Phones in class don’t actually hamper learning

"We need to shake off this fear of technology that has affected our opinion on the use of mobile phones in class," says Andreas Bjerre-Nielsen. (Credit: Getty Images)

Using your mobile phone in the classroom does not negatively affect your learning, according to new research.

The result contradicts conclusions of previous studies. The researchers suggest that we should change the way we study virtual interactions in the physical world using big social data.

Since smartphones became part of our everyday lives, we have seen many academic debates on whether it is a good or bad thing to allow mobile devices into the classroom, researcher say. We increasingly use new technology in learning situations, such as for checking facts and taking quizzes that test learning. However, research has often suggested that the students’ increased access to new technology in learning situations has a negative effect on their grades.

Now a  two-year study among a large group of students at the Technical University of Denmark shows that learning and grades are not negatively affected when the students use their mobile device in class.

‘Fear of tech’

“We need to shake off this fear of technology that has affected our opinion on the use of mobile phones in class,” says Andreas Bjerre-Nielsen, an assistant professor from the Copenhagen Centre for Social Data Sciences (SODAS) at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Copenhagen. He and colleagues believe that previous studies may have rested on an intrinsic resistance to the new technology that affected understanding of mobile use and learning—and not on an actual problem.

“Previously, students were distracted by other things than mobile phones. They might look out the window, stare at the ceiling, or attend to other matters, when the teaching did not catch their attention. If we had had data on how often students previously engaged in these micro-distractions, I believe we would see that the degree of distraction corresponds to the one represented by mobile phones today,” says Professor David Dreyer Lassen, who is part of the research team.

For the study, researchers from SODAS monitored 470 university students’ use of smartphones continuously over a two-year period using a screen tracking app to establish the connection between the use of smartphones in class and the students’ academic performance. The researchers departed from the existing literature, which until now has largely relied on subjective surveys to suggest that students’ use of smartphones has a negative effect on their marks. Making use instead of their behavioral dataset, allowed the researchers to apply a new and more nuanced approach.

A better way to examine phones in class

The most common way of studying human behavior is, according to the researchers, to observe people’s behavior over time and calculate an average. However, this approach is too simple, they argue.

“In our study we have looked at the students’ use of mobile phones across several courses, and we have taken into account individual differences and the class context in question. For example, the students may consider a particular teacher dull and therefore resort to their smartphone. Or they may be tired and unmotivated because it is early in the morning. We have included these factors, and other variables that previous studies were unable to control for, and that strengthens our result,” says Bjerre-Nielsen.

“If you only look at a single group of students and a single course, the knowledge you get is very limited,” he stresses. We need to distance ourselves from such cross-sectional research, the researchers argue and hope the new method may inspire others.

The research appears in Psychological Science.

Source: University of Copenhagen