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Mindfulness and the Power of Sound in Digital Learning

Posted by Brett Smith on Thu, Dec 8, 2016


Two summers ago, I participated in a course on Mindfulness Meditation.  This style of meditation places the practitioner in a particular mental state by focusing one's awareness on the present moment.  The present moment, is, of course, always changing depending on what is happening around you. It is defined by a constellation of smells, sounds, sights, feelings and emotions that surround us constantly.One method of practicing Mindful Meditation is to focus in on the various ambient noises that constantly fill the airways; not to dwell on them, but to simply be aware of them, and let them pass through one’s consciousness and observe them in a detached manner. When doing this for the first time in a downtown Toronto clinic with 25 other novice practitioners, two things struck  me: 1) I suck at meditation (severe ADD) and 2) Sound plays a tremendous role in the cast of characters that form the narrative of our everyday lives.  The more I was able to isolate discrete noises both inside and outside the room, the more I realized how much we are always inundated by sound.

ExperimentStop reading this blog and close your eyes for 30 seconds.  Try to locate all of the ambient noises in your surroundings. Depending on where you are, you may hear the hum of a fridge, the honk of a horn, the whir of an air conditioner, the laughter of children, the ticking of a watch, or, if you are really good, the sound of your heart.

 Your world is full of sounds, good, bad and neutral, and your subconscious is aware of them, absorbing them, together with your other senses to create your own sense of reality – your own story. Without the sounds around you, your world picture would be incomplete.

 When I think of the movies that have impacted me the most, the vast majority of them have two things in common; 1) a compelling story with good characters, and 2) a great soundtrack. Think of Stand By Me, Gladiator, Star Wars, Titanic or The Godfather.  Now think of watching those movies without the soundtrack or the engaging sound effects. Simply put, the use of sound is a critical ingredient in connecting movie-goers to the story at an emotional and memorable level.

The same can be said of Digital Learning. If the goal of a successful Digital Learning course is to drive learner engagement and consequently, memory retention, then we need to employ every tool in our tool belt that we can to help them succeed.  And, as it turns out, one of those tools is a captivating lineup of sounds and sound effects.

So how do you introduce sound into a course? Generally, when considering the use of sound in digital learning, there are three primary elements to consider: 

  1. The use of appropriate voice talent
  2. The use of engaging sound effects
  3. The use of transition sounds

Appropriate voice talent cannot be understated.  To select the best voice talent for your project, be sure to spend some time understanding your organization’s DNA and their corporate identity.  What would resonate best in their company? Also, who is the target audience? New hires? Sales? Support? And what is the course about? Who are the characters that they are voicing? What is the tone of the course? All this research will determine if they want a stodgy formal British accent or an American from Texas, a male or female, someone young or someone older. Once this is narrowed down, it’s best to send a few samples to the client for their review and final selection.

Engaging Sound Effects.  Over the last 15 years at SwissVBS, we have developed an enormous sound library that allows us to compliment virtually any animated sequence.  Our Media Leads use sound effects to provide an added layer of depth by drawing attention to key concepts.

Sound effects can perform numerous functions, such as drawing our attention to, or emphasizing, a particular point, acting as a metaphor to underscore a key concept quickly in a way that sticks, or by adding humour and levity to balance serious (or boring) content. You may consider bringing in real sounds that are common or colloquial for a particular audience (think swoosh sound from an iMessage or the Super Mario Bros. power up sound).

Whether it is character movement or animated objects, using these sounds tactfully will greatly increase your chances of learner engagement. 

Be mindful however, not to overdo it.  There is always the temptation to add more and more sound, but like a good song, it is important to create space so the subtleties can be appreciated.

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Transition Sounds. Transition sounds and/or a musical motif can serve to increase memory retention.  We can all call to mind the motif in Star Wars or Titanic – the thread of a few bars of music that keeps us engaged in the story by stimulating an emotion, forshadowing an event or accentuating a concept.  These can be used in simple ways in Digital Learning, perhaps best at the beginning and end of a module. In our experience, a transition sound or motif does three things: 1) Provides a polished and sophisticated feel to the overall course, 2) Adds to the brand of the course, and 3) Helps the learner connect at a slightly deeper level with the content – it acts as a trigger for memory recall down the road.

In summary, always make time to consider how sound can be used in your Digital Learning courses, and be sure to adopt it as one of your design pillars whenever possible. Sound adds texture, depth, personality, meaning and character to any Digital Learning.  It triggers an emotional response from the learner making training more engaging, and in turn, more memorable.

Whether you are meditating or not, sound is around us at all times, and shapes in part, the fabric of our lives.  How will you use sound to build your next creation?


Topics: eLearning, Meditation, Digital Learning, Sound, Design

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