Exploring tech-powered learning and its impact


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Technology is reshaping the field of marketing. Tools like eye tracking and facial expression analysis are helping marketers better understand consumer behavior. These technologies are no longer just for experts — they're becoming accessible in classrooms too.

Course delivery was forced to change during the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing most learning online. This meant fewer hands-on experiences for students. But James McKelvey MBA ’85, instructor of marketing at The University of Akron (UA), took on the challenge. He used these new technologies to keep his students engaged and learning.

Together, he and Dr. Sydney Chinchanachokchai, associate professor of marketing at UA, recently published a paper, “Teaching eye tracking and facial expression analysis technology in an online marketing research class” in Marketing Education Review, a journal that publishes innovative approaches to marketing education. They discussed how, using technology, marketing faculty could switch from face-to-face instruction to an online format while still maintaining the same quality of instruction and level of engagement. The paper highlighted McKelvey’s COVID-era class as a test subject. The results were promising. Students improved their learning and felt better prepared for their future careers through a four-week online project that used remote technologies to collect eye tracking and facial expression data through a compliant user’s webcam.

“The use of these technologies is important,” said Chinchanachokchai. “As companies hire, they're looking for people who can handle technology. Having these skills could mean a higher-paying job. Learning to use tech in a classroom setting gives students a head start.”

Eye tracking and facial expression analysis used to be extremely expensive and complicated. But now, they're more affordable and easier to use. Even big names like Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo, Inc. are using them to see how people react to their ads. For instance, retailers are tracking where people look on websites, and advertisers are checking how people's faces change when they watch commercials.

As more students look for online learning opportunities, the use of this technology makes it a great hands-on remote learning opportunity.

In the project highlighted in the paper, teams of students evaluated six 30-second Super Bowl commercials — three that used disparaging humor and three that used humor in a non-disparaging way. They completed literature reviews on the topic and developed a hypothesis on the results of the tests. They then used online software and webcams to get data from volunteers. Students watched how people's eyes moved and how their faces changed. Viewing the real-time data collection of their volunteers and the simultaneous coding of the eye tracking and facial expression data helped generate excitement among the students as they witnessed real-time emotional responses to advertising stimuli from the field.

The 72 students in the initial test reported that the technology helped improve their learning about marketing research, but they also reported having fun with the projects. One student said they liked how the assignments felt like real work. Another enjoyed applying what they learned to real-life situations, such as analyzing ads, saying that the technology made learning exciting.

“Technology is changing marketing, and students need to keep up. Eye tracking and facial expression analysis are opening doors to understanding consumers better,” said McKelvey. “Faculty are finding ways to use these tools online. And students are loving it. They're learning, having fun and getting ready for the job market.”

When classes aren't online, the Department of Marketing utilizes the classroom resources found at the Benjamin and Nancy Suarez Applied Marketing Research Laboratories on the fifth floor of the Polsky Building. The lab features a Cognitive ResearchLaboratory with state-of-the-art technologies focusing on techniques such as eye tracking and brainwave and physiological analyses; a Marketing Intelligence Laboratory with workstations where students and faculty can develop comprehensive market intelligence reports; and an Experiential Research Laboratory where students and businesses use techniques such as facial coding software to test the effectiveness of various types of advertising.

McKelvey often brings real companies, such as Hartville Potato Chips, 365 Holdings and NORKA Beverage Company in to work with the students. “Businesses today rely on research, said McKelvey. “I tell my students that if you're not using data, you're guessing, and guessing is not a strategy. You need data to support business decisions."

Story by Cristine Boyd