We all know smartphones can serve up valuable information in mere seconds. And for that reason, many students use them as learning tools to aid with schoolwork -- for example, to perform mathematical calculations or review the course syllabus.
But disturbing new research suggests that these ubiquitous mobile devices come with a big downside. In fact, a survey of students who were using smartphones for the first time suggests that the devices are so distracting that they throw a wrench in the learning process.
"We were surprised -- given the enthusiasm with which the students anticipated the potential benefits of the iPhone at the beginning of the study, and the fact that they had a basic understanding of the kinds of things that smartphones could do," Dr Philip Kortum, the study's lead author and faculty member in the psychology department at Rice University in Texas, told The Huffington Post in an email. "It was surprising that the anticipated benefits didn’t materialize."
For the study, 24 college students completed a survey on their views of the pros and cons of using smartphones in the classroom. Each student completed the survey twice: first in 2010, before they started using iPhones for classroom-related tasks, and then in 2011, after they had been using the phones for a year.
The students' survey responses changed substantially over the year. Before the study period, most of the students thought the smartphone would help with their schoolwork. By the end of the study, most viewed their phones as a distraction and not very helpful.
When asked to rate the statement "My iPhone will help/helped me get better grades," for instance, the average response in 2010 was 3.71 on the survey's 1-5 scale (with one being "strongly disagree" and 5 being "strongly agree"). In 2011, the average response to that statement was 1.54.
When asked to rate the statement "My iPhone will distract/distracted me from school-related tasks," the average answer rose from 1.91 in 2010 to 4.03 in 2011.
What explains the shift in the students' opinions?
"We hypothesize that smartphone use filled student’s idle time, and that before they had their smartphones, that idle time was used for contemplation, or reading or reviewing of notes," Kortum said in the email. "It may also be that because smartphones are always on, they lead to interruptions when the students are studying/reading/preparing."
The researchers concluded that making technology available to students doesn't necessarily enhance learning outcomes.
"There needs to be some structure surrounding their use, so that the device has a specific targeted use," Kortum said in the email. "For example, a physics professor makes an app available that demonstrates certain principles of mechanics, and then works with the app during class. In that case, there would be some guided use, and that would help the student leverage the benefits of the smartphone."
The study was published online in the British Journal of Educational Technology.