The coronavirus crisis is a rare opportunity for Australia to fine tune its approach to online learning, according to a leading data science researcher.
- Teachers and students have been adapting to an online learning model throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
- New technology tracks students eyes, head, mouse and keyboard movements helping teachers understand engagement levels.
- Scientists behind the tracking technology expect privacy concerns will be raised, but say there’ve included extra measures to alleviate those worries.
Schools and other learning institutions have had to navigate a seismic shift to remote teaching in recent months, raising serious questions about the effectiveness of current methods.
As the move is fast tracked under COVID-19, Australian scientists have developed tracking technology to better understand how students engage with content outside the classroom.
Closing the void
Senior lecturer Nabin Sharma would normally spend hours crafting engaging and informative lessons, but he’s had to radically adjust his approach during COVID-19.
He’s now delivering content in a completely online environment for the first time.
“It has been a huge learning curve and it is a completely different way of delivering the content,” he said.
Mr Sharma said one of the biggest challenges has been the ability to read the room, he said it often feels like he is speaking into a void.
University of Technology Sydney Professor Fang Chen has been trying to solve this problem by developing a reliable way of measuring student engagement.
Computer-aided learning has existed for more than 40 years, but Dr Chen believed there’d been a gap in being able to tell if pupils were paying attention.
“Now we have the ability to make it more efficient.”
Her data analytics team has developed a program that tracks face and eye movement, keyboard activity and mouse movement.
The program runs in the background during online lectures, capturing the student’s immediate response to the content.
This data is synthesised and displayed on a line graph that dips up and down, in real time, indicating a level of engagement that can be viewed by teachers.
Like in the physical classroom, the teacher can make instant adjustments while delivering the lecture, or review the graph later to develop more engaging content.
According to Professor Chen’s research, the real time analytics “supports teachers in understanding what works best in their classrooms and for each student”.
So far, more than 500 hours of data have been recorded of high school and university students from across the country.
Preliminary evidence from the testing indicated that visually-focused, dynamic content gets the best response from students online.
Research participant Vikrandh Kanumuru has had a mixed experience with online learning since the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Feedback and interactive content is the best, and this year teaching has become completely devoid of human touch, so it has been a little hard to adapt,” he said.
As a teacher, Mr Sharma said the software was able to provide crucial feedback that his peers could normally only pick up in the classroom.
“By detecting facial movements, this technology is very good at closing that loop with the students; that is a very important insight for the teacher to have,” he said.
Last month, Australian academics released a study that showed 46 per cent of young students would likely be worse off being away from school.
Professor Chen said her research could be used as a road map for creating teaching material that is effective in an increasingly digital world.
“The future is providing a feedback loop of students learning progress instantly,” she said.
She said she realised that the tracking technology may raise privacy concerns for some students.
“We take privacy seriously, so we follow national standards in terms of what data can be collected,” she said.
“We are only looking at behaviour that is related to learning.”
As an added measure, Dr Chen said participants have been given the ability to switch the tracking software on or off.
Mr Kanumuru said he was satisfied with these safeguards.
“I don’t have a problem with the way it is being used.”
With a return to normal classes yet to be finalised, Professor Chen’s team want to use this time to collect more data and refine the software.