First-time smartphone users say devices hinder, not help, learning.

study-smartphones-studentsA yearlong study from researchers at Rice University and the U.S. Air Force has revealed that first-time smartphone users felt the devices actually hindered their ability to learn.

The report, published in a recent edition of the British Journal of Educational Technology, reveals how participants rated the impact of smartphones on their learning process.

“Smartphone technology is penetrating world markets and becoming abundant in most college settings,” said study co-author Philip Kortum, an assistant professor of psychology at Rice. “We were interested to see how students with no prior experience using smartphones [either by choice or due to an equity gap] thought they impacted their education.”

The longitudinal study, funded by the National Science Foundation, was conducted from 2010 to 2011 and focused on 24 first-time smartphone users at Rice who were given iPhones. Participants were given no training on smartphone use prior to the study, and had to answer several questions about how they thought their device would impact their school work. Phone use was monitored throughout the year, and at the end of the study, participants answered the same set of questions so that researchers could compare users’ preconceived notions to their actual experiences.

Even though participants initially believed the iPhones would improve their performance on homework and tests and ultimately help them earn better grades, research revealed that the opposite was reported at the end of the study.

(Next page: Why users felt their smartphones were detrimental to learning)

Participants were asked to rate their feelings on numerous statements related to learning outcomes on a scale of one (“strongly disagree”) to five (“strongly agree”) both before their smartphone use and then after. Here are their answers:

  • 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.

Instead of believing their iPhones helped them learn, users ultimately saw them as distracting.

According to Kortum, the findings have large implications for the use of technology in education moving forward–especially for rural or low-income students who may not have much experience with mobile technology.

For example, Smartphones are the fastest spreading technology in the history of the world, and offer easy access to the internet, social networking, games and thousands of other applications. Their place in the education landscape is on the rise (over half of public universities created an app for their school in 2011), with great potential to extend curricula beyond lectures. However, though there were almost as many mobile subscriptions as people on Earth in 2013, the devices may not be helpful to an unprepared student.

The importance of structured use

“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.”

Kortum did also note that the study did not address the structured use of smartphones in an educational setting, which naturally may have yielded different results, and perhaps indicates the importance of familiarity and training with the device so that it can be used to enhance the educational experience rather than act as a hindrance.

The other co-authors of the paper were Chad Tossell, an assistant professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy; Clayton Shepard, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering at Rice; Ahmad Rahmati, a senior research scientist at Broadcom Corp,; and Lin Zhong, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice.

The full report is available online.

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