leveraging-your-sme.html

Joel Harband said...

In the context of Audio in eLearning and having the expert speak in the course, I'd like to mention our product Speech-Over (www.speechover.com) as a possible alternative to the other approaches. With Speech-Over's text-to-speech engine, expert content can be read in as text, which is then spoken in the course by an "expert" TTS voice. The advantage: the text content can be corrected and polished by a text author and missing topics can be added, now and in future revisions.

Joel Harband
Tuval Software Industries

Jeff Goldman said...

I have also had SMEs, and myself, do the audio piece and the authenticity does help. It is really helpful when working for a smaller company (mine was 1,600 employees at the time) and in most cases the audience actually know, and trust, the expert.

I also like to use SMEs for video. And when I tape them I try to capture them in their own environment (e.g. their office, branch, ops area, etc.).

The lower budget required is a big plus too. In this economy it is hard to justify professional voices, actors, etc.

Dan said...

I gotta say that instinctively this is what I've suspected for a while - rough and ready is a major mode of display on the Internet and people are accustomed to it far more than they were even a few years ago.

Steve's recommendation above wins out for me. From experience a lot of external companies would avoid endorsing this approach as they can't layer a nice profit on, but it's so costly to pro-voice and edit.

Best part of this story Cammy - the evidence based, controlled test by the designers, that they then shared - soooo want to do more of this with our audience.

Cammy Bean said...

Great stories on how you're using audio to capture the voice of the expert.

Stephen Walsh at Kineo does something similar with audio interviews -- all captured via Skype. Not the best quality sound, but who really cares when you're listening over your crappy laptop speakers anyway. It's the content, stupid!

Dan, I'm completely with you on the 'best part of the story.' It sort of blew my mind that someone had actually done this kind of focus group. This so rarely happens in the real world -- Evaluation?! What's that? I'm still hoping to find out more of his story if I can and will try to share it here.

Anonymous said...

Hi Cammy,

Can you post any resources you have gathered at these seminars that you attend... Us Ozzies tend to miss out the seminars in the US... Cheers
Nikki

M. Bruce Abbott said...

I would like to invite developers to check out elearningaudio.com.

They are part of a network I am associated with and they do a FANTASTIC job with audio, narration, music, etc. for e-learning and CBT projects.

Steve Flowers said...

That... is... awesome! I'm so glad that others are starting to do some of the same things I've (sometimes successfully) been pushing for in learning courses.

Here are my top goals for learning / orientation building blocks:

1. Respect the learner (time, intelligence, etc..)
2. Focus! Relevance and value are king.
3. Credibility. Credibility. Credibility.

Lose sight of those things and everything you do is poo.

For #3 no media beats a real expert explaining a concept or context...

We did this a few years ago with a Marine Corps gun course. We used a real gunnery instructor to narrate all of the exercises, presentation sequences, and activities. Did it sound likea pro narrator? Nope, but it didn't matter. The voice was credible. It was recorded in an armory that smelled like gun oil and steel. All that 'real world stuff' went into the product and it was a resounding success. (side note - most pro narrators sound like sheeple to me)

However, I do like the idea of a 2 phase rough - polished process. With a narrator that could sound like an expert - you eliminate any stutters or issues that could be distracting.

I think one secret to success is NOT to have your expert read from a script. They really gotta let things flow.

Cammy Bean said...

You could go with the authentic and polished sounding narrator to tell the main, scripted story if you like, but use your gun oil and steel smelling expert who is speaking from the heart in true documentary fashion at strategic moments. Get the best of both worlds.

Mark Fletcher said...

I totally agree with you Cammy I have spent over 12 years creating voice over for elearning courses and computer web based training.

Whilst I think that trainers can pick up and use techniques from professional voice-over artists, there is nothing like having someone speaking from the heart that is incredibly passionate about the subject they are teaching.

Paul said...

Heck, wading in dangerous waters (as a professional eLearning narrator), I'll risk a post that could be perceived as entirely self-serving; it's not (see below).

I can't agree more about strategic and even (sometimes) liberal use of SME's in various programs.

There are situations when a professional narration would be superfluous, but as a generalist with over 30 years of experience reading scripts on almost every conceivable subject, delivered on a plethora of media, I have to tell you that a professional narration component can help to compliment SME's and help add credibility to the overall presentation, even in small doses, as the "bow on the package" if you will.

For some who don't concur, I'd suggest that when budget has permitted if that hasn't been your experience, you haven't found the right narrator for your content.

Most professional narrators and voice actors (not the people doing it for beer money away from their "day gig") strive (usually successfully) to "fit in" to the milieu being presented.

For example as a machinist and machine shop teacher's son, I did everything but put on my dad's old shop coat to deliver content for Pratt & Whitney and NASA on maintenance and reassembly of the space shuttle engine.

I've also successfully discussed medical terminology for doctors, electronics and software for Dell, Microsoft, and many others.

The point is that a professional narrator (again the right one for your content and context) will sound as confident or as authoritative as you direct them to be. Usually they'll do it with a bit more energy and charisma than the "average" speaker.

Just like some songwriters benefit from having others interpret their songs (no matter how classic their originals), some SME's benefit tremendously from someone else articulating their powerful knowledge in a way they simply couldn't.

If there's an industry to look to to illustrate the impact of "professional talent", look to the video game industry. As the industry as matured, the quality of professional actors engaged to execute the increasingly complicated stories has increased. Look at games like Mass Effect 2 as a perfect example. Among the many salient comments made by users is how engaging the "acting" is to make the stories and scenarios more exciting and, wait for it, "believable".

Most professional narrators are also sensitive (within market acceptable norms) to budget.

My clients (many worldwide) are always receiving feedback on the quality of their products, and for years, part of their success, and also an important differentiating competitive factor, has been the professional narration they use around SME's.

I appreciate and respect the comments posted so far, but I wanted to add one from the other perspective to provoke some more thought on the subject.

Donna said...

As a female vo counterpart of Paul's, I must concur with him. Part of the "plus" of using not just a professional voiceover artist, but one that is also an actor, like myself, is the ability of the actor/vo-person to affect that "rough around the edges" quality. I'm not a doctor but I've played one on TV... I've also played a machine operator, a CEO, a lawyer, an office temp, and many other "characters" as an eLearning narrator to great effect.

Also, because I record from my own studio, I can edit pauses, uhms, etc in or out to make the final product sound completely natural. AND, since I narrate, record & edit it all myself, I'm a one-stop shop saving clients time & money.

I also agree with Cammy Bean that combining the use of SMEs AND a pro narrator varies the overall sound for the listener/learner making it more interesting and "learnable."
My 2 cents...
Donna
Donna Coney Island
Actress/Singer/Narrator
Voiceover Artist
917 620-8752
201 601-1167
http://www.youtube.com/donnaconeyisland
http://www.cliptailors.com/actors/11/resume.html

Donna said...

As a female vo counterpart of Paul's, I must concur with him. Part of the "plus" of using not just a professional voiceover artist, but one that is also an actor, like myself, is the ability of the actor/vo-person to affect that "rough around the edges" quality. I'm not a doctor but I've played one on TV... I've also played a machine operator, a CEO, a lawyer, an office temp, and many other "characters" as an eLearning narrator to great effect.

Also, because I record from my own studio, I can edit pauses, uhms, etc in or out to make the final product sound completely natural. AND, since I narrate, record & edit it all myself, I'm a one-stop shop saving clients time & money.

I also agree with Cammy Bean that combining the use of SMEs AND a pro narrator varies the overall sound for the listener/learner making it more interesting and "learnable."
My 2 cents...
Donna
Donna Coney Island
Actress/Singer/Narrator
Voiceover Artist
917 620-8752
201 601-1167
http://www.youtube.com/donnaconeyisland
http://www.cliptailors.com/actors/11/resume.html

Mike Harrison said...

With regard to credibility, in the cases where narration is not used, can we (or should we) assume that learning material is always written by a true SME? Wikipedia is a source of information, but it can be edited by anyone. I make no accusations, but there's a lot of misinformation out there in this age of information.

As to whether narration should be handled by a SME versus a professional speaker, while a SME may know the material intimately, the chances of him or her also possessing a speaking voice and appropriate delivery style that is not only listenable - but engaging - for extended periods of time would be perhaps much lower.

This concern also relates to the issue of using TTS technology in learning. We all had boring teachers at some points during our school years. Once we've established that a student actually wants to learn (the first hurdle), the teaching (communication) must be effective (engaging) for it to have any impact on the learner (retention). Can anyone honestly say they would have no trouble listening to (for the purpose of learning) a GPS-like 'voice' talk at them for an hour or more in any single session (with more to follow)?

The time being spent fiddling with HTML code to adjust the pitch and volume of words and syllables emitted by software so that it sounds closer to real human speech is nothing short of reinventing the wheel. Let us not be confused to the point we place more emphasis on the 'e' than on the 'learning.'

I'm in favor of keeping the horse in front of the cart.