Every day, millions of Americans log on to Facebook, spend hours on it every day and use it as an intuitive part of their lives.
A research study led by professor Robert Atkinson is looking at how students use Facebook and how characteristics of social media can be used to improve online learning.
Three of Atkinson’s graduate students wanted to do a study on Facebook and look for features in the social media website that are engaging and can be used to give guidelines to other people who are designing learning environments.
Atkinson said his research group is interested in the social media phenomena and its high rate of participation by multigenerational people.
“My question is, ‘Are there things that we can do to take advantage of people’s general interest in social media for educational purposes?’” he said.
Atkinson said he thinks the study has the potential to revolutionize online learning.
“I think some of the insights that we will gain from the study can help influence the design of our online courses based off of state of the art neuroscience technology,” he said.
Educational technology graduate students Robert Christopherson, John Sadauskas and Quincy Conley came up with the idea and got institutional review board approval.
The study is being funded by Atkinson’s own research funds as well as money from the Office of Naval Research, an organization that executes and promotes science and technology programs in the U.S.
“I provided them with funding and support, but this idea was primarily driven by those three students,” Atkinson said.
Thirty students participated in the 90-minute study and completed a learning connections inventory, which is a survey that asks how one prefers to learn.
Sadauskas, one of the graduate students involved with research, said the research group used a sensor suite that includes an eye tracker and an EEG headset on those who participated in the study.
The team primarily used those two things, as well as a piece of software called eye motion that can track neurological responses to a particular stimulus.
“Using multiple sensors, we can tell what emotions people are feeling,” Sadauskas said. “All of these things give us a very unique opportunity to figure out what’s going on with that person at that moment.”
The research team used EEG for a different purpose than it was originally intended. EEG is actually designed to be a game input device allowing gamers to share experiences with their characters. If players are frustrated or excited, their characters would express that.
The research team also used a Q Sensor, which measures heart rate. It is worn on the wrist like a watch.
“If something makes you agitated, excited, or frightened, we can look for spikes in the heart rate for that,” Sadauskas said. “When we are able to match that with brain waves we can see things like engagement or excitement.”
Sadauskas said the study itself involved several different stages.
“One of the first things we have participants do is get them as comfortable as possible with all the equipment they have to wear,” he said. “While they are getting used to all the equipment they must wear, subjects filled out a demographic survey.”
The survey gave researchers some additional insight on the study.
“if it’s someone who is particularly visual, that may explain how they react with a particularly visual website,” he said.
Every five minutes, students had to complete a survey with a rating scale so they could record their emotions and reactions. These surveys serve as another form of data for researchers to use.
Subjects also looked at different YouTube videos so researchers could take some preliminary recordings on their emotions and what sets them off. This is done to make sure the sensors are working.
Participants then had to visit sites that were not Facebook to see how they reacted to non-interactive websites.
After preliminary data was recorded, students finally logged onto Facebook, and researchers told them to use it as they normally would.
Sadauskas said because the subjects knew they were being monitored, there was still some degree of censorship. However, that does not necessarily hinder researchers.
“Even though they may not be clicking where they usually click, researchers still had the opportunity to see where their eyes are going, giving them an idea on what people were interested in,” he said.
After the study, participants took part in a debriefing where researchers asked them to explain what things they are interested in and why they looked at a particular page or image.
“We try to combine what we get from our hardware with surveys to try to figure out why they were interested in certain thing on Facebook,” Sadauskas said.
Online-only classes are increasing in number, he said, but one thing students lose with online learning is interaction with their classmates.
Studies suggest that online courses are seen as more applicable to the real world in the fast pace of business.
Business tourism sophomore Geoffrey Byers said he has some experience with taking online courses and that there are advantages and disadvantages.
“I think you lose the experience of meeting new people and networking, but online courses are still more convenient for those who are on tight time constraints,” he said.
Sadauskas said there are discussions boards and peer review assignments, but their social engagement is rarely as high as Facebook.
“We want to know what is it about Facebook that makes it so appealing and how we can integrate that into online learning,” he said. “We also want to know what lessons we can learn from people who use Facebook in creating better online learning.”
Sadauskas said having multiple variables in the study provided researchers a rich data set on the way people act online with so many different focal points.
“We are still trying to figure out what trends there are and what we can take out of this and the analysis will be a much more involved process,” he said. “That’s going to take a while, because there are multiple variables that go into this study.”
Sadauskas anticipates that there will be solid results from this study in a year.
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