Do Mobile Devices Have a Place in Academics?

Anyone who has been in a classroom since mobile technology has become so prolific can tell you that the students rarely are devoting their undivided attentions to the room. Even long before the first mobile networks we had plenty of distractions: doodling in a notebook, whispering to your peers, secretly reading a comic book or a sci-fi novel while the teach talked. But the mobile device has introduced a whole new level of distraction for students looking for a bit of escapism from the classroom.

Just how substantial is this impact? Are mobile devices impacting the quality of students education? We wanted to find out, so we did a bit of research.

Your Undivided Attention

In some ways, having a mobile phone with you disconnects you from the task at hand even if you’re not paying attention to it. The constant ability to check for updates in the rapidly changing digital world, to have a look at notifications or browse social media, is ever present on the mind of anyone with a mobile in their pocket. This is a powerful effect, and is in itself a distraction: the desire to have a peak at what is up in cyberspace can be enough to drag attention away from the action in the classroom.

Of course, it takes on a whole different dimension when people actually bust out their phones. Even if it seems like your attention never leaves the classroom as you quickly peak at your phone, the truth is that doing so (or even having the ability to do so) breaks immersion in the task at handing, dividing your attention from what is happening.

This isn’t just rhetoric. In a 2013 study entitled “The Impact of Mobile Phone Usage on Student Learning,” ( researchers took three groups of students and gave them the task of watching an educational video lecture while taking notes. After the video, students were given two evaluations to test their understanding and retention of what they had learned.

The results were quite illuminating: students who did not use mobile phones during the lecture wrote down as much as 62% more information on their notes. They also put down much more detailed notes and were able to provide better descriptions of the video. In a multiple choice examination, students who were actively using their phones during the video scored a full one and a half letter grades lower than the students who didn’t use their phones at all.

Mobile-Free Classrooms?

The question of if we should have mobile free classrooms is not a new one, and has often been met with a resounding “yes.” In many examples, it has lead to increased student performance: a 2015 report showed as much as a 6.4% increase in test scores for 16 year old students in schools which enforce phone bans, and that banning phones is almost the equivalent to adding an extra 5 days to the school year calendar.

Although it may already be ingrained that any distractions in a classroom are bad, or that classrooms have explicit no mobile phone policies, these rules are guidelines are often not observed. The results above were obtained from schools with complete bans on mobiles, some of which required the devices to be handed over at the beginning of the school day and completely prohibited from use on campus.

The Alternative

While the negative impacts of mobiles on the classroom certainly get the most attention, it is important to remember that mobile devices also offer a huge potential for use as an educational tool. Already, mobile device owners constantly consult their device to satisfy curiosities of all descriptions. They can help with educational pursuits by their very nature of having access to information, but can also be adapted for use specifically in the classroom.

Educators have already acknowledged the possibilities of mobile devices when they can be useful for their class. Even if the devices aren’t being used in the classroom, they can provide excellent ways for students to access information, to communicate with educators and classmates out of school hours, even used for data collection, or interactive apps to educate or test knowledge.

We have yet to see wide spread adoption of mobile integration into curriculum, although some pioneering educators have already tested the waters. Will the future of academics be a place which scorns mobile devices, or embraces them? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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