Principles of Design for Online Learning: A Short Guide


I’m a NPR junkie. It’s on 24/7. The car, the kitchen, the office. I often begin a conversation with “so – I heard this really cool story on NPR”. My daughters’ answers to the question of “What makes you smart?” is NPR (not to be confused with “what makes you stupid?” Answer: Sponge Bob’s Square Pants).

NPR is a solid example of using audio as a proper media element. It conveys tone, discourse, and pace in good measure.

Advantages of Audio

Audio is useful (obviously) in conveying exact sound. Want your students to understand what the Amazon jungle sounds like at night? Then it’s better to provide a recording of a night rather than an image or text.

Audio is also useful in conveying an alternative channel of text. This can actually have its advantages because you can also convey tone in words (think of the many different ways you can say “sorry” with tone implying if you actually mean it).

Online, audio is useful because it doesn’t take up any screen real estate. When using images and animation, audio enhances the effect without taking away from those visual elements.

Disadvantages of Audio

Audio is NOT self-paced. The delivery of audio is also slower, which can sometimes lead to frustration from the end user.

Audio also takes a bit more technical understanding when creating elements for the screen. Recorders and recorder rates, simple understanding of html code and codices are required.

Using Audio Online: Rules of Thumb

  1. It is highly beneficial to limit exposure to one voice for an extended period of time. The average person will tune out after a while. For students (particularly in secondary education), keep it limited to 5 minutes or less.
  2. Audio quality matters. Online, this translates into producing audio files that have higher bitrates. Aim for 192 b/kb or higher.
  3. MP3 and AAC are the most used file types for audio. Both can be used safely in an online course (and on student devices).
  4. If creating Podcasts for download, try and keep such downloads to 5 megabytes and less (break up the podcasts if necessary).
  5. Do NOT provide audio narration to text. This typically confuses, annoys, and frustrates students.

Combining Audio with Other Elements

Audio combines well with visual elements. It clashes with text. Why? The human brain does not process 2 simultaneous verbal inputs well. Students typically turn off the audio (the slower of the two verbal sources).

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