The University of Technology Sydney has begun a study to determine students’ engagement with educational technology by monitoring their attention through eye, keyboard, and mouse tracking.

The tracking data will be used in a proof of concept model which ultimately displays behavioural analytics in a dashboard.  Machine learning algorithms will then help make sense of the data.

UTS says by identifying content and areas where students struggle it is possible to better design future educational environments and personalised learning models, ultimately creating better outcomes for students.

The technology also has several monitoring applications. For instance, teachers could monitor student engagement in real time via a dashboard, which UTS says could help reduce distractions like phones. The university is also considering applications for monitoring online bullying.

The research is supported by corporate partners Acer and Intel. Acer said it is not looking to develop a product from the research and its support is an opportunity to give back to the education sector.

Pilot program

The study is currently being piloted on the UTS campus with 200 data science students in two classes agreeing to have their engagement monitored. Which-50 understands several other schools, including secondary schools, have agreed to participate in the study where monitoring will occur across a broad range of classes.

While researchers won’t have access to the names of individual students, participating schools will. In secondary schools, parents will have to give permission for children to participate. At the tertiary level individual students can decide.

The monitoring software can run on several different operating systems and utilises the inbuilt webcam common in laptops. The webcam does not record faces, according to UTS researchers. Instead, it focuses on students’ gaze movements, detecting when students’ eyes move away from the screen and monitoring the total time spent looking at the screen.

The eye data is combined with keyboard and mouse use to determine overall engagement. Eventually, researchers plan to combine the student monitoring with data of the onscreen content and refine eye tracking to a point where it can detect exactly where on-screen attention is focused. There are also plans to include other sensors like pen and hand tracking in the future.

Professor Fang Chen, executive director of data science and distinguished professor (FEIT), UTS. Source: UTS.edu.au

“The aim of the UTS x Acer Learner Attention Analytics Pilot Program is to create an education industry blueprint that can generate tailored personalised learning programs according to learners’ behaviour patterns,” said Professor Fang Chen, executive director of data science and distinguished professor (FEIT), UTS.

“Using learners’ behaviour as a fundamental indicator of attention and analysing this with AI and machine learning technologies will enable the education sector to optimise the pace and learning materials for the needs of different learners.”

Time for IT to give back: Acer

Acer Oceania managing director, Darren Simmons, insisted the hardware manufacturer is not interested in creating a product through the study and was motivated by creating better learning outcomes for students. Simmons said it was time technology companies gave back to loyal education customers.

“I think that it’s time for us as an industry, that sells IT, to actually give back to a market that we sell the significant product to. And I think it’s really important to get people who are innovating [like UTS] …”

Simmons said technology companies could help solve some of the social and educational challenges schools face.

“By no means am I looking for a product like an iPhone to sell to schools. I don’t see it ever being that. I think it’s going to be a journey. I think it’s going to have a lot of discussions… and I think we are going to have a better learning outcome.”

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