Yearlong study says: smartphones may be detrimental to learning process (but hold your horses)

Last week I had an online discussion with among others Tom Bennett and Amber Walraven pro and con banning mobile phones from class (I do use them myself with my students) but it’s true: smartphones can have a negative effect on learning (well, when not being used related to the learning process). Now, this  yearlong study of first-time smartphone users by researchers at Rice University and the U.S. Air Force found that users felt smartphones were actually detrimental to their ability to learn.

But hold your horses, do note the study doesn’t say smartphones did make it more difficult to learn, but the newbie-users did ‘feel’ iPhones (the brand they used) have a negative effect. Also important to note is that the sample of the study was… 24 students. As I can imagine that a project in which you give over 200 students a smartphone would be impossible to fund and that it could have been pretty difficult to find enough newbie smartphone users, even in 2010, still it seems to me that you should be careful with too big conclusions based on this study.

From the press release:

The research paper “You Can Lead a Horse to Water But You Cannot Make Him Learn: Smartphone Use in Higher Education” appeared in a recent edition of the British Journal of Educational Technology. The research reveals the self-rated impact of smartphones among the users.

“Smartphone technology is penetrating world markets and becoming abundant in most college settings,” said Philip Kortum, assistant professor of psychology at Rice and the study’s co-author. “We were interested to see how students with no prior experience using smartphones thought they impacted their education.”

The research revealed that while users initially believed the mobile devices would improve their ability to perform well with homework and tests and ultimately get better grades, the opposite was reported at the end of the study.

The longitudinal study from 2010 to 2011 focused on 24 first-time smartphone users at a major research university in Texas. Prior to the study, the participants were given no training on smartphone use and were asked to answer several questions about how they thought a smartphone would impact their school-related tasks. The students then received iPhones, and their phone use was monitored during the following year. At the end of the study, the students answered the same questions.

When participants were asked to rate their feelings on the following statements specifically related to learning outcomes, such as homework, test-taking and grades, they provided the following answers (one represents “strongly disagree” and five represents “strongly agree”):

  • My iPhone will help/helped me get better grades – In 2010 the average answer was 3.71; in 2011 the average answer was 1.54.
  • My iPhone will distract/distracted me from school-related tasks – In 2010 the average answer was 1.91; in 2011 the average answer was 4.03.
  • The iPhone will help/helped me do well on academic tests – In 2010 the average answer was 3.88; in 2011 the average answer was 1.68.
  • The iPhone will help/helped me do well with my homework – In 2010 the average answer was 3.14; in 2011 the average answer was 1.49.

Kortum noted that the study did not address the structured use of smartphones in an educational setting. He said that the study’s findings have important implications for the use of technology in education.

“Previous studies have provided ample evidence that when smartphones are used with specific learning objects in mind, they can significantly enhance the learning experience,” Kortum said. “However, our research clearly demonstrates that simply providing access to a smartphone, without specific directed learning activities, may actually be detrimental to the overall learning process.”

Abstract of the study:

Smartphone technology is penetrating world markets and becoming ubiquitous in most college settings. This study takes a naturalistic approach to explore the use of these devices to support student learning. Students that had never used a smartphone were recruited to participate and reported on their expectations of the value of smartphones to achieve their educational goals. Instrumented iPhones that logged device usage were then distributed to these students to use freely over the course of 1 year. After the study, students again reported on the actual value of their smartphones to support their educational goals. We found that students’ reports changed substantially before and after the study; specifically, the utility of the smartphone to help with education was perceived as favorable prior to use, and then, by the end of the study, they viewed their phones as detrimental to their educational goals. Although students used their mobile device for informal learning and access to school resources according to the logged data, they perceived their iPhones as a distraction and a competitor to requisite learning for classroom performance.

4 thoughts on “Yearlong study says: smartphones may be detrimental to learning process (but hold your horses)

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