Bertrand Schneider

Supporting Joint Visual Attention


Previous research demonstrated that joint attention plays a crucial role in any kind of social interaction: From babies learning from their caregivers to parents educating their children, teenagers learning from school teachers, students collaborating on a project or for any group of adults working toward a common goal, joint attention is a fundamental mechanism for establishing common ground between individuals.

The goal of our work is to develop new ways of supporting the establishment of perceptual joint attention (as distinguished from cognitive, or social joint attention).  We use eye-tracking technologies to share users’ gaze during collaborative learning.

In a unique application of eye-tracking technologies, we propose their use to inform a collaborator about their partner’s gaze during a collaborative learning situation by creating a new real-time perceptual data stream overlaid on the static representation of the learning resource they are each studying.  In other words, we go beyond prior research using eye tracking as a researcher methodology and representational medium for making scientific inferences about learners or collaborating learners, to use eye tracking for providing a new real-time information resource for learners to exploit for enhancing their own collaborative processes.


Students worked on a set of contrasting cases to explore how the human brain processes visual information (each student had access to a different answer)


The experiment

Our experiment had three distinct steps: during the first 12 minutes, dyads worked on 5 contrasting cases in neuroscience that were represented in a single static diagram. They had to collaboratively explain how visual information is processed in the human brain by studying the models described in Figure 1. In the treatment group, they could see the gaze of their partner on the screen. In the control group, they could not. They then read a text on the same topic for 12 minutes. Finally, they answered a learning test with questions on the terminology used, concepts taught and questions in which they needed to transfer their knowledge to a new situation.


Results on the pre/post-test on each condition (dyad-gaze = students had access to the gaze-awareness tool; dyad-nogaze = control group). The x-axis shows the different dimensions of the learning test. 

In one condition, subjects could see the gaze of their partner on the screen as it was being produced. In the other, they could not. Our results reveal that this simple intervention was associated with subjects in the first group producing a higher quality of collaboration and learning more from the contrasting cases. In particular, subjects characterized as followers saw their learning gain dramatically increase. This result was partially confirmed by a similar pattern found for students’ cognitive load: followers in the control group spent more effort than leaders while learning less; followers in the treatment group spent less effort than leaders but learned more. We also found that subjects in the “no-gaze” condition spent more time on cases 1 and 3; this suggests that they took more time (and probably had more difficulty) sharing their answers. Participants in the “visible-gaze” condition had a higher percentage of joint attention, which proved to be a significant mediator for learning.


It is well established that joint attention plays a crucial role in any kind of social interaction. Our study provides additional evidence that its role is also preponderant in collaborative learning situations. We predict that in a near future, eye-trackers will become increasingly cheaper and widely available to a broad range of devices (e.g., not only desktops and laptops, but also smartphones and technology-enhanced eye glasses). Our study shows that in some technology- mediated interactions, real-time mutual gaze perception is beneficial for collaboration. Those results have important implications, especially for e-learning environments, since achieving a good remote collaboration is particularly challenging. Thus, we believe that it will be promising to explore the conditions under which students’ visual exploration should be made available to their partners when working remotely. One caveat is that this awareness tool seems to work well for dyads; we are more skeptical of the use of a gaze- awareness tool for triads or large groups where this visualization may become distracting. Future work should investigate whether this effect generalizes to different tasks and group sizes. Our findings also have indirect implications for co-located interactions; as Barron (2003) highlighted in her study, having students collaborate in the same space, either side-by-side or face-to-face, does not make the establishment of joint attention trivial. We hypothesize that our intervention may lead to similar benefits for students working on an interactive surface (as while wearing eye-tracking goggles). Finally, our results have further implications for teachers’ practices; with training, we posit that gaze-awareness tools could teach students the value of achieving joint attention in collaborative groups. The ability to effectively collaborate with peers was recently highlighted as a crucial 21st century competency.


Schneider, B., & Pea, R. (2013). Using Eye-Tracking Technology to Support Visual Coordination in Collaborative Problem-Solving Groups. 10th International Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Learning, CSCL2013. Madison, Wisconsin. [ pdf ]

Schneider, B., & Pea, R. (2013). Real-time mutual gaze perception enhances collaborative learning and collaboration quality. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning8(4), 375-397. [ pdf ]


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