Hola. Hi. G’day mate. How was your weekend at the cottage? A single word on a page is enough to establish its personality and activate stereotypes we attach to it.
We feel differently toward the word “Hola” than we do the phrase “G’day mate”, and we feel emotionally close to the phrase that knows us personally and is kind enough to ask about our weekend at the cottage.
Even more interesting is the fact that the words are all written by the same person – me. You do not see me or consider me while you read this short essay. Instead, you see and react to the words on the page, regardless of their author. I do not move you, my words do.
Words are enough to establish the personality of our course content. Students immediately and instinctively respond to our writing. If we want to go beyond personality and establish a strong social presence in the minds of our students, we can include human voice into our lessons.
In their book, The Media Equation, Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass argue that, “voices are powerful indicators of social presence”. They state the obvious, that we recognize people by their voice.
At a large party or in a dark theater, we know if a friend is present when we hear them talk. We know how friends are feeling by their tone of voice.
When we hear a new voice, we associate it with a specific person, or with stereotypes we have of a person who sounds a certain way. Are they drunk? Happy or angry? Old or young? Male or female? Friend or Foe?
Reeves and Nass point out that, “a big fraction of the brain is devoted to the recognition and processing of voices. As a result, people rapidly distinguish human voices from all other sounds. A good impressionist, simply by changing voice and intonation, can make an audience feel as if they hear different people”.
Because voice is powerful, adding voice to our courses can work for or against student learning. If a particular student relates well to a particular voice, they will like the course. However, if a student has a negative emotional reaction to the voice, they will not like the course.
In a blended classroom situation, we will be recording our own voice for direction instruction. In this case, students have already formed attitudes toward us which will carry over to the digital sections of our course.
To reach a larger percentage of our students, we may consider having information from our lessons read or presented by different people. We can write scripts for our instruction, and then have people read and record the scripts. Another option is to have a synthetic voice read the text.
When a student takes the course, they would then have the option of choosing the voice they want to listen to while studying. Offering a variety of voices offers the advantage of allowing a student to take our course content, while enjoying a voice they feel most comfortable with.
There are potential downsides of including voices into our courses. Reeves and Nass offer the following warning, “Inclusion of voices may be a mistake. Voices carry baggage. They activate stereotypes associated with gender, age, personality and a hundred other things.
Users will expect voices to provide information that is consistent with the stereotypes, and if the voices do not, they’ll want to know why not. Incorporating voices might necessitate a redesign of the entire interface so that style, behavior, and language are consistent”.
So, while adding voices to our courses creates a strong sense of social presence, adding them could backfire. Reeves and Nass argue that, “A badly cast voice is likely much worse than no voice at all […] resulting in confusion, distraction and dislike”.
Because we relate to written words in a very powerful way, it may be best to rely on written texts to convey our message and use our own voice when necessary to narrate instruction.
Doing so is cheaper, more convenient and no less effective because students have already established attitudes toward us that will be carried over into the online segments of our courses.