Studies of how infants learn and how their cognitive abilities change across development are important endeavors being undertaken at many universities across the country. This research depends largely on parents who have the time and resources to travel with their children to campus research laboratories to volunteer to participate in studies. These volunteer parents are invaluable contributors to research, however they represent only a small segment of society. Many families have dual-earner parents, lack easy transportation to campuses, or live far away from any research university, limiting their opportunities to participate in studies. This limits the size of the pool of volunteers and also the generalizability of the research results. The goal of this research project is to develop a tool for online testing that can take place in infants' homes at parents' convenience and to test the tool to ensure that results commonly found in laboratory studies can be replicated through online testing.
The online laboratory that Dr. Schulz and her research team propose to develop will be accessed through a website called "Lookit". The site will allow families all over the world to participate in scientific research about cognitive development. Families will access Lookit through their web browser and can choose among available 5-10 minute studies. Parents who choose to participate will give verbal authorization via webcam and their children's responses (ranging from looking behavior to pointing to verbal responses) will be recorded. At the end of the study, parents can choose whether to transmit the video files to a secure server in the MIT Early Childhood Cognition Lab. Lookit will thus enable large-scale participation. The web platform will be validated by replicating six established developmental findings children 4 months through 5 years of age. Once validated, the tool will be made generally available to the cognitive development research community.
Lookit will reduce many traditional barriers to research, including the difficulty of running studies involving large sample sizes, narrow age ranges, special populations, and socioeconomically diverse populations. Lookit will also provide a new outlet for STEM education and outreach: a resource page will provide information about cognitive development in a format accessible to the layperson.