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e-Learning Media Design: To Narrate, or Not to Narrate – That is the Question

Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist 

I was teaching a design class last week and a student raised the often-asked question, "Is it good to use narration?"  Unfortunately, it's rather an impossible question to answer.   It's sort of like asking, "Is it good that the sun shines brightly?" 

 Well of course it is, except when:

  • you're trying to sleep
  • you just planted a bunch of delicate tomato plants
  • it's 5 pm and you're driving straight west into the sun
  • you're trying to read a text message on a dimly-lit cell phone screen

Even an unquestionably good thing like the sun can become a nuisance sometimes.  Like so many forms of the media at our disposal, narration itself is neither good nor bad. And it never should be viewed as some magic pill that automatically improves whatever it is inserted into. It CAN be a great thing in the right circumstances, depending on the specific function it carries in the instructional experience.

It makes little sense to attach value to any media in the abstract, apart from the context of a particular use of it.  When we think about adding media to a design, we always have to ask the question, "What specifically will this add to the learner's ability to learn and process this content?"  Too often, the choice to add media is based on some vague sense that it will automatically bring life to otherwise dull content.  This is a trap to avoid.  I've never seen an instance where narration (or video or even arbitrary illustrations) alone suddenly made dry content interesting.  The problem in those cases is with the content itself, not the delivery, and so design efforts should be placed on identifying a compelling context or devising an engaging challenge that will involve the learner's curiosity.

Narration has some specific limitations: 

  • it reduces learner control and pacing compared to text
  • it provides less capability for targeted review and reference
  • learners may have unplanned reactions to irrelevant aspects of voice or phrasing
  • it is more difficult to update than text
  • it can be expensive and resource-intensive to create

On the other hand, it can be more immediately accessible to a wide range of learners than text, it can:

  • introduce emotional subtlety into a situation
  • engage our attention through enhanced sensory input
  • reflect conversational challenges with greater realism if that is an important part of the learning task

It's a complex choice and any decision ought to be made by carefully weighing the advantages and disadvantages.

You want to look for situations where the media accomplishes something that would otherwise be impossible.  For instance, a common way to teach software is to provide a short screen capture of the process being performed.  Often, a short descriptive text narrative is coupled with the demo to explain points that might offer confusion to the learner.  If the narrative is presented in text, it is really difficult for the learner to simultaneously read the description and also pay attention to the concurrent animation being played.  If that description were presented through voice, it allows direct coordination of the information the learner hears with the concurrent visual elements of the demonstration.  You'd still want to consider development factors like cost, ease of updating, production capabilities, and limits of the delivery environment to make a decision, but those concerns only are relevant AFTER you've actually thought carefully about the specific contribution to the learning process.

So always keep the learner experience in the forefront.  The vividness of the experience you build in the learner's imagination is much more important than the superficial vividness of the literal computer experience. 


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