New eye-tracking device

The newest research device at The William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation looks more like something out of a science fiction movie than a tool for discovering learning patterns. But researchers at North Carolina State University are confident that the new eye-tracking system, made possible from a $1 million grant from the North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation, will give new insight into how people learn using different media.

Using the system involves fitting a high-tech, lightweight headpiece with an attached monocle on the research subjects. As they look at a computer screen or other medium, the system provides computerized data on where a person’s eyes are fixated at any particular time.

“I like to think of this system as a window into the mind of how people think and learn,” says Dr. Eric Wiebe, associate professor of mathematics, science and technology education. “We live in this multimedia age where kids are not only bombarded with all sorts of imagery outside of school but increasingly in their classes. Teachers are making use of videotapes and textbooks with full-color imagery. They’re using multimedia software tools, dynamic and static images and audio in their lessons.”

What researchers don’t know is exactly how students acquire the information from all these different multimedia sources. Do their eyes go toward the pictures first or the text? Does an audio track help guide them to the right places or does it distract or hinder?

“With eye tracking, we’re going to be able to understand exactly what they’re looking at, how long they’re looking at it and in what sequence,” Wiebe says. “This is very important if we’re really going to continue to develop more robust cognitive models of how students learn and develop new ways of helping them learn.”

The specific studies planned include how students look at contour maps in earth science courses, how they use graphics and text together to answer questions in biotechnology, and how various graphical representations are currently used to teach DNA replication and protein synthesis. The studies will include college, high school and middle school students.

“The eye-tracking equipment can combine with other research methods to help us understand more about the learning process, not just what information their eyes are fixating on but also how they’re processing that information and integrating it into their existing and evolving conceptual models of understanding,” Wiebe says. “This knowledge could eventually lead to the development of new teaching practices in these areas or new products for teaching.”

The eye-tracking study is the first for the Friday Institute’s Mathematics and Science Education Collaboratory. The collaboratory’s goals are to understand how students learn math science and technology; to prepare teachers who can provide meaningful experiences for students to excel in these areas; and to use technology tools to enhance scientific reasoning in the classroom and related fields of study.

“This type of research is important in furthering our goal to create innovative teaching and learning solutions,” says Dr. Hiller Spires, director of the Friday Institute. “Through emerging technologies like this, we have the unique capacity to approach current educational challenges in new and innovative ways.”

The College of Education is building the 33,000-square-foot, $9 million privately funded institute adjacent to Centennial Campus Middle School on NC State’s Centennial Campus. The institute’s mission is to create innovative teaching and learning solutions that address critical educational needs of learners across North Carolina. The institute is designed as a place that will speed the dissemination of best practices and assist in the professional development of educators, particularly for rural and underserved areas of the state. The facility is scheduled to open in 2005.

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