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The power of sound: audio and online learning.

audio en online leren
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Audio is a powerful medium. You hear the first tones and immediately have your favorite song in your head. Or the picture is still black, but the intro music starts and you already imagine yourself in the world of your favorite movie. Reading slowly gives way to listening to books. Articles, blogs and series must increasingly compete with podcasts. Few means are as suited to inducing emotion and conveying information as audio. So shouldn’t we use this more often for online learning?

How can we use audio for learning?

Podcasts are also becoming increasingly popular in the learning sector. More and more universities are using listening to (and creating!) podcasts to familiarize their students with course material. Many employees also enjoy listening to podcasts and gaining new knowledge. The advantage of podcasts is that you can listen to it anywhere, on your own time and at your own pace. Yet there is also an important drawback: there is no visual support to facilitate the processing of information.

If we want to use audio more often for e-learning, you may need the best of both worlds. We regularly use audio in our learning solutions, but far from always. What is the reason for this? And should this change?

Audio in online learning

We can use audio in a variety of ways for our learning solutions. Consider using a voice-over, creating a “setting” through music or ambient sounds, or using sound effects for certain actions.

In these ways, audio can certainly add value to a learning solution. One big but: you do need to do this the right way. Indeed, “just” adding audio to an online learning experience can also create an excessive cognitive load, distract or deter the learner.

How about that? Theory.

John Sweller’s (1988) coginitive load theory holds that a learner must use his working memory to process (new) information and that per moment there is only limited “space” in this working memory. According to cognitive load theory, you must therefore offer just the right amount of information for each learning moment (not too little, but especially not too much) in order to maximize learning. Combining this knowledge with Mayer’s (2001) multimedia principles, you will need to properly coordinate the amount of information you present through different channels (i.e. text, image and sound). This way you promote information processing and prevent cognitive overload.

Mayer describes 12 different multimedia principles, which, among other things, describe not using too much media at once. For example, the redundancy principle states that it is better not to combine image, text and sound at the same time because the learner processes both image and text visually. This can cause cognitive overload. The combination of image and sound, for example, is better because these two different forms of media together enhance information processing. Also, several multimedia principles point to the need to properly link different media when using them to convey the same or belonging information. (simultaneous and close presentation: the principles of temporal and spatial proximity).

More on this? These videos from KU Leuven clearly explain the theory.

The coherence principle is also a relevant theory, especially when talking about adding audio to e-learning. This principle states that you should avoid irrelevant material as much as possible. This applies to text (for example, unnecessary information), images (think busy layout or irrelevant dressing and pictures), as well as audio (such as irrelevant background music, sounds or noise).

Audio for the experience

The above principles focus only on optimal knowledge and information processing. But, of course, there is such a thing as motivation, enthusiasm and commitment. As you can imagine, a digital learning solution will become very boring if you follow all these principles very strictly.

This is where our expertise as a Digital Learning Specialist at inBrain comes in. It is important to weigh theoretical principles against learner motivation. Indeed, text (examples, relevance, background, context), images (from practice, examples, corporate identity elements, “nice” dressing), as well as audio (background sound appropriate to the setting, sound effects) can stimulate the right attitude and involvement of users. That way the information sticks better and they enjoy following the learning solution.

Best practices of audio in e-learning

  • Use ambient and background sounds to enhance the feeling of the setting of the learning experience. This puts the learner in a more experiential state and prevents boring information transfer. This ensures that the learner enjoys taking and completing an e-learning, which contributes to the learning experience.
  • If you use audio: make sure your audio file is of good quality. Avoid noise, background noise or unnecessary sounds that create distractions.
  • Weigh the advantages of engaging the learner against the disadvantages of redundancy.
  • When using voice-over, make sure it is in addition to the image, avoid duplication with text.

In conclusion

Audio use in learning solutions can definitely add value, but think about how and when you deploy it. Make sure sound effects do not lead to cognitive overload in the learner or cause distraction. With every learning question, we will have to ask ourselves if and how audio can enhance the learning experience and then use it consciously and deliberately.

About Suzanne

Suzanne van Hoogstraten is Digital Learning Specialist at inBrain. She uses her education in Educational Sciences and her interest in the technical aspects of online learning to take each learning solution that little bit further.

Suzanne - Digital Learning Specialist
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