What does great learning sound like?

L&D departments often talk about what great learning ‘looks’ like but not so often what it ‘sounds’ like. Kate Pasterfield elaborates.

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However, given that our sense of hearing is closely connected to our feelings – branding expert and best-selling author, Martin Lindstrom, wrote in Brand Sense, “as smell is connected to memory, so sound is connected to mood” – is the industry neglecting a key element of engagement with learning?

Material.io, Google’s standards and guidelines for user interfaces (UI) highlights that “the majority of a digital UI is conveyed in a visual way” but “sound can augment how this information is expressed and provide another way to connect with the user”.

The site also explains how clever application of sound can be used to “express emotion or personality”. Knowing how important UI is in digital learning design, I believe the same set of rules applies.

Missing the emotion?

Most digital learning experiences leverage the users’ sense of sight, relying on text and video to convey key ideas and concepts but, I believe, underusing auditory experience and, therefore, learners’ ability to attach meaning and feelings to what they hear.

While there is growing appetite for immersive technologies in digital learning, there is still a tendency to conceive this mix as a largely visual experience.

Of course, sound commonly features within training videos in elearning modules, but usually as an accompaniment to visuals rather than as the star of the show. But, by ignoring auditory experience, L&D professionals could be missing out on a vital component in learning: emotion.

Augmented reality (AR) is all about merging real and virtual worlds to produce new environments or experiences. While there is growing appetite for immersive technologies in digital learning, there is still a tendency to conceive this mix as a largely visual experience. What I’m particularly interested in is how sound can be better incorporated into the sensory mix to further enhance virtual worlds.

The power of immersion

Having solved multiple people and business challenges via technologies such as 360° video, simulations and virtual reality (VR), as well as AR, I’ve seen the positive impact immersion can have on learners.

For example, Tetra Pak uses 360° video to deliver virtual tours of the company’s global sites via its employee induction programme. A key element of this is enabling new recruits to hear what it’s like to work for the company first-hand from existing employees.

Royal Mail uses the same technology to deliver a VR experience to raise awareness of dog attacks on UK postal workers. As one postman (and victim of a dog attack) who undertook the training said, “It’s an amazing way to learn. It’s like you’re actually there.”

Interestingly, in addition to immersion, ‘isolation’ was deemed to be a key benefit of VR. Royal Mail work environments can be noisy; immersive technology offers a way of cutting out unnecessary sound to focus on learning.

Turning up the volume on audio

‘VaxSim’, a training solution created for GlaxoSmithKline, is an example of an immersive experience that successfully integrates audio to enrich a learning simulation. It was designed to provide GSK Vaccines’ global teams with a greater understanding of the business.


Teams, forming a pseudo-board taking on C-suite roles, played out a simulated financial year. Sound was used to emulate conversations between employees, deliver news and set the scene, giving the simulation immediacy.

An introduction to ambisonics

There are so many possibilities for enriched auditory experiences that could be applied to creating more immersive learning experiences. For example, could ambisonic sound – audio that allows listeners to precisely locate the directional source in 360°– be coupled with geolocation to transport people to an alternative reality within the setting of a real or virtual world?

It was at South by South West (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, earlier this year, that I discovered Bose Frames, a wearable piece of consumer tech that enables users to hear audio coupled with geolocation and direction detection.

When the wearer walks around or focuses on something in an outdoor environment, the glasses are able to identify where that person is and what they are looking at to trigger an associated sound or voice based on the physical environment or location.

Lessons from history

The combination of people telling stories with sounds and voices from the past, while in the present, is a powerful experience. If audio walking tours can bring history to life using just our ears, could this be applied to learning?

Just as the falling costs of headsets and 360° video equipment has helped make VR more affordable and accessible to L&D teams, I can see how Bose’s glasses and other similar wearable technology could be used to enrich workplace learning. However, as with any technology, it’s important that the solution addresses the specific training challenge. It’s not about tech for tech’s sake!

So, what roles or professions could benefit from this type of training? I think it would be particularly valuable for certain professions such as security staff, crowd controllers or the police force, where sound plays a vital role in picking up on audio cues and recognising potentially risky scenarios.

But I can also envisage its use in meeting wider training needs across industry sectors and job roles, e.g. onboarding or brand reinforcement, even compliance training.

Sounds promising?

Imagine being inducted into a multi-national company with a virtual guided tour and company history from its founder or visionary, alongside music or sounds that epitomise the brand. Just recall Intel’s catchy jingle and you’ll understand the power an audio cue can have.

Picture a compliance game with a score that elicits anticipation as you explore, concentration as you practice tasks and celebration when you succeed. Game designers know the power of soundscapes and we can borrow this thinking.

By designing for the emotions we want people to feel, we could enhance connection, sustain motivation and inspire repeat play. I’d welcome any further ideas around how audio could enrich learning experiences and/or the insights on the technology that could help make this possible.


About the author

Kate Pasterfield, Chief Innovation Officer at digital learning provider, Sponge



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