September 2, 2020
PACE Lab Receives $750,000 in Research Funding
Researchers hope to develop a scalable biometric technology that will transform the learning of writing.
Ames, Iowa — An interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Associate Professor Evgeny Chukharev-Hudilainen (Department of English, Iowa State University) has received a new $ 750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Rated the most competitive of all research proposals submitted in response to this year’s solicitation "Cyberlearning for Work at the Human-Technology Frontier", the three-year project seeks to develop and evaluate a new kind of automated intelligent tutoring system for writing, codenamed "ProWrite."

Unlike existing systems that provide feedback based on texts produced by the students, ProWrite will capture the moment-by-moment actions taken in the course of text production using deployable biometric technology: keystroke logging and eye tracking. The researchers hope that by analyzing when the writers pause and where they look in the course of text production, ProWrite can radically enhance the precision and effectiveness of advice that students receive.

ISU’s Writing and Media Center (WMC) will serve as the testing site of the proposed innovation. "Learning to write is a cornerstone of college education, and individualized feedback is a staple of writing instruction," said Dr. Joseph Cheatle, the WMC director and a co-investigator on the grant. "At the WMC, we help students by providing feedback and advice on the drafts that they bring. However, we don’t see how they actually produce this text. This project will develop technology to observe students' writing processes and subsequently provide feedback that is more individualized and helpful for our students. I am always interested in considering the ways in which we can turn writing theory into practice, and I am excited that this project will allow us to do so in a collaborative and interdisciplinary way."

Dr. Mark Torrance, an expert in psychology of writing from Nottingham Trent University in England, is another member of the research team. He has pioneered the use of eye tracking to explore where and when writers look within their own text while they write. Torrance explains why this technology is crucial for the ProWrite project.

"Reading your own text as you write is obviously important for checking that you are happy with what you’ve written. But quick glances back into the text you’ve just written also seem to play an important role in prompting what to say next," Torrance said. "My own research has relied on laboratory equipment that is too expensive for large-scale classroom deployment. Evgeny’s group at ISU has been getting really good results with devices that are a few percent of the price of the equipment that I use. This opens up exciting possibilities for learning more about the cognitive and educational psychology of how text is produced in real-world contexts. But more than that, it has potential to give students direct, immediate feedback about their own writing processes while they are writing. Investigating the potential of this kind of feedback is a core aim of the ProWrite project."
Jens Roeser, Mark Torrance, and Evgeny Chukharev-Hudilainen calibrating eye-tracking equipment
(Nottingham, UK, April 2015)
Dr. Evgeny Chukharev-Hudilainen, the principal investigator on the project, emphasized that this grant has been made possible by copious amounts of pilot work that have positioned his group for this new endeavor. "We have developed and evaluated prototypes of various components: a browser-based text editor that integrates with cheap eye-tracking equipment, a modular automated writing evaluation system, a range of visualization tools to explore how the process of writing unfolds, to name a few," he said. "We also, I believe, have a solid understanding of how to work with the kind of data that biometric technologies provide. It is very exciting to be able to bring all these pieces together and construct an automated, end-to-end analysis pipeline that will take raw keystroke and eye-movement data and transform it into actionable feedback to the learner. If this project is successful, it has a very strong potential for significant educational and economical impact."
Language Processing, Acquisition and Change (PACE) Lab is a research group within Iowa State University's Department of English. Pilot work that has made this grant possible has been funded through the Liberal Arts and Sciences Signature Research Initiative grant (PI Volker Hegelheimer), an early-concept grant for exploratory research (EAGER) from NSF (PI Chukharev-Hudilainen), and an Emerging Field Group grant from the European Association for Research in Learning and Instruction (PI Torrance).