Communication and blended-learning: Language and social cues in different learning contexts across educational stages


The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the pace at which educational institutions moved towards a blended approach of online and in-person learning (Jisc, 2020). While embracing this change, the challenges it brings for learner experience, engagement and learning must be carefully considered.

When learning is viewed as a two-way, social process, whereby interactions contribute to cognitive development, understanding the communicative process is vital to positively influence engagement (Rahmawati et al., 2018; Vygotsky, 1978). Language is often ambiguous in isolation, so non-verbal social cues such as eye gaze, are used to infer a speaker’s intentions and resolve such linguistic ambiguities during verbal interactions (Nappa et al., 2009; Staudte & Crocker, 2011). Whilst nonverbal cues can be easily utilised during social interactions, people look at others very differently across real-world and video-based contexts (Risko et al., 2012), with subsequent effects on the use of these cues.

Studies have demonstrated reduced utilisation of gaze cues when the person involved in the interaction is physically present, which directly contrasts against our fixation on peoples’ faces and eyes in static social scenes (Birmingham et al.,2009; Laidlaw et al, 2011; Gallup et al., 2012). Also when receiving live vs. recorded instructions, people are less responsive to direct gaze (Freeth et al., 2013).

If how people look at others and engage with their non-verbal cues varies between in-person, live-stream and pre-recorded video interactions, then the communicative quality of these different forms of interaction may also vary. This project seeks to quantify the effects of social cueing in different learning environments at different educational stages to provide practical insights that can be applied to developing future blended-learning practices.

Additionally, the ability to hold and modify gaze appropriately is essential for social development (Freeth et al.,2013) and understanding others’ intentions and perspectives develops over time (Baron-Cohen et al., 2013). Therefore, we will investigate whether the role of social cues in different learning contexts varies across developmental stages, by carrying out our studies on primary- and secondary-school pupils as well as students in higher education.

The findings will provide practical insights that can be applied to developing future blended-learning practices to improve learning outcomes across different learning contexts across key educational stages.


Through a combination of eye-tracking measures and behavioural tasks, this project will quantify learners’ engagement with an instructor’s social cues and their subsequent learning in different learning-contexts (in-person, live-stream and pre-recorded) and investigate whether differences emerge in the above effects across educational stages (primary, secondary and higher education).

To measure these effects the participants will wear a remote eye-tracker as they take part in each learning context. In all contexts, the instructor will deliver a short lesson and make planned gaze-cues. To index learning, following the interaction, the participant will answer a series of questions.

If you would like more information about this study or if your School would like to take part, please contact:

Principal investigator: Beth Smith -

Lead Supervisor: Dr Ross MacDonald –

Supervisor: Dr Anne-Marie Adams -

Supervisor: Dr Fiona Simmons -