ETRA summer course enables students to explore, tap research power of UX lab

As word spread around the NIU campus about the new and rare User Experience Lab in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment (ETRA), interest in its possibilities grew immediately.

Brainwave monitors! Remote eye trackers! Mobile eye trackers!

“Students were contacting me,” says Fatih Demir, assistant professor in ETRA, “to ask, ‘What kind of technology do you have? How can we use it? What research can we do?’ ”

Those questions, Demir and Department Chair Wei-Chen Hung realized, were best answered through a course.

ETT 566: UX Research Methods and Technology, which launched in June, now has exceeded their expectations as students continue to explore and master the cool tools while designing innovative projects inside Gabel 212 and, later, via online collaboration.

A half-dozen ETRA students are joined by graduate students (and even two undergrads) from the departments of Computer Science and Psychology as well as from the College of Business and the School of Music.

Professor Demir and Chris Kraner, a graduate research assistant in ETRA who is pursuing his master’s degree in Educational Research and Evaluation, planned to enroll only 16 students to maximize hands-on experiences but pushed that number to 20 to meet demand.

“We met three times face to face and explored the technology they’re really interested in,” Demir says. “Before class, the students might have known about the technology, and they might have not. At the end of the face-to-face meetings, they had a perfect idea about the technologies.”

Divided into five groups – the lab owns two remote trackers, two brainwave monitors and one mobile eye tracker – the groups initially were provided little instruction or guidance.

This allowed them to navigate organically, Kraner says, and also to gauge the quality and clarity of writing in the product manuals.

“As much as possible, we were hands-off: ‘Here are the apps you use; figure it out.’ We wanted them to explore for user interface,” Kraner says. “I don’t think we got many questions at all by the end of the third or fourth day. The groups got a solid 15 hours of time where they could use the devices.”

“By experimenting,” Demir confirms, “they learn more.”

Ideas blossomed quickly.

Research projects based on the devices are examining the teaching of English as a second language, the best design of food services, levels of teacher engagement with classroom environments, the usability of various web pages, the effectiveness of counseling services for children from birth to age 3 and even hip-hop collectives.

Harnessing the UX Lab technology for research studies provides “pure and natural” data that are without the bias often found in observation and survey, Demir says.

“This is a great opportunity for researchers to collect all kinds of data that’s almost impossible to collect without this technology,” he says, “and the data is much easier for researchers to analyze.”

Groups gave class presentations on their devices and projects before switching technology with other groups to get their hands on what else is available. Students also are creating videos and user manuals as a part of their coursework.

“Everybody is happy,” says Demir, adding that some are now preparing to use the technology in their dissertations. “I’ve had some tell me that this is the best course they’ve ever had. It’s such an engaging environment and such a hands-on experience.”

Plans for the future include another session of the ETT 566 course – maybe next spring, maybe next summer – as well as the development of a certificate in Human-Computer Interaction, something that would set NIU apart.

Demir and Kraner also are expecting to install software that allow researchers to collect data when conducting studies using all three devices simultaneously with their subjects.

They also are eager to equip an audio-video lab in Gabel 212 to allow for emotional and facial recognition technology and to upgrade the recording technology for ETRA’s nationally ranked online programs.

Kraner, who collaborates with NIU STEM Outreach to promote science to K-12 students in the region, also has fielded interest in the lab from his teammates in the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development.

“Students are lucky here,” Demir says, “and I’m glad to see students willing to use such devices. This lab makes NIU and the ETRA department unique. I am aware of only some top-rated universities that have such UX labs – and now NIU.”

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