The missing element in digital learning scenarios: sound design

Posted by on 23 November 2016

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I’ve recently been watching Marcella on Netflix and I’m repeatedly amazed by the sound design. If the term is new to you, I’m talking about the combination of background music and audio recordings in films, television and games. It’s often carefully-composed music that’s in sync with the action. When the soundtrack is removed from your typical TV show or movie, with just the background audio and voice left, the experience lacks presence. Adding the soundtrack is usually one of the last pieces of the film production process. It brings the whole experience together. In media experiences, sound conveys emotion. It gives a moving image a cinematic feel.

Watching Marcello got me thinking about how we use sound in digital learning. The most common application is voiceovers or interface sounds e.g. button clicks. Videos might have some background music. Bu there is much more potential for sound.

if your digital learning is just a PowerPoint file with a quiz at the end, then exploring different ways to use sound is not going to make much difference to your learning experience. Your engagement and performance problems won’t be solved by adding sound alone.

But if your digital learning includes scenarios or is simulation based, then exploring how sound can be used to convey context and emotion might be useful.

Conveying context with sound

An example of using sound to convey context might be a meeting in a cafe. Adding noises of cups clinking, a coffee machine in the distance and people chatting will give the scenario more presence and make it feel more realistic.

Conveying emotions with sound

In story- and scenario-based learning the subtle use of sounds adds an emotional presence. The more emotional impact your learning experience has, the more likely it is going to stick and trigger behavioural change in the learner.  

A few things you need to think about when using sound in digital learning

Avoid looped background soundtracks

Looped sounds can quickly become boring for learners. In many games the background sounds might appear to loop but they are subtlety changing each time they are played.

Consider the mobile learner

Mobile learners routinely access learning in a public space where an unexpected sound might not be welcome. Make it clear at the beginning of the learning experience that there will be sound.

Make it accessible

Your background sound should be non-critical to the experience, or, if it is needed, provide some kind of alternative visual clue or text.  


I don't yet have many great examples of using sound in digital learning that are available on the public web. Recently Sprout Labs has been looking at a few interactive documentaries for inspiration (more on that soon). One that has nice use of sound is Highrise.

If you know of another great example of digital learning using sound in an interesting way that’s on the public web, please let us know in the comments below.

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