The impact of audio quality in education must be moved to the front of the class

Whether it’s minimizing background noise or amplifying the teacher’s voice, achieving the correct balance and quality of sound will enhance the students' overall quality of learning.
By: | April 6, 2022
Lecture hall at Willamette University. (Image provided)

Graham Hendry

It’s a classic lecture hall dynamic that when left to make their own seating choices, the higher achieving students tend to select seats toward the front of the room, while the less-academically inclined make a dash for chairs in the back of the class. Though much of this has to do with students wanting to be out from under the instructor’s gaze, the “A” students here might be on to something. Being able to clearly hear, view, and participate in the lesson has educational rewards.

ASHA, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association website states that clearly hearing and understanding class content are essential to the learning process for students. Distracting background noise, less than intelligible audio, and challenging acoustics within a classroom can make learning difficult, induce fatigue, and negatively impact students’ understanding and comprehension of the content, as well as reduce attention spans — all reflected in overall grade outcomes. 

Professors also benefit from quality classroom acoustics and audio. Struggling to speak over a loud classroom can strain a lecturer’s voice and cause frustration — so much so that educators are less likely to talk or engage with students or will speak with them for shorter periods of time, lessening the impact the learning experience. Students can engage and better communicate and interact with the educator and gain more from the lesson with better overall sound quality. Whether it’s minimizing background noise or amplifying the lecturer’s voice, achieving the correct balance and quality of sound will enhance the students’ overall quality of learning.

The remote experience

So, if noisy classrooms, poor audio quality, and unclear communications have a negative impact on on-campus students, what’s the effect of these factors on the ever-present remote and hybrid learning models?

One South African study investigates the factors that predict students’ performance after transitioning from facetoface to online learning due to the Covid19 pandemic. The study suggests that student performance in a remote or home-based setting is positively associated with better internet access and that clear study materials, such as narrated slides or recordings of the online lectures, also helped students succeed. 

Audio and video content must be presented clearly with minimal distraction to gain and hold a student’s attention. And in a remote learning situation, distractions can come from anywhere: from within the home or dorm itself, from poorly performing or inadequate equipment, or particularly from poor streaming quality from the classroom to the students’ personal devices.

In hybrid learning situations, reflected sound and interfering noise from the classroom or lecture hall can be picked up and transmitted. With poor AV quality on either end of the experience, the students at home or in satellite classrooms end up not receiving the same quality education — essentially the same as seating students at the back of the class.

Sound solutions

Investing in high-quality, solutions-based audio components is crucial to better outcomes. It’s essential to prioritize intelligibility over everything else within the presentation space before sharing it remotely with students. Classrooms and presentation areas need professionally-designed AV systems optimized for in-person and remote sites. Appropriate presenter and room microphones, as well as an effective deployment of appropriate loudspeaker systems will enhance student productivity as well as the overall experience.

In larger educational settings, advanced digital beam steering technologies allow for reduced reverberation by adapting the coverage of a given loudspeaker to alter the acoustic performance across a listening plane. In simple terms, this allows system designers to put sound where it is needed and avoid areas where it is not required. And by focusing the in-classroom audio on the students and away from walls and reflective surfaces, the intelligibility of the streamed audio improves dramatically.

Ensuring the audio is focused on the in-person students is the highest priority for education spaces. Beam steering technology directs sound where intended and prevents sound from filling unnecessary space. After solving in-person audio challenges, the sound on the livestream inherently improves as well.

Additionally, as in-person class sizes fluctuate, coverage can be easily tailored with beam steering technology to accommodate varying class sizes and seating configurations.

Stepping up

According to the Acoustical Society of America, in many classrooms in the United States, up to 25% of presented information can be missed because of excessive noise and reverberation. Deficits in reading and language skills due to poor classroom acoustics are cumulative; therefore, the effects of poor classroom acoustics on the student can be long-lasting.

For many organizations, the high cost of ineffective communication is often not recognized until the damage has been done, and education is no different. Confusing, hard to listen to, unintelligible audio is an educational hazard with damaging effects on learning. It’s critical that parents, instructors, and administrators understand the impact a noisy classroom has on students — both in class and in remote learning situations. Colleges and universities should work with acoustic consultants, architects, and commercial integration professionals to create an optimum learning environment for all involved.

As schools continually adjust to meet the challenges of what has become an unpredictable situation, we must take advantage of all the tools available to help slide every student’s desk forward to the front of the class, no matter where they choose to sit.

Graham Hendry is Vice President of Strategic Development at Renkus-Heinz, where he leads the creative vision and execution of product and market development for the company. Hendry’s background encompasses engineering, product management and customer-facing roles – a unique blend that allows him to take on the responsibility for both developing product lines and bringing them to K-12 and Higher Education markets.

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