Mobile devices: research and inspiration

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Photo: iStock

The debate about mobile devices in the classroom has sparked up again. Karen Sullivan looks at the research and offers some ideas

Like most parents, I’ve grown weary of staring at the top of my children’s heads as they bow over their mobiles and other devices for seemingly endless periods of time, and long for the days when boredom drove them read and chat instead.

Equally, however, I am heartened by the amount of information they have at their fingertips, and their eagerness to access it. A family debate is settled with a quick web search; a definition for a word, the population of a city, “other books by the same author”, a news story, a football score, a historical fact all pulled up in seconds. Like it or not, that’s called learning, and that’s what education is all about.

And for that reason, I have mixed feelings when it comes to banning mobile devices from schools. While they can undoubtedly disrupt, hijack attention and be subject to misuse, they are equally part of contemporary culture and lifestyle and perhaps the time has come to utilise them as tools for learning, within appropriate boundaries, and encourage their potential for an appetite for learning that much further.

One of the primary concerns is the distraction element, which subsequently has an impact on grades. Research published earlier this year found that students who did not use their mobile phones while their teacher was talking performed better on tests taken at the end of the class, and lead researcher Dr Jeffrey Kuznekoff suggested that students become “mentally absent” and “more interested in social media
than learning” (see further information).

A similar study undertaken by the London School of Economics found that test scores increased by
six per cent after mobile phones were banned from the classroom. Good research and obvious conclusions.

However, Dr Kuznekoff’s research also found that students who texted about the contents of their lessons (in this case a video), regardless of how often they did so, earned scores that were nearly on par with students who put their phones away.

He also found that tweeting was more “cognitively intensive” than texting, and more distracting. The purpose of the research was, of course, to ascertain whether there is a role for personal devices in the classroom, and he suggests that finding ways for them to connect to content in a meaningful way is something we should be exploring.

There is other good, interesting research to suggest that taking notes on a laptop (which could perhaps be extrapolated to include personal devices) is less effective than doing so with pen and paper, not only because the latter appears to aid cognitive processing and improve students’ ability to recall facts and concepts in order to acquire a deeper understanding of a topic, but because typing appears to involve “mindless transcription”, which cancels out the benefits.

It is an area where much further research is necessary, but in the meantime, it is worth considering that a good percentage of school budgets is currently spent on iPads and other devices to aid learning, and this could be curtailed to some extent by allowing the limited, supervised use of phones in the classroom.

It is worth experimenting, if only to show students how distractions can have an impact on learning. Ask a group of students to tweet comprehensive notes from a lesson, others to text them, others to take handwritten notes, and others to do so on their laptops.

Make sure that the more able learners are represented in each group. Give them a test at the end of the lesson and explore the results together. Was there any impact? Chances are that those students distracted by social media will perform less well, but is this the case?

And then, with phones on desks in full sight of the teacher until a request is made to use them, look for creative ways to utilise the wealth of information that exists on the internet. Set a task to produce a 300-word essay on a subject of your choice, and request that phones are used to supply research, fully cited, in the essay.

Ask students also to look for misinformation – incorrect or insubstantial sources of information that are not correctly cited – and provide a link to some of these, to help them learn to recognise the difference, and the pitfalls of providing information that has not been substantiated or qualified.

Move on to look at how the internet, perhaps in particular social media, can provide both an avenue for learning and also a means by which information can be shared and assessed, and good causes promoted. A science experiment? Hashtag or keyword the method, and see what other people are saying about it.

The wealth of interesting and informative discussions lend weight to learning and engage students where more traditional methods may not. English lesson? What are they saying about the book you are reading on Goodreads or bookblogs. Create your own class book blog and encourage the students to excite some interest and engage other readers in discussions.

A positive experience can inspire discussions that continue far beyond any experiment. Ask the students to request information or advice via social media, or promote a school event. These are all productive uses of time, and skills for the future. What’s more, they can help to make learning fun – more immediate, more modern, more accessible.

Ultimately, the role of education is to make the best use of resources to excite young minds and provide them with the tools with which to learn and then cement that learning so that it can be practically applied. If phones can achieve this at least part of the time, it is time to plug them in and see where they take us. Your comments and experiences are most welcome.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email

Further reading

  • Ink on Paper: Some notes on note-taking, The Association for Psychological Science (January 2014):
  • Digitising Literacy: Reflections on the haptics of writing, Intech (April 2010):
  • Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance, London School of Economics, (May 2015):
  • Mobile Phones in the Classroom: Examining the effects of texting, Twitter, and message content on student learning, Dr Jeffrey Kuznekoff (May 2015):


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