Business Research

Smartphones in the Classroom: Learning Hindrance or Opportunity?

Technology has changed education. Not just the technology teachers and professors use as teaching aids, but also the technology students use in and outside of the classroom. As technologies evolve, educators must adapt.

"Professors can't continue teaching as if for the students of 20 years ago," Anne Ginols, assistant dean for faculty development and college initiatives and Information Systems professor, said. "Students today are different, and they learn differently."

Many students use their phones as computers and bring them to class, often against professors' wishes.

"It's an issue of attention in the classroom," Grinols said. "Students will continue to bring their smartphones to class with them, so maybe we should consider ways to use them in the class for positive change."

Grinols's recent research article, "Multitasking with Smartphones in the College Classroom," which will be published in the March 2014 issue of Business and Professional Communications Quarterly, focuses on multitasking, like smartphones in the classroom, and potential ways to improve its use in the classroom. She conducted the research with her former graduate assistant, Rishi Naran.

"Many policies have been implemented in classroom and business settings to limit individuals from multitasking with smartphones when they are focused on their work or classroom subject," Naran said. "The idea arose when we discussed whether or not these policies are truly necessary in order for individuals to continue to be efficient."

To provide some insights, the pair conducted research through various publications and conducted an in-class experiment with approximately 50 students.

In the experiment, Grinols and Naran asked the student participants to place their phones on the table while they learned new material and took a test. The experiment happened over a 10-minute period. During that time, students received an average of three texts.

"Multitasking is a misnomer," Grinols said. "The brain goes back and forth between mental tasks quickly, but two tasks aren't going on at the same time. The problem is some students are better at it than others. Some students can't keep their trains of thought going and may end up with a lower understanding of the subject matter."

Technology can provide a form of kinetic learning, though. For example, a professor may be referencing a company in class, and students can look up the company on the stock exchange instantaneously. Students learn when they're engaged.

"We encourage technology when it's helpful for the learning process, and we put it away when it's harmful," Grinols said.

The duo concluded more research is needed to discover if multitasking with smartphones inhibits a student's ability to comprehend information in the classroom. Continued research will only further help determine the exact impact, either positive or negative, of smartphones.

"I was surprised that the retention rates with multitasking using a smartphone were not very different from those who were solely focused on the topic," Naran said.

Although, the study was limited by a 10-minute experiment, longer periods of time with smart phone interruption may reduce students' retention of a subject.

Despite the inconclusive findings, understanding and harnessing the use of smartphones and other emerging technologies in the classroom can enhance how individuals learn in the future.

"I believe strongly in learning and the opportunity for everyone to learn in a way that is best for them," Grinols said. "If that's online or with a smartphone and not in a brick-and-mortar institution, that's fine, as long as students are learning."

Anne Grinols
Baylor University