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Usability and Eye Tracking for the Learning Masses

By on June 15, 2011
Feature, Technology

 

Cosmonaut on the ISS with the ETD

TechEdu column: How the latest disruption in eye tracking can help online educators small and large teach more effectively.

by Elbert Chu

Eyes are windows into the soul. And with permission, online educators will now have a chance to take a good long stare into their student’s crowd-sourced eyeballs through webcams.

Websites get a few seconds to capture user attention. Good online schools — from start-ups to international conglomerates — want to catch your attention, keep your attention, and then of course teach you something. Eye tracking used to be the domain of big budget research institutions. Once upon a time, test subjects reported to a laboratory to be studied like mice. But now, armed with computer vision algorithms and that five year old $30 640×480 webcam, even start-ups can see how their content and layouts attract or distract eye balls.

The Lowdown

Tracking eyes is a good gauge of attention level and learners’ interaction with online material. In the last year, both GazeHawk and MRC, emerged with webcam eye-tracking technology. An Arlington, VA.,-based company called Youeye, launched June 1 with a cloud-based software as a service platform built for speed. It also features eye tracking. Youeye is aiming at the triple play: Usability with eye tracking, cheap crowd sourcing, and instant gratification.

One Youeye client, Saba, a $270M enterprise education company, wants to test their current live education products to discover what their learners like, have trouble with, and find confusing.

The Good

Youeye on DropboxFor decades, eye tracking was the playground of deep pockets who could afford $30,000+ proprietary eye tracking equipment from industry leaders like Tobii. Not anymore. Youeye is aiming at the triple play: Usability with eye tracking, cheap crowd-sourcing, and instant gratification. Taking Youeye for a spin is mostly painless since the software brains in the operation is all online. I asked Youeye to run a quick eye track for me on Dropbox, and received the response in less than 30 minutes. Schools can just provide a URL and assigned tasks for students to complete to Youeye. Students in the test start with a simple 30 sec. eye calibration through their webcam.

The new technology also slashes the cost per user from thousands of dollars to the price of a Big Mac ($3-$5) with monthly plans, according to Youeye CEO and Founder, Kyle Henderson. In turn, Youeye pays people recruited from the client’s site, outsourced panels, or Youeye’s panel an average of $7 each to evaluate things like attention spans and gaze tracks, chronological records of eye movement across a screen.

Another benefit is online learners can be anywhere they usually study. Test subjects are notorious for changing behavior when they feel observed. This is classic Hawthorne effect. Hawthorne Works was a factory that conducted a study in the 1950s which turned up the lights on workers and noticed they worked harder. Stick people in a lab, and presto, they’re more attentive, skewing test results. Let them study from home, and the results will be much more natural.

For Youeye, speed is the name of the game. Henderson said, “We focus on providing rapid results. Crowd sourced results can be available within minutes after test is completed.” Youeye wants to enable educators to test iteratively everyday. Henderson says speed will allow companies to improve daily instead of monthly with rapid audience validation. MRC requires negotiating a contract, and has a stated 48-hour turnaround. GazeHawk co-founder, Joe Gershenson, says they need about a week to ensure quality assurance.

The Bad

Not everyone thinks schools should scarf down eye tracking fast food. Nick Gould, CEO of Catalyst Group in New York City, is among them. Catalyst group specializes in usability optimization and consults clients like The New York Times, and Doubleclick. Gould said, “In the end, any usability research tool or method is about both data collection and data analysis. The remote, unmoderated tools, do a decent job of data collection under certain circumstances but they provide little in the way of automated analysis of the results.” He also thinks it will be difficult to perform large scale studies when each test needs to be individually analyzed. Gould says the ability to evaluate behavior is severely limited with just webcam eye tracking.

The Verdict & What’s Next

Good usability is part science, part art. Eye tracking technology allows educators to learn what grabs learner’s attentions, but understanding how to craft lessons and experiences that truly stick is ultimately where rubber meets the road, or in this case, brain meets the internet.

“What’s crazy is what’s coming next. Facial recognition to decode emotions, and detect demographics,” said Henderson. When educators can discern that a learner is confused by facial expression it may offer an additional layer of complexity. Still, as humans it is already difficult trying to understand if someone’s squint and a furrowed brow is confusion, anger, or concentration. Now imagine a computer trying to figure that out, so calibration will be key.

For now, eye tracking to the masses is an additional tool in the belt and not a game-changer, but worth a look.

 

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Do you use eye tracking for online education? Let us know what your experience has been in the comments.



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