After receiving a two-year $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the largest external research grant received by the Department of English at ISU to date, the CyWrite project is able to expand upon innovative technologies for improving writer’s learning experiences. The CyWrite team will investigate how eye tracking and keystroke logging can be used to administer automated feedback to students on their writing.
“NSF is not just funding us to develop a new writing app,” says Dr. Evgeny Chukharev-Hudilainen, the principal investigator of the project. “Apps have a very limited shelf life. We are after something bigger here. We want to create a new genre of technology for language learning.”
Chukharev-Hudilainen provides the example of VisiCalc, which was a widely popular application in 1979. Although it has been long forgotten, VisiCalc ushered in a new genre of technology and a new way of looking at how a computer could be used. It was the first electronic spreadsheet where a change in one place automatically updated information in another. This once-revolutionary idea is now known as “spreadsheet software” and is utilized in programs such as Excel, OpenCalc, or Google Sheets.
“Our new genre of technology is based on an idea which sounds as crazy as the automatic spreadsheets were in the 1970s,” said Chukharev-Hudilainen. “We want to build writing tutoring software with integrated eye tracking and keystroke logging. Eye trackers are little devices that track where you look at the screen and feed this data back into your computer. For example, our system might detect that a student is focusing on a particular sentence they just wrote and provide very targeted feedback to help them move on with their writing.”
When it comes to eye tracking technology, cost is an issue. Chukharev-Hudilainen asserts that by using the right hardware vendor and developing his own software, he can in turn lower the cost more than 100 times compared to the existing research-grade systems. The technology that could cost researchers $50,000 was brought down to $500.
Dr. Mark Torrance, an expert in psychology of writing from Nottingham Trent University in England who has previously worked with eye-tracking technology, gives a firsthand account of his experiences.
“The disadvantage of the set-up that I use is that it costs over 25,000 pounds (about $36,000). It is great for laboratory research, but taking such expensive technology into a classroom setting just isn’t realistic,” said Torrance. “Evgeny has been experimenting with devices that are a hundredth of this price when combined with the software that he has developed. There are exciting possibilities for not only learning more about writing processes in classroom contexts but giving students direct feedback about what they look at when they write.”
In April 2015, Evgeny, Mark, and Jens Roeser, a Ph.D. student at Nottingham Trent, ran a pilot study together, which prepared the grounds for CyWrite’s new endeavor. After having participants perform identical tasks on a prototype of Evgeny’s low-cost system and on the high-end laboratory eye tracker, they compared the data. Results were promising, suggesting a very respectable level of accuracy from the low-cost equipment.
“Low-cost eye tracking systems are suitable for applications that do not require high precision,” said Roeser. “For example, for some purposes it might only be necessary that the eye tracking systems detects whether or not somebody is looking at a screen, some fairly large area on the screen, or whether or not the user is reading or blinking a lot. In these cases, there is no need for a high-end system.”
Torrance, who will work on this project as a consultant, says he is looking forward to visiting the ISU campus in March. “I am slightly intimidated by the work-rate on the CyWrite project and anticipate a very busy week, but that aside, I am very much looking forward to it,” Torrance said. “Iowa seems an interesting place,” he adds. “Whoever planned the road system around Ames believed in straight lines, right angles, and congruency, didn’t they?”
Photo credit: Ben Thompson. Robyn Riley and Matt DeFelice contributed to this article.