Do Smartphones Help or Hinder Learning in Universities?

It’s the digital age. We turn in essays, take exams, check our grades, and collaborate with other students all online. It’s very clear that education is steering in a digital direction, and our phones are increasingly playing into that. Similar to the way a reporter can use his phone while in the field, as we saw in class earlier this semester, students can use their phones to participate in online polls for class, check their email, and even take notes. It may seem like smartphones are taking over traditional forms of teaching and learning, which begs the question, do smartphones help or hinder learning at the university level?
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A year long study was conducted at Rice University to see whether smartphones were detrimental to the education and academic performance of first time smartphone users. At the beginning of the study, users believed that the smartphones would help them achieve better grades and do well on academic tests and homework, and that it would not be a distraction. At the end of the study, though, the opposite was reported by the users. Refer to the screenshot below:
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From the study, it’s clear that smartphones were hurting the learning of the participants. The biggest hinderance a smartphone has on education, according to this research, is that it serves as a distraction to the user. As a result, smartphones are more of a hinderance than a help when it comes to education at the higher level.
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Not everyone thinks smartphones are harmful in a learning environment. In some schools, smartphone use is encouraged, as outlined in this post written by and for teachers. Some benefits that this article brings up (which, might I add, there are few on this list that I have personally engaged with as a university student) include using Voice Memo to record a lecture, apps that turn smartphones into classroom clickers (also used as attendance-taking in large lectures, as I know from experience), having the ability to take a picture of an assignment written on the whiteboard, and having access to the Internet for more personal research about a topic discussed in class. With all this access that a smartphone provides, it appears that smartphones are doing more help than hurt.
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Let’s take an example from our own class this semester. Overall, we were asked to download four apps to use for class activities. One of these activities included The New York Times Virtual Reality, where we were able to watch a video with the Google Cardboard virtual reality viewer. Throughout this exercise, I put my phone on “do not disturb” mode so that potential phone calls or texts would not disrupt my viewing of the video. I used my smartphone to enhance my education in the classroom and partake in something that I never would have had the opportunity to partake in otherwise.
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What do students have to say about smartphone use in class? I interviewed Michigan senior Julie Fassnacht to get her thoughts on smartphone use in class. Here’s the full interview:
If you don’t have time to listen through the whole thing, here are the highlights:
  • Students use the apps from their phones on their laptops, such as email and text messaging, so even though they aren’t outwardly using their smartphones in class, they are using the interfaces that professors don’t want students using during lecture.
  • When you look around a classroom, you can see other students using their smartphones “all the time.”
  • Smartphones are not only distracting, but other online interfaces can be distracting in a classroom setting as well.
  • In the future, we need to make peace with technology for learning, such as using apps in class to further the class material and education of the students.
I wanted to see if what Julie was saying is accurate, so I snapped some photos in a few of my classes to see how prominent smartphone use was. In one class, smartphone use was permitted only to use the class’s Piazza website for polls conducted during lecture about the course material. In another class, smartphone use is only permitted if the professor says so; on the day I took the photos, smartphone usage was not permitted.

Some students using their phones before class.


Some students using their phones during class.


This student leaves her phone in her lap during class so she can use it more easily than if she had kept it in her backpack.


One student uses the messaging app on her laptop, bypassing phone usage but still breaking class policy.


While looking at a graded homework assignment on her laptop, the student uses her phone to check Facebook. Is she paying attention to the class material? Odds are, she’s not.


Some students using their phones before class in a seminar setting.


This student is texting under the desk during class, breaking class policy.


This student leaves her phone on the desk during class, along with her water bottle and pencil case. Are these the new classroom essentials?

As you can see, even when a student isn’t using her phone, it’s still very present in the class. Although some students still risk being caught breaking the rules by texting on their phones, a large number of these students were using the messaging app on their laptops to make it appear as though they’re participating in lecture. Either way, it appears from these photos that smartphones are hindering learning.
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We can’t talk about smartphone use in education and its future without getting professors’ perspectives. I interviewed Michigan Linguistics professor Ezra Keshet about his thoughts on smartphone use in class, digital disruption in education, and the future of education with smartphones. Here’s what he had to say:
  • He does allow smartphones in class only to use the system Piazza. Piazza is required for class whether a student uses it online with their laptop or on a phone with the Piazza App.
  •  Technology can help make classes, especially large lectures, more interactive for students. It’s easier than asking everyone to raise their hands, and it’s a good way to see what percentage of the class is grasping the course materials.
    • These benefits outweighed the drawbacks of allowing technology in class for Professor Keshet.
  • In the syllabus, he outlines that smartphone use is only for using Piazza and the lecture slides, not for other purposes. He then says, “I’m not sure if this rule is followed, though.”
  • Technology use is less of an issue in smaller sized classes because it is assumed that smartphones are not allowed to be used during class. He also does not allow technology in smaller classes.
    • Studies show that multi-tasking, using a smartphone in class, actually hurts a student’s academic performance.
  • Calling students out for their obvious smartphone use in class disrupts the flow of the class, Professor Keshet says. He and the GSIs will walk around the room to discourage students from texting or using interfaces they aren’t allowed to be using in class.
  • Education, and all of life, Professor Keshet notes, has been digitally disrupted. He goes as far back as getting his first email address in 1999 and how that positively disrupted education- everyone can be sent the same information at the same time. The ability to access scholarship on the web, instead of going to the library, really helps with teaching and with student research. He says that his impression is that these new technologies have really disrupted education.
  • When I asked him about the future of education and how smartphones will play into that, Professor Keshet says, “Well I think it’s already here in a way with these Piazza polls. I think people can make good use of it. I mean, maybe someday we’ll just roll out of bed and put on our virtual reality headsets and it’ll feel like we’re in class, and then the professor will hit a button and it’ll seem like we’re on a volcano or something… you know, technology has changed so quickly that it’s hard to imagine what technology is going to be like in a hundred years, but I think that would be cool. Virtual reality would be a cool way of doing education because there is a real benefit to being there I think- being in class- so the more you can simulate that, the better in terms of a technological replacement in education.”
I had an email exchange with Michigan Communication Studies professor Scott Campbell, whose area of study is mobile communication. Here’s how Professor Campbell answered my questions:
  1. Do you or don’t you allow the use of smartphones in class and why? No I do not because it is a distraction to the users and others sitting near them.
  2. What do you do when you notice one of your students on their phone in class without your permission? Sometimes I use the moment of them getting “caught” as an opportunity to talk about smartphones, in the class room and more generally. This is my area of research and teaching, so I try to use it as a “teachable” moment and an opportunity for heightened awareness on the part of students that they sometimes need to “unplug.”
  3. Do you feel education has been digitally disrupted? In what ways? Yes, but education has always been disrupted (e.g., passing notes, chatting, reading the paper, etc.). The new part is that it’s digital. But education is also digitally enhanced … I use YouTube in class and students use their laptops to look up information relevant to class.
  4. Where do you see the future of education going? Are smartphones involved? I am terrible at predicting the future. My job is to explain things rather than forecast what’s to come. That said, I don’t see smartphones going away any time soon. But I do think they will be part of a growing mix of mobile form factors, such as watches and other wearables.Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 7.33.25 PM
From the two interviews, it seems as though their thoughts on technology are mixed. Both professors said that it can be a benefit to the students, (making class more interactive and allowing them to access class-related material on the web) but that it is also a hinderance and a distraction to students. Student Julie brought up many ways smartphones are distracting in the learning environment, even extending the issue to laptops. Although many professors have technology-free policies in their classes to ensure minimal distractions, the future of education appears to be full of technology. Smartphone use is inevitable, as demonstrated in my photo gallery, so professors have to be smart about incorporating it into the curriculum and not shutting it down altogether.
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So, do smartphones help or hinder learning in universities? Although there are pros and cons on both sides, I think smartphones are an overall hinderance. I think smartphones can be an aid in a student’s education, as demonstrated in this COMM 439 class, but smartphones are distracting, not only to the student using the phone but also for students around them. Even though I think phones hinder learning, we need to think about the future. Instead of fighting the use of smartphones in class, professors should explore the benefits of allowing students to use their phones. Smartphones hurt now, but they have the potential to be a big help in the future. And, who knows? In twenty years, smartphone use in class could be the lesser of our distractions as new technologies emerge throughout the digital age.

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