Music to (e)learn by by Elektronicheslernenmuzik on Mixcloud

Note: go ahead and listen to the playlist above while reading, if you are so inclined. I listened to it as I wrote this. I explain it below a bit.

Elernenmuzik and Audio in Elearning

As I sit on the peripheries of a few different MOOCs (Elearning & Digital Cultures (#edcmooc) and Introduction to Sound Design), I am revisiting some thinking on the role of audio in elearning (or mlearning). I see it as an organizing medium, one that can sit in the background and crystallize perception in a chaotic environment of input. I listen to music almost anywhere I go and most specifically when I write. The music is often ambient, rarely with vocals, and I struggle with NPR (if I am doing something work related). Words distract, but ambient bounds the space I am working in.

I have mentioned this a few times before, but I work on an informal project with a few like-minded former classmates from the University of Edinburgh (MSc in Elearning) where we explore how music informs our learning online. The project is called Elernenmuzik and it was just introduced to the #edcmooc crowd. My colleague James Lamb has put together a short (music) video explaining the project to anyone interested. I also find it significant that the video doubles as a digital artifact, much like what is required of participants in the #edcmooc course. James just happens to be really good at splicing image, audio, spoken word, and text into short segments of activity. The video is below, but please do go to the Elernenmuzik site itself and see if you are interested in participating. We started by making playlists for learning (all of which are available on the Playlists page) and it is starting to wander into different directions (audio/video pieces). I included one of my playlists above. I was literally listening to at least one of these tracks as I was composing this post (I am a Repeat One kind of guy).

[vimeo 59016826 w=550&h=280] 

The Crystallizing Influence of Ambient Audio

There are numerous studies into the effects of music on cognitive function, so many that I won’t begin to list them here. An accessible introduction is from Oliver Sachs and Musicophilia. In short, music has the capacity to enact neural pathways long since dormant and will occasionally light up pathways never before connected. The neurological processes here are beyond the scope of this post, but they are incredibly fascinating. My focus is on the specific effect that ambient audio has on the cognitive capacity of the individual to work in slightly chaotic spaces. I am thinking of public spaces, libraries, airports, etc, places where there is significant sensory input not specifically related to the task at hand. And I don’t mean to specifically use ambient music to merely block that out. I mean to use ambient audio to perform in these spaces. The morning commute, the flight to a conference, exercise, introspection, general flanerie through urban spaces. Mobile interaction and mobile learning, even the sort existing on an unconscious level.

There is also the role that ambient audio plays in crystallizing our capacity to extract meaning from seemingly chaotic inputs specific to the task at hand. The endless Twitter input, the blogs, the new, the references and academic data. All needing to be fomented into something coherent, an analysis. Ambient audio (for me), bounds this exploration in a space. It allows me to extract some significance from the input, observe a pattern from the noise. With the ambient audio bounding this space (a very gooey, fluid, amoebic-like space), connections begin to reveal themselves.  I believe there are neurological machinations at work here, but I am not aware of how to express these so I speak in these abstract, metaphoric terms. I will rely on another author on a review of some of Brian Eno’s newest work:

“At the ideal, low volume, you’re aware of the music. But you’re equally aware of the way that it frames the other sounds you’re hearing and making: the traffic in the street, your own breathing, the keys on the keyboard, the creaks in the floorboards, the rustle of your clothes when you move.”

Framing is a good way to articulate this process. It makes these inputs observable and heightened (and useful). The resulting process for learning, this process of using ambient audio to frame chaotic activity and inputs from a space is what learning looks like to me online. It isn’t so much the creation of something new, but rather the alignment of variables in that space to form meaning, however ephemeral. Below is a slide I am using in an upcoming presentation to articulate the process. At the right angle and with the right manipulation of variables, meaning emerges. Ambient audio facilitates that role for me. It helps transform the activity system on the left into the meaning made on the right. Held together with such fragility, bound in these fluid and ephemeral spaces.

Image on the left and right are both from the iPhone/iPad app called Thicket available from
Image on the left and right are both from the iPhone/iPad app called Thicket available from

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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