Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

March 01 2016

Research Study: Sound Management and Open Space Learning Environments

Jeanna Hofmeister

Open-space learning (OSL) is an emerging trend in the professional conference, convention, and trade show setting. Open-space learning, in combination with traditional learning formats, will be the way of the future. In PCMA Education Foundation's exploration and study of sound in the OSL environment, our key objective was to evaluate and improve the level, quality and creativity of educational presentations within PCMA’s Learning Lounge.

We sponsored this study to learn about sound engineering practices and new technologies that can help diminish disruptive noise while improving intelligible sound within Learning Lounge sessions. The benefits of delivering and managing high-quality sound can increase peer engagement and enhance learning opportunities. What we’ve discovered will benefit each of you, whether it’s at one of our hosted industry meetings or integrated into your upcoming conferences, conventions and tradeshows.

As the most highly-regarded professional resource organization for the meetings industry, the PCMA Education Foundation sponsored this study in order to become subject matter experts and strategic leaders in the development of OSL best practices for conferences, conventions and tradeshows.


Because conferences and conventions are a major source for professional and continuing education credits, it is incumbent on us to continually strive to improve not just educational opportunities, but more importantly, their long-term benefits. Education sessions at conferences, however, tend to pull attendees away from main functions and off the tradeshow floor.

In order to maximize learning opportunities in these settings, PCMA has experimented with short-format learning sessions, in novel “open space theaters”, situated within the main conference itself or in pre-function areas. They’ve branded their open-space learning initiative “The Learning Lounge” (LL).

PCMA wanted to investigate and identify potential solutions to improve sound management in these open-space learning environments, leading to the advancement of more effective and cost efficient sound management as well as enhanced attendee experience in these settings.

Attendee feedback from PCMA’s Learning Lounge experiments continues to indicate that background “noise” during conferences, combined with the acoustical properties of the venues, can be disruptive and diminish the learning experience. The LL example makes for a great case study on open-space learning in general. View the set up and notes on 2016's Learning Lounge in Vancouver from PCMA's Director of Events, Jody Egel.

While some sounds beneficially support human cognition, learning and memory, others serve as “noise” that diminishes language intelligibility, concentration, erodes interest, creates physical fatigue, and disrupts memory and learning. Today, technologies are being developed that can diminish extraneous noise, allowing us to skillfully use sound to bolster the learning environment.

Open-Space Learning in Concept:

In theory, open-space learning is an embodied, performative mode of learning which challenges lecture and seminar-based leaning models. Drawing on the notion that people, working in small creative groups or clusters, and using techniques that rely more on theatrical modes of presentation, will increase cognition and memory of materials presented.

The Challenges:

Sound quality is essential to learning – yet sound abatement is only partially achievable in vast open spaces like conference halls, convention centers and hotels.  Because OSL is more than simply shifting short-format information into open spaces, it challenges planners to design “learning centers or hubs” with multiple types of spaces, the success of which relies on both sound design and extraneous sound abatement.

Achieving effective, quality sound in an open-space learning environment is as important as creating functional, fluid and flexible physical spaces. In the conference/convention setting, OSL “theatres” are often established within exhibit halls, but high ceilings, hard surfaces, and unknown acoustics make it difficult to effectively deliver and manage sound and minimize both audio and visual distractions. Even ambient outside noise from sirens, airplanes and automobiles when combined with noise inside the learning environment such as A/V equipment and air conditioners can constitute a significant distraction.

When noise exceeds a certain threshold, it has negative effects on learning. It disrupts memory tasks and reading, interferes with speech intelligibility and undermines long-term learning. Add to that, the fact that annoyance from extraneous noise and distraction actually diminishes overall cognitive performance. The negative impacts of noise can range from instructor voice fatigue to reduced audience focus. 

Possible Solutions:

Re-evaluating Teaching Styles and Activities

As we go beyond the ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ classroom dichotomy for learning and meeting spaces, open-space learning requires adaptability, flexibility and variety.

In terms of this study, adaptability is defined as using core structures and non-load bearing walls to create learning spaces. Flexibility expands that thought to include moveable walls, acoustic partitions and furniture on castors. Variety equates to multiple types of spaces that attendees can easily move into and out of, or that can be created spontaneously. These spaces must incorporate materials, technologies and placement that support improved acoustics.

Through examination, three distinct design patterns emerge that well-describe successful environments for open-space learning and perfectly fit the definitions for adaptable, flexible and varied.

Creating Effective Design Patterns

“The Campfire” - Lecture-like setting for delivery of educational material by a presenter (think Ted Talks)

How it Works:

  • Material presented by speaker (traditional lecture mode with Q&A)
  • Story telling where people gather

How it Looks: A raised section in the room (if possible)

  • Good sound reflectance behind the presenter’s area
  • Chairs arranged in formal lecture mode
  • Projection screen or large monitor
  • Ability to darken room for presentations
  • Convenient placement of presenter’s laptop, controller, and sound for multi-media presentations
  • Wireless mics allowing presenter freedom of movement.

“The Watering Hole” – Conversational gathering area for interactive groups/teams to participate in social learning activities

How it Works:            

  • Dialog focused (small groups)
  • Social learning with peers
  • Interactive project activities as means of constructive learning

How it Looks:              

  • Small-group processing huddle centers
  • Small-group hubs enable technology (for constructing and sharing)
  • Acoustical containment within the hub

“The Cave” -  A quiet refuge for solitary, reflective, self-directed learning and evaluation

How it Works:

  • Reflective self-directed learning
  • Internalizing and meaning-making
  • Assimilation and synthesizing

How it Looks:              

  • Soft seating for individuals
  • 2-3 semi-solid sides providing enclosure

(Examples and ideas for creating these unique design patterns are available in a separate document.)

Putting Open-Space Learning into Practice

With the challenges of working in unfamiliar and, to some extent,  uncontrollable spaces, successful open-space learning options depend on creating spaces that structurally match the spatial patterns of Campfires, Watering Holes, and Caves and align with, and support sound design and sound abatement practices.

Innovative Design Concepts - These need to be more fully developed so that they can be erected quickly and easily for temporary use. Separate from this report, a collection of innovative examples is available to foster such design development for PCMA and its affiliates.

Technologies - New technologies available now, and some soon to be released, will improve sound issues in the open-space environment. These technologies include BYOD selection of channeled content, localized speaker systems, wired chairs, wireless sharing of laptop material on shared monitors, smartphone apps to filter-out environmental sound, and more. Using products and technologies to quickly and innovatively re-configure spaces will up-level the open-space learning concept and the attendee’s/learner’s experience.

Vendor Collaboration – To successfully implement open-space learning environments, industry vendors will need to collaborate and invent the components required to create the various design patterns. The development of “a kit of parts” would be the next step to move from high quality sound for OSL in theory to high quality sound in practice.  


Open-space learning is an evolution to traditional teaching and learning environments, offering the promise of more dynamic interaction, enhanced individual expression and increased cognition. Perhaps, more importantly, its implementation helps to ensure the long-term relevance of conferences and conventions as an essential resource for continuing professional development.

This report was excerpted from an in-depth study of sound in the open-space learning environment conducted by Mirador Research, LLC on behalf of the PCMA Education Foundation. Request a copy of the complete report below:

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