Association of Open University Graduates

AOUG Foundation Lecture 2018 - Follow My Eyes

‘Follow my eyes: What eyetracking tells us about online language teaching.’

Dr Ursula Stickler, an Open University Lecturer in the German language with an interest in the teaching of a language by online tutorials, initially introduced us to the traditional way of teaching and learning a language. She immediately gained the attention of the audience by pointing and then explained how students instinctively would follow the direction of the pointing rather than looking at the tutor. She stressed how watching where a student was looking, aided the tutor in assessing if they were listening and how in face to face tutorials it was easy to tell the difference between the true concentration of a student and a student whose eyes were looking but whose mind was daydreaming. She then explained how the use of props, gesture and facial expression, aided the face to face teaching. She placed a glass on a table and used German words to describe if the glass was on top of the table or below the table. The use of repetition of the German words was stressed and by listening to the audience’s responses, she could make assessment of learning.

She explained that the tutor cannot assume that simply because an aspect has been taught that learning has taken place and that this was even more difficult with online tutorials. Eyetracking is a study of where the eyes are looking and since this is usually a good indication of where the mind is focused due to connection between the brain and the eye movement, an assessment can take place to note if the teaching is being followed and thus hopefully that it has been understood. On IT systems, eyetracking can be monitored by looking at where the student’s eyes are focused using a system known as a Gaze Plot. This recorded eye movement, and the movement was plotted by using colour from yellow through orange, to red, with a high intensity of red for the most frequent movement. This highlighted where students and tutors looked and provided some evidence of how successful students and teachers were reacting.

However the online eyetracking cannot easily help the tutor to distinguish between someone’s focus through concentration and that of the blank staring. An online tutorial does not have the advantage of the human gestures, such as pointing, that would be used in a face to face tutorial so an experienced online tutor will need to make use of cursors and other computer tools to draw the student’s attention to the important part of the screen. Three good face to face teachers agreed to be monitored by use of this method of eyetracking at the same time as the students. One teacher was very familiar with the concept of online tutoring, another had some experience of this type of teaching and the third tutor had had no experience on online tutoring and had never used the technology before. The conclusions were that the first tutor’s eye tracking had shown a very high interactivity with the student, and this was subsequently reduced with the tutor who had less experience. 

Online learning was therefore greatly enhanced by the tutor who was already experienced, not only in the subject material, but also in the use of online tutorials and was the most effective when they have plenty of experience in the particular programme being used. It was noticed that with the tutor inexperienced in the use of the online teaching, that the students frequently did not understand and often asked for information to be repeated. It was then suggested that in order to gain the maximum learning from their student, the tutors needed to be fully trained in the method and concept of online tutorials.

There followed a question and answer session where several of the audience raised the need for this research to be used internally in all OU departments where online tutorials were used, whilst other drew attention to the advantages this research could bring in the field of medics assisting patients with brain damage. Dr Stickler seemed pleased that her research might have such wide benefits but explained that unfortunately her funding only allowed for the research to aid the teaching of languages. She stated that widening the field of research would be outside her area and for others to consider in the future.

The Chairman gave a vote of thanks to Dr Stickler for her extremely entertaining lecture and the audience, made up of AOUG members, research Award recipients and many OU staff having listened attentively throughout, gave her resounding applause.

Derrick Franks – AOUG Vice-Chairman