Discussion: When do you really need audio voice overs?

I’ve been following a discussion on The eLearning Guild group on Linkedin called “Anyone had any experience of adding voiceovers to e-learning courses? As we have over 100 courses, we can’t possibly record the voiceovers ourselves. Are there good digital products out there?” It has been a very active discussion despite the fact that the original post was 8 months ago. Most of the comments are from people trying to promote their audio services, but a lot of people are going back and forth on the technology: human voice vs. text-to-speech, professional studio vs. personal computer, $50 microphone vs. $150 microphone. What struck me is that everyone is assuming that there has to be audio. Here are my two-cents that I threw into the discussion:

It is not that I question the value of audio, it is that I question whether that value justifies the cost in this particular situation. I agree that audio provides another mode to engage the learner however at 100 courses, are there other more economical ways to engage the learner? The need to do 100 courses opens up a whole lot of other questions but the key ones here are: Who wants this? What budget did they give you? What are they expecting to get for the money?
Quality is important but it needs to be scaled to the business need. If the low cost alternative (text to speech) defeats the purpose (does not engage the learner), then it might be better to not do it at all if you can’t do it right. However, there might be other options: If there are standard components like introductions or overviews, you can record them once and use them in each course. I also like the idea of interviewing SMEs because it meets the need for engagement. I think people will be understanding of quality issues if their colleagues are doing the talking.
The worst would be to have a narrator read the text on the screen. As Edward Tufte says, “Don’t forget that people do know how to read.” I think that that kind of knee-jerk use of audio turns people off because it slows them down and insults their intelligence.
I was thrilled that Matt Bury brought up the link to some science behind this. If language is handled in one channel in the brain then it is going to be frustrating to have to read while audio is going on. It would be better to put audio over visuals.
Also I agree with Peter Chotin that the real cost of the audio is in making updates. At 100 courses, that will add up.
Again, I don’t dispute the value of audio. If you are doing one senior level leadership course, you should give it the best audio you can, but to be concerned with a $50 microphone or a $150 microphone when the client wants 100 courses done yesterday, you need to focus on what is going to get the job done.
If we want Learning to be taken seriously by the business we need to take the business of doing Learning seriously.

Later on someone said “If we are not going to do VO (Voice Over), we might as well just send a PDF.” That really blew me away. Here was my response:

There is more to eLearning than VO! Yes, there are times when a PDF is the right solution. There are times when VO is useful, but VO is not the only tool in the eLearning developer’s toolbox for engaging people. You need to fit the approach with the needs. Here, the volume of courses is determining part of the need.

I think this is going to be a topic that I need to come back to.

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