More eyes on the classroom

Video cameras track students' gazes to measure engagement

Mar. 16, 2011 1:16 am

Dejon McGirt, a third-grader at Union Independent School, squirms with excitement as his raised hand pulls him out of his chair and he calls out the population of Finland.

The classroom is full of students like McGirt who are cheering each other on in a competition to be the fastest at dictionary use.  Student engagement is obvious during this activity, but it isn’t something that is always easy to measure in a setting where the dynamics are constantly changing.

That’s where Jon Bidwell comes in.  Bidwell, who is pursuing a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Department of Computer Science, is developing a program under the guidance of professor Henry Fuchs called Classroom Analytics.  The program will allow teachers to monitor student engagement and discover how each individual learns best.

“We’re working on a kind of dashboard for teachers to help them go through data, a tool that teachers can use to get student feedback in the classroom,” Bidwell said

Classroom Analytics will employ a system of video cameras that monitor, follow and record the gazes of students to determine whether they are actively looking at the teacher or staring out the window, Bidwell said. Teachers will be able to review the data generated by the program to see which teaching methods are the most effective.

At the end of February, Bidwell and graduate students from UNC’s School of Education conducted a trial run at Union Independent School, mounting nine video cameras on the walls to watch the students learn.  First-year graduate students Sheena Berry and Adrienne Villagomez and volunteer Priya Mudholkar also monitored individual students at 20-second intervals using an iPhone application Bidwell created.  They hoped to determine how appropriate the students’ actions were given the content of the lesson.

Berry described these activities as a measure of validity – a way of ensuring that the data collected by the cameras was accurate and useful.

“If you record them as non-productive all the time, but they’re actually doing really well in school, then maybe they’re learning a different way,” Berry said.

Michael Woods, Union Independent School’s project leader and director of outreach, taught the students during the trial run and said that the enthusiasm of the teachers at the school has made the project successful.

“Our teachers could not have been more receptive or inviting,” Woods said.  “It takes teachers who want to teach and want to learn themselves and are ready to embrace new ideas.”

Shentelle Livan, teacher associate for the third grade, said that the application of Classroom Analytics has made the teachers better planners.

“It really has given us more perspective on how to keep a child engaged.  It has shone a light on the fact that they’re all different and that they all learn in different ways,” Livan said.  “They’re always more attentive when they do stuff that’s fun, so we try to work that in with the stuff that’s less fun.  They’re more attentive in small groups, so if you’re going to do a whole class activity, it has to be something they’re into.”

Raejhan Cunningham, a 14-year-old Durham resident and freshman at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, has been working as an intern for Bidwell.  He is interested in computer science and how the latest technologies can be applied to the classroom.

“It’s important for the teachers to know where the students are looking and which students are doing their work because you can’t look at all the students all the time,” Cunningham said.

The development of Classroom Analytics in conjunction with Union Independent School is only the first step, Bidwell said.

“This is a platform and a model that can open a new research area for computer science,” he said.  “It helps all school systems.  It’s not just limited to one because the software is incredibly easy to upgrade.”

It might mean a couple of extra eyes in the classroom, but the students don’t seem to notice.  They return to being busy, this time trying to beat the opposing team in a game of astronomy Jeopardy.

Kelcie Landon is a UNC staff writer for the Durham VOICE, a cooperative online publication by NCCU and the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication.