Is online language learning in the eye (movements) of the beholder?

My colleagues at the SLB Coop recently retweeted the article The interplay between attention, experience and skills in online language teaching. (Shi, Stickler, and Lloyd http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1515/cercles-2017-0007). The authors studied three language teachers to determine whether the amount of experience they had with online teaching affected how much attention they paid to three areas of interest, namely technical, social and content. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that more experience correlated positively with a greater focus on course content and social interactions.


“So what?” you might ask. But this article does more than just reassure teachers that our teaching will improve as we become acquainted with the technology. It raises other issues, almost in passing, that deserve further exploration.

  • Synchronous online language teaching replicates the model of face-to-face teaching despite the fact that it is an entirely different environment.

  • The beginning and end of online lessons are often ignored in research despite the fact that these phases are crucial points at which to address learners’ affective and pedagogical needs.

  • We need to free cognitive resources to prioritise social and pedagogical aspects of teaching.

The study concludes that teachers with more experience online will be able to devote more of their attention to what really matters. To measure whether the teachers were paying attention to social, technical or content issues they used eye-tracking technology. The following image taken from the study shows the teacher lacking online experience and her eye-movements across her screen.


This image conveys how cognitively taxing online learning platforms can be from a visual standpoint. This got me thinking that while it's true that an experienced teacher’s gaze might be more focused and less “skittish”, I'm pretty sure that even the most experienced teacher is losing a fair amount of cognitive bandwidth due to extraneous visual information.

Are we designing online learning to minimise unnecessary cognitive demands?

This use of eye-tracking led me to look into research on the connection between cognition and eye movement. In Why do people move their eyes when they think? (Ehrlichman and Micic, 2012, DOI: 10.1177/0963721412436810) the authors point out that people move their eyes twice as much when retrieving semantic and phonemic information from long-term memory as compared to other tasks. They cite previous research showing that seeing another person’s face may suppress eye movements that would otherwise take place. This makes me think that the visual layout of online learning platforms and especially synchronous video might even inhibit our learners’ performance.


Still, as the authors of the study state, the hypothesis that these eye movements (saccades) facilitate cognitive processes has not been confirmed empirically. Indeed, in their own experiment they found that forcing participants to stare at a fixed point did not impair their recall of lexical items, which might make you think this has been one long wild goose chase. However, I think this remains an open question and one worth pursuing.


Read the article for yourself and get in touch to let me know how it might be relevant to online language teaching.

Get in touch. I'd love to hear from you.

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