Can ambient sounds be used to enhance elearning scenarios without negatively impacting instructional integrity?
There’s been some great conversation around the use of audio narration in elearning. Both Tom Kuhlmann and Cathy Moore have offered up some excellent examples on the appropriateness of audio narration in courseware.
But what about incorporating background sounds to create a connect from the story to the learner? Can interactive narrative techniques be applied to elearning courseware?
Of course it’s possible!
It can be effective for
- drawing the learner into the content;
- changing up the course flow; and
- communicating course or module objectives without directly listing them.
After NPR pulled back the curtain, we learned how they’ve successfully incorporated sound effects and background tracks into their narrative programming. As elearning designers, you can leverage NPR’s engaging format to enhance your courseware without having to change your elearning model.
Consider the following example:
The audio was recorded and edited with Apple’s Soundtrack Pro which comes with thousands of loops and ambient sounds. If you’re using another audio editor, you can find dozens of sites online that sell loops, foley and ambient sounds.
Some other possibilities could include:
- Safety training: Open the scenario with ambulance sounds, anxious voices calling in the emergency. This could be a black screen (no images) for dramatic effect;
- Automotive Service Training: Begin with a door chime then a car engine turning over; drill sounds in the background with conversation loops in the background;
- Customer Service Training: Open with “audience” or people talking loops, telephone dial tones and keyboard typing. Next fade in some of your own narrated greetings (“May I help you?”, “Thank you for calling [Company], my name is Walter, how may I assist you?” and so on.)
While I am advocating the use of ambient sounds and loops for intros and scenarios, I am not suggesting you use such formats for all content screens.
Research suggests that such use can negatively impact learning.
Clark and Mayer:
“Background music and sounds may overload working memory, so they are most dangerous in situations in which the learner may experience heavy cognitive load, for example, when the material is unfamiliar, when the material is presented at a rapid rate, or when the rate of presentation is not under learner control.”
So much of our corporate elearning is predictable. We go with one (or two) rapid design models, become efficient and crank it out. From the learner’s perspective, once they’ve seen one course, they’ve seen them all. There’s probably a greater risk of cognitive “underload” in most courses:-) I realize this effect won’t be appropriate in all courses, but it’s one way to leverage multimedia learning in your courseware.
So give it a try, run it by your team and customers and be open to feedback. While we might not always have the influence to change our company’s elearning model, it is possible we can affect small parts of it.
Narration: Robert Rue Voice
I agree that adding sounds to illustrative stories and introduction can add to the learning experience. However, I feel that the way to avoid cognitive underload is not adding sounds. Not the medium (media) should make it challenging, but the ideas brought forward on the page should make it interesting. If the density of the information presented on the page is too low for the target audience, the cure is not to add sounds. I would suggest changing the content of the page instead.
Jiska – Thank you so much for your comments.
This is but one possible approach for designing elearning scenarios. You’re right, it’s not going to be appropriate or accepted in every organization.
Having multiple design options in our elearning toolkit is an important part of the value we add. Will every design be right for everyone? Of course not. Our industry is replete with many learning models and designs but there isn’t a single, agreed upon rule for how to execute those models. I think that’s what makes our jobs so much fun.
Thank you again for contributing!
Steve Howard says
I totally agree – anything that *supports* the content, adds context, helps us gain empathy for the actors in the scenario etc is valuable.
Background music is typically not going to be the right addition to eLearning, but we shouldn’t forget the lessons learned from tv and video. All sorts of supporting sounds and images are used to enhance the believability, memorability and overall immersion that we encounter as we watch, ***and we’ve all grown up used to these things.
Eric Fassbender says
I am researching the effect of music on learning in virtual environments and I can support your statements. Instrumental background music at a slow tempo and reduced pitch not only improves learners enjoyment of the virtual environment, but also improves their memory for the content. And this is a statistically significant effect. I can’t give too many details at this moment because I am submitting my thesis at the end of March (2009), but take a look at some of the publications, referenced on my website http://www.fassben.de/Fassben.de/Publications.html
They will at least give you an insight into results from Experiment 1 and preliminary results from Experiment 2.
If you can’t access the papers from the research databases, drop me an email and I’ll send them to you.
Michael Hanley says
Is there such a thing as “cognitive underload?” Sounds a bit hokey to me. Research undertaken on conditions for learning indicates that there is
1. Cognitive load
2. Cognitive overload
Learners are not like flatbed trucks; you can’t “underload” their working memory per se. I sympathize with your sentiments when you suggest that “our corporate elearning is predictable.” However, learning is (in one sense) meant to be predicable: sorry, but learners need know in advance what the learning objectives are – if they don’t know this, why should they bother investing time, effort and money in undertaking the learning activity. I agree that judicious use of audio wildtrack and Foley FX can assist in creating compelling and immersive content, but can I remind you of the old adage that “less is more.”
I would assert that what you are proposing here is in fact an extraneous load, where non-relevant information is delivered to the learner with appropriate content, meaning the learner has to expend precious working memory to filter the valuable from the useless information.
David Anderson says
First: your blog rocks — it’s in my “first read” group so I’m happy to have you reply here.
OK, regarding my hokey blog title. I was being a little tongue-in-cheek with the title and you’re right, there is no official term called “cognitive underload”. I just thought it was catchy:-)
I wasn’t suggesting that randomizing the UI or learning objectives was my idea of mixing things up. I’m just interested in different ways to design e-learning, and sometimes not listing the objectives in 1, 2, 3 format can be effective.
In one of his books, Michael Allen describes an airline mechanic training scenario that incorporates multimedia to simulate lightning crash sounds, screen flickering and gushing winds that create a sense of drama in place of the course objectives. (Google Books http://tinyurl.com/npx4kz). I think it’s about whether a learner prefers to read why the content is relevant or experience why it’s relevant.
Thank you so much for your comments and participation.
Background sounds is a good mix to the elearning experience, make it more interesting and not too boring.
Great article David! I do a lot of course development in the automotive industry and I definitely see ambient sounds fitting in nicely (within reason) without overloading the learner.