Professor Studies ‘Human Factor’ of Ed Tech

Published on June 26, 2020

While Eastern Kentucky University is primarily known as a teaching institution dedicated to student success— and powering Kentucky communities with graduates who work as essential employees— EKU faculty also conduct ground-breaking academic research as part of EKU’s comprehensive mission. 

Dr. Michael Chen, associate chair of the psychology department, is one of those researchers. He and his students conduct human factor psychology research centering around educational technology. 

Human factor psychology is a branch of cognitive psychology that studies how humans interact with their environment. In the wake of COVID-19 closures, Chen’s most recent studies have examined how students interact with educational technology such as online lecture videos, discussion boards, and audiobooks. One project, which he co-authored with a student, aimed to determine what type of voice students preferred to narrate their audio textbooks versus their learning outcomes with each. Chen tested a series of voices ranging from robotic to human, and much to his surprise, found that students retained the most information listening to the most robotic narrator. Those surprises are one of his favorite parts of the job.

“That’s what I like about research,” Chen said. “Sometimes it really challenges what you thought was common sense.”

Born in Taiwan, Chen moved to the United States to attend Berea College, and later, the University of Kentucky graduate school. That’s when his interest in educational technology began. He spent his summers working at UK’s Instructional Design Center, and when the Amazon Kindle was released in 2010, he and a faculty mentor were inspired to study its text-to-speech feature. The followup to that study, completed in 2013, became his dissertation.  

It was also during graduate school that Chen was first introduced to EKU. He earned a part-time teaching position and fell in love with the student-centered environment. When a tenure-track position opened up in 2016, he knew he was exactly where he was supposed to be.

While Chen finds it rewarding to make discoveries and have his work cited by other academics, he finds that the most immediate impact of his research is on the students who work with him. Seeing students leave his lab and find success makes his work worthwhile. “Research is about discovery, but it’s also about preparing my students,” he said.

One of Chen’s students, for example, won second place for her student poster featuring their joint research at the Kentucky Academy of Science’s Annual Conference.  That award helped her earn a spot in a top-notch doctoral psychology program. The student with whom he co-authored the textbook narration study has published his findings and plans to present them at the Human Factors national conference. “Those are the things that I cherish the most,” said Chen.

Chen hopes to continue his educational technology studies once it is safe to gather in the lab again. He plans to repeat the textbook narration study with increased stress and distractions on participants.