The eyes don’t lie: 5 questions & answers about eye-tracking and Erasmus+ project ‘THEE’ from the multiplier event in Brussels

20 July 2022 | From UNICA

The eyes don’t lie: 5 questions & answers about eye-tracking and Erasmus+ project ‘THEE’ from the multiplier event in Brussels

On the morning of the 19th of July, UNICA hosted a multiplier event of the Erasmus+ funded project  ‘Teaching in Higher Education Effectively via Eye-tracking’ (THEE). The event took place at the University Foundation in Brussels in the presence, both in-person and online, of the THEE project partners and some experts in the area of Higher Education specialising in classroom management, pedagogy, and technology.

The partners of THEE, which include the Middle East Technical University (UNICA member and coordinator of the project), Vilnius University (also UNICA member), Atatürk University, the University of Salerno, DamaSistem, and UNICA, presented the conclusions of the study of eye movements of lecturers and students during classes carried out in the past two years.

In case you missed this event or want to recall the main conclusions, here is a summary of lessons learnt about eye-tracking and the THEE project in 5 questions & answers:

1- What is eye-tracking?

Eye-tracking refers to the process of measuring where we look, which is called our ‘point of gaze’. Tracking of eye movements has been around for quite some time, dating as far as the 1800s, when scientists measured eye movements by direct observation. As the times and technology evolved, new methods showed up, including  Electro-oculography (EOG), which records the signal produced by eye movements through electrodes positioned near the eyes; or the use of small coils of wire embedded in contact lens. However, these methods tend to be intrusive and uncomfortable for the person being tested.

A more natural solution has been introduced in recent years through the use of eye tracking glasses, which use sensor technology. This method usually involves cameras and computing capabilities to translate the recordings into data. The analysis of data resulting from this process gives direct information about the cognitive processes of those using the special glasses.

2- Why use eye-tracking technology in Higher Education?

Teaching and classroom management skills play crucial role on students’ success. However, the 2018 Bologna Process Implementation Report revealed a need for enhancement of learning and teaching due to poor teaching quality in Higher Education institutions. In addition, there is a knowledge gap in classroom management strategies for Higher Education.

By recording the eye-movements of instructors and students during classroom, it is possible to study the multidimensional structure of in-class interactions and determine which teaching strategies work best. Collecting data through eye-tracking is relatively new in educational research studies, making THEE a truly innovative project that allowed overcoming the limitations of educational research studies that generally use self-reported data.

3- What exactly did the THEE project do?

The THEE project studied in-class interactions in four institutions from three different countries: the Middle East Technical University and Atatürk University (both in Turkey), Vilnius University (Lithuania), and the University of Salerno (Italy). Different variables were taken into account when conducting the studies, including the physical properties of classrooms, the number of students, the disciplines, and profile of the instructors (gender, experience, etc.).

The research was essentially conducted in rounds of three steps:

  1. Eye-tracking data: teachers and students wore the eye tracking glasses during their lessons;
  2. Recordings of the lessons through the eye tracking glasses and fixed cameras positioned in different points of the classroom (these allowed to obtain split screen videos and heat maps);
  3. Interviews: semi structured interview with students and teachers after each recorded lesson.

Conclusions of a round allowed for the lecturers to assess their class management based on the video recordings.

4- What did the analysis of classroom interactions in Turkey, Italy and Lithuania show?

Findings of the research carried out by the THEE project show that analysing eye movements can indeed lead to an improved learning experience. This is because, by acknowledging their performance, instructors become aware of their interactions with students and adopt (and adapt) behaviors to increase the students’ attention.

Here’s some concrete conclusions from each institution:

  • METU: teachers’ gaze distribution became more homogenous;
  • Ataturk University: some of the faculty members stated that they consciously changed some behaviors, which were recognised by a few students. These changes include, for example, an increase in the mobility of the lecturer and more focus on the whole class towards instead of just the first rows;
  • University of Salerno: eye contact seems to play an important role in the attention span. According to the students, eye contact with teachers makes them more focused on the lesson;
  • Vilnius University: most of the lecturers were positive about the use of eye-tracking devices in improving working environment. For instance, they recognised that they talked too much, often skipping over questions; and also that they tend to make eye contact with active students.

5- What happens now?

Based on the research findings, e-learning materials on effective teaching in Higher Education are being developed by project’s partner DamaSistem and will soon be available for academics all around Europe. These e-learning contents will be available in English and in the three other languages of the project (Turkish, Lithuanian and Italian). These can be especially useful for early-career instructors to enhance their classroom management skills.

On the other hand, despite coming to an end, the THEE project has surely opened the door to new research possibilities on in-class interaction. For instance, it would be important to explore if the students’ sustained attention matches the visual attention recorded by the eye-tracking glasses.

This is also a great step for the eye-tracking technology, which has been further validated for its added value for the benefit of society. Beyond pedagogy, other applications of such technology include gaming, surgical robotics, marketing research, and industry performance.

Want to learn more about the THEE project?

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