We all use our smartphones, a lot. So naturally you would assume that we would use them for learning. But believe it or not, learning on smartphones is actually a controversial topic.
Current mobile technology gives students great advantages and does things that once required a full size computer. Internet on-the-go is ubiquitous at this point. But – the downside is that some instructors find the tech to be a distraction from learning, both at the high school and college level. Is there genuine learning on mobile, or are students just playing games?
They are personal and they’re everywhere
Yes, you’ve probably heard that everyone has a smartphone by now. Even K-12 kids have smartphones: A few years ago, a Nielsen study showed that 58 percent of children 13 to 17 years old owned a smartphone in 2012, and by 2015, a Pew Research Center study found that 88 percent had access to a smartphone. In the 18 to 29 demographic, 92% have a smartphone as of January 2017, according to Pew Research Center.
79% of smartphone owners have their phones with them 22 hours a day, and 80% of them look at their phones within 15 minutes of waking up, according to an IDC research report from 2013. That’s a lot of phone time! The great thing about this widespread ownership and interest in mobile technology is that individuals are putting a lot of time and effort into learning various features of their devices. When a new app or learning platform comes along, it’s pretty easy to pick up on how it works. This is a big plus for students of all ages.
Learning: There’s an app for that
The number of apps has grown exponentially since 2008, and education apps are no exception. There are over 80,000 education apps in the Apple App Store and 228,000 available for Android as of April 2017. Education is the largest category for Android Apps and the third most popular on the App Store. Plus, those numbers don’t even include the countless e-learning websites optimized for mobile.
Popular education apps for kids usually fall into various age range categories, and there are almost too many to list. Also, there are plenty of learning possibilities for adults – like information delivered on iTunes U, which lists content from partner schools, or micro-lecture videos from the non-profit Khan Academy. Apps like Coursera, Lynda, and Udemy provide bite-sized courses and help build various skills. Learn languages with Duolingo, job skills with Udacity, or everyday life skills through the Curiosity app. Around 20% of paid apps are aimed at the 18+ crowd (as of 2012).
The controversy about the usefulness of apps in education stems from that students might be distracted by their phones. It’s a legitimate concern; studies from Rosen et al and Kuznekoff and Titsworth found that students who texted during class retained less information, took notes of lower quality, and performed worse on tests. Watching nearby laptops can also be distracting. A 2012 study (from Cepeda et al) found that students scored worse on tests after being seated near those multi-tasking on a laptop during class. A lot of this stuff seems like common sense, but it’s still pretty compelling to see that legitimate research was done on these topics and reached the same conclusions.
On the other hand, some teachers are channeling their students’ interest in tapping and swiping into positive results for the classroom. Beyond the expected classroom apps, some teachers even allow students to listen to music while completing certain assignments, perceiving that it can help a number of students to maintain focus. Ken Halla, a high school teacher and popular education blogger, recommends that students use mobile phones for accessing learning technology, because not every student or even every classroom has a laptop all time.
When I was in high school a few years ago, the definition of “interactive electronics” for the classroom was a half-working game machine that let students buzz in like they were on Jeopardy. Now, for a teacher or professor with a roomful of students to keep track of, tools like PollEverywhere.com and Learning Catalytics can encourage class participation by feeding questions to students and giving the instructor instantaneous feedback about what students are learning. These tools are accessible any time, pretty much anywhere, on almost any modern phone or tablet. That’s definitely progress.
An important benefit to learning on a mobile phone is that it’s possible to learn during downtime anywhere you go. That’s an experience you just can’t get from a textbook or an instructor. Some educational app makers find that their users study on the go almost exclusively. The combination of convenience, connectivity, and interactive experiences is helping people learn in new ways.
The Way of the Future
One thing is for sure… the phones are here to stay. Mobile technology has so much to give, and so the best thing educators and students can do is aim to get the most out of mobile technology in their learning experience. The trend is definitely toward acceptance – to harness the upside and manage the downside. Recently, New York City schools even lifted their decades-long ban on mobile phones in schools. It’s just about figuring out how to turn those shiny new gadgets into the best possible learning tools.