Students in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment (ETRA) and all of NIU returned from Spring Break to find the cutting-edge literally at their fingertips.
Located in Gabel 212, the ETRA Innovation Lab features not only 3-D printers, Lego Education WeDo 2.0 sets, Google Home and Amazon Alexa but also eye-tracking systems that enable significant research into the real-time effectiveness of online learning models.
The increasingly affordable technology comes on a headband with tiny, spatial cameras pointed at both eyes and a third camera over the nose that captures an accompanying video of the environment – or, in other words, whatever the wearer is seeing in the moment.
“We’re tracking the eye movements of the user,” says Kyung Kim, assistant professor in ETRA. “In this way, we can understand how these people are interacting with the learning environment.”
Video of each interaction provides strong analysis of what aspects of the program design are working, and what needs improvement, through unparalleled data on user behavior while learning online.
Data will include valuable information on how long users stare at the screen without acting, where their eyes go when distracted and more. “We need to understand these things to design something better,” Kim says.
Potential applications of eye-tracking systems go far beyond online learning.
For example, motorists who wear the devices can discover what distracts them while behind the wheel, whether it’s billboards, traffic signs, dashboard readings or other things.
Major League Baseball players can wear them in the batter’s box to create videos of how to best hit the pitches. Surgeons who wear them while in the operating room can create videos of how they conduct their life-saving procedures.
Kim, whose research focuses on the intersection of visualization, knowledge structure and design, is eager to see how students use the powerful tool.
“I hope this lab serves as a venue where we can investigate learning processes, human-computer interactions and some hidden sides of the learning process better than before,” he says.
ETRA Assistant Professor Fatih Demir agrees: Students preparing for careers in online learning must recognize, and harness, the critical perspective of the user.
“In today’s world, we are seeing that to just design a product is not enough,” Demir says. “My students can use this lab to collect data, create better products and test existing products to see if those products work well.”
He believes the lab will put NIU students ahead in the field.
“The options are endless if you can find a good research topic,” he says. “This technology allows you to achieve your goal.”
Areas of inquiry tailor-made for the lab’s technology include aging and disability.
Voice-activated devices such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa enable users to accomplish tasks without physical touch, whether it’s accessing the Internet or turning off the bedroom lights.
Meanwhile, the ETRA lab is awaiting delivery of brainwave monitors that can also measure the mental engagement of those who wear them. It also allows wearers to move something, such as a computer mouse, with their mind.
“It needs analysis,” Demir says, “but you could design that type of product using this lab.”
Chris Kraner, a graduate research assistant in ETRA who is pursuing his master’s degree in Educational Research and Evaluation, works in the lab as a trainer and researcher. He primarily works with the 3D printers.
Kraner, also a collaborator with NIU STEM Outreach to promote science to K-12 students in the region, loves what is blooming in the Gabel 212 space that is open to all.
“We want our students to do some interesting problem-solving here. We want our student to be comfortable if they come across this technology in their professional careers,” he says. “I’m really hoping to have teachers in here to show us what they’re doing and to tell us what we should be doing.”
The lab also provides study carrels, a poster printer and a soundproof lab for online teaching recording.