Motivated by a theory that some students learn better when sound is combined with text, a Massachusetts multimedia developer has launched an initiative to increase the use of sound on the web–from commercial web sites to educational programs and distance learning.

Audio use on the web today is “very spotty,” said Steve Olenick, president of AudioLink Inc., a recording studio for leading educational publishers such as Houghton-Mifflin Co., Curriculum Associates, and others. But Olenick hopes to change that. He’s the founder of the ItSpeaks Initiative, which he describes as “a web group for like-minded individuals who believe the future of the internet is that it will be narrated.”

Research has shown that when auditory and visual information work together they can enhance memory, Olenick says. It’s also important to offer sound online because people have disparate learning styles.

“Some people think text is fine, that it’s faster, but some people don’t learn best that way,” he said. “We all like to hear people talk to us.”

The initiative’s ultimate goal is the widespread use of sound on the internet.

“We’re in the silent era of the web, just like in movies. Soon, the internet will talk,” Olenick said. “In many places it already does, but soon it will become an expected part of the web.”

To hasten that day, Olenick created the grassroots ItSpeaks Initiative. Joining the initiative is free, and members receive access to articles, research, and other resources about emerging technologies that facilitate adding sound to web sites.

Besides accommodating different learning styles, voices on the internet offer web site visitors a greater sense of comfort, Olenick said: “If you have the right voice talking to you, you’ll have more sense of comfort and trust.”

Though there has been too little research on the use of audio on the web, Discovery Health tested consumer reaction to audio-enhanced pages using a third-party research firm and a panel of respondents and found that consumers did prefer audio-enhanced pages in a variety of contexts, such as quizzes, articles, and animations. In particular, researchers found that having a voice assist visitors with site navigation was appreciated.

Olenick says school leaders could apply that research to school web sites to help visitors feel more at ease and help them find the information they’re looking for. The audio could explain to visitors how the web site is set up, such as which sections they will find or where they can get help if they have a question.

The ItSpeaks web site publishes guidance on how to embed audio Flash and RealAudio files in HTML-based sites. It also offers guidance about how to best use sound on the web. For example, Olenick said, audio shouldn’t merely read the entire contents of a web site. Instead, it should offer additional information that complements what the web visitor sees on the site.

Technology limitations are not a worry for widespread use of sound on the web, Olenick said, because more and more computers can accommodate Flash audio files, which are as small as 24 kilobits per second.

Keeping abreast of emerging concepts for publishing sound online is one of the main attractions for the initiative’s 300 members, who are mostly training developers, education publishers, and educators.

“We’re always looking for the best way to provide the content online for our clients,” said Todd Mahler, senior project manager for Six Red Marbles LLC, which makes CD-ROMs and web sites for leading K-8 textbook publishers such as Harcourt School Publishers, Houghton-Mifflin, and Pearson PLC.

Olenicks says his education clients use sound for word pronunciations, complete with definitions and examples of how the words are used in a sentence, and for positive reinforcement when students answer questions correctly (or incorrectly) online.

The initiative is quite important, said Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Shillington, Pa.

“Students need the option to hear the sound for learning to be better,” said Becker, who estimates that only 5 to 10 percent of educational web sites take advantage of the auditory experience. “Several web sites are too difficult for younger students, as they may have difficulty with the reading level. The audio would certainly help these students.” It also would help serve as “an equalizer” for students with certain disabilities, she added.


ItSpeaks Initiative

Six Red Marbles LLC