Eye Tracking Zoom Study: A WSU expert’s perspective, and common classroom concerns

Ever wonder what other people are looking at during Zoom or WebEx meetings? Turns out so do several researchers. 

Dr. Akmal Mirsadikov, who specializes in deception detection and eye tracking at Wichita State University’s W. Frank Barton School of Business, recently ran an exploratory study about how people interact on Zoom. As virtual meetings are likely here to stay, the study may reveal the differences between in-person and online environments.

“The sudden shift into this new environment brought in lots of issues, and people needed to adapt, learn on the go, and the norms were not developed,” said Mirsadikov, assistant professor of information technology and management information systems at Wichita State.

The study investigated what people were looking at in Zoom meetings, how people react to distractions, and the difference between smaller and larger groups. It also touched on visual attention across genders and potential causes for Zoom fatigue and mirror anxiety.

This effort was in collaboration with Iowa State University’s Joey F. George, professor of information systems and business analytics, who was Mirsadikov’s mentor from his time as a student there. They also partnered with Kent Marett, an associate professor of information systems at Mississippi State University, along with Misty D. Nabors, a doctoral student.

“The idea came from Joey George because he was interested in seeing how people react to distractions and what they actually focus on in online remote meetings,” said Mirsadikov. “I was very excited because I like running studies employing eye tracking technology.”

The eye tracking device projects infrared light into the user’s eye and creates a glint from the cornea in the participant’s eye. The position of the glint along with the center of the pupil is used in turn to identify the participant’s gaze location. The eye tracking device is usually located under a participant’s monitor.

From the perspective of an instructor, some of the social and non-verbal cues are limited at Zoom meetings. Those cues that the audience displays by nodding, shifting posture, or the excitement that you see on the face, you cannot always see in Zoom. 

— Dr. Akmal Mirsadikov

The study tested participants in two settings. In an interactive meeting setting with a smaller group, they had an interviewer, researcher and a researcher who was posing as a participant in the meeting.

“What we noticed from their visual attention, which was unexpected, was that in smaller groups with only four people, one-third of the time the participants were looking elsewhere,” Mirsadikov said.

When participants were talking, they would look up or look to the side to think. When people speak, they tend to look away from the monitor.

In this small group study, there were two distractions: about five minutes into the meeting, one person started to eat and drink, and 10 minutes into the discussion, someone got up and walked around in the room. Researchers found that even with those distractions, people would notice the distraction and move on, and the smaller groups were likely to be more engaged.

The second part of the study was a pre-recorded Zoom session, and there was no speaking or involvement of the participants. They simply entered the online session and watched. What they watched was a more than 50-person meeting with New Zealand city councilors speaking about various topics.

Twenty-five percent of the total gaze time was focused on the speaker in this meeting. The heat map above was from that meeting.

Distractions and non-verbal communication

Mirsadikov acknowledges that because the participants are aware that they are being studied, they might change their behavior.

“Our computers didn’t have the ‘natural’ distractions that people otherwise have on their own computers like emails, social media and other multitasking, which creates less effectiveness in the meeting,” Mirsadikov said.

Mirsadikov also noticed that social cues are rather different between in-person and computer mediated communication.

“From the perspective of an instructor, some of the social and non-verbal cues are limited at Zoom meetings. Those cues that the audience displays by nodding, shifting posture, or the excitement that you see on the face, you cannot always see in Zoom, especially if I need to scroll through the windows,” he said. “With students, you can read into those cues to see if what you said makes sense or needs elaboration.”

He also noticed that most of his students select to not have their screens on, which completely shuts off his reading of the environment. He also realizes that those who do have their cameras on are not indicative of the whole class.

“It is very tiring, and I keep second-guessing myself when I ask students if they have any questions and I do not get any feedback,” Mirsadikov said.

Challenges of virtual meetings

It isn’t just the teachers who struggle with Zoom, it is also the students.

The study also showed that women spend a significant amount of time looking at their own video screen. They tend to spend six times as much time looking at themselves. This could be indicative of a problem that several students face known as mirror anxiety.

“One lady in the study looked at herself 20% of the time,” Mirsadikov said. “Women are taught to look at themselves and to monitor their appearance, and it is cognitively tiring — especially since there is a close-up gaze, meaning others can constantly see a close-up version of you.”

If you feel like you are watching yourself to see if you look presentable or have the right angle for the significant portion of the meeting, you may have mirror anxiety.

“The long-term effects of seeing our reflection in virtual meetings is yet to be determined, but we have empirical data supporting this phenomenon,” Mirsadikov said.

In a traditional in-person class, students typically face the teacher and don’t look at themselves or others, so it is a significant change to the norm.

Another struggle is the fear within students to speak up online.

“In an in-person environment when a person wants to talk, you can read with your peripheral vision and notice other participants’ posture movements and notice who wants to talk, you let them go because you don’t want to interrupt them,” said Mirsadikov. “Those signals are not readily available on Zoom and so you must monitor everyone, or you might cut them off.”

As for Mirsadikov, he has had experience working exclusively on Zoom when Wichita State witched to remote learning during the early months of COVID-19.

“My personal preference is to teach in person because the classes I teach are more technical in nature,” said Mirsadikov. “I like being next to students because when they program, it is more beneficial because they tend to learn better. If we were on Zoom, every student would have to share their screens to figure out the syntax error they are facing, and it would be a mess.”

What comes next

He hopes other researchers and designers of these virtual environments can use the findings from the eye-gazing study to advance future studies and employ in designing certain features of virtual environments.

“The research on this topic is very scant, but our research gives some perspective on what people are actually looking at; and maybe it will help other studies in their designs,” said Mirsadikov.

The Barton School is moving to new building for fall 2022, called Woolsey Hall. The new home of the business school will have great research facilities and Mirsadikov hopes that business communities may be interested in supporting the school’s research by sponsoring eye tracking technology for the research lab.

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