MIT Launches a New Online Lab

Families can contribute to research from the comfort of their homes via webcam.
MIT

MIT’s stata Center image by Margaret Burdge

Families can now participate in scientific research about cognitive development at MIT’s Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory (ECCL) when sitting on their couches. In Rio. Or Japan. Or Australia.

MIT launched a newly-developed online laboratory to study how infants and young children learn about the world. Parents can access the website, called “Lookit,” through their web browser and complete a 5- to 10-minute activity while their child’s responses are recorded via webcam.

According to a news report released by MIT, the activities will vary based on age. “Preschoolers may answer spoken questions or point. To study preverbal infants, the lab often uses measures of looking behavior such as where or for how long a child chooses to look,” the report says.

Using a webcam recording, the lab at MIT can reliably determine whether a child is looking to the left or right of the monitor or looking away entirely. Reps at MIT note that although online testing doesn’t completely replace a traditional lab environment, researchers can still learn a lot from this way of conducting studies.

“What we’re really trying to do here is to harness the power of parents as citizen scientists,” says Kim Scott, Lookit project leader and Schulz laboratory graduate student. “As parents we observe and wonder about our kids all day.”

According to the report, there is more value to using online labs for testing than just convenience.

Beyond the practical value of being able to test many children quickly, which allows the lab to study small and graded effects that would be too time-consuming otherwise, researchers cite many benefits of moving some of the lab’s work online. At-home research is more convenient for many families, especially those without a stay-at-home parent and those who don’t live near a university lab. This accessibility allows scientists to draw conclusions from a more representative sample of families.

Researchers say that online participation in studies could reduce the difficulty of studies that require follow-up tests. Instead of requiring parents to come back to the lab months or years later, the family can simply opt for an email reminder to complete the next phase of a study. Online labs could also allow families of children with specific developmental disorders to participate in research that directly addresses their needs.

“Right now developmental labs usually only run studies with 16 to 24 children per condition, and they are almost always typically developing children from populations affiliated with universities. If we can run studies online, we can literally test the world,” says Laura Schulz, associate professor at MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

Interested families can register at lookit.mit.edu. A parent or guardian will need to provide a recorded statement of consent before participating. To view recordings of past experiments, visit the “examples” section of the Lookit website.