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Can tweeting and Googling be harnessed for good in the classroom?

I enjoyed the weekend debate on the blog over smartphones in schools. I agree with the argument made by Woodrow404 that teens see cell phones as  "an added sensory organ," and the most logical solution is not to ban their vital devices, but incorporate them into the learning experience.

But I question whether teachers can successfully limit use of smartphones to classwork.

Most parents can’t stop their children from pulling out their phones at the dinner table, on vacation or during car rides. A friend mourned the silence of her weekly carpool now that her 13-year-old daughter and her soccer teammates all own smartphones. They used to all chatter on the way to practice, but the woman told me her adolescent passengers now seldom look up from their phones.

While many of the teachers on the blog struggling against cell phone distractions in their classrooms were k-12, the issue is getting a lot of discussion in higher education.

The Chronicle of Higher Education had a great essay  by a college professor who asked his students to go without their cell phones for a few days. The professor writes, "A few students said they couldn't possibly give up their phones, because their parents would think something had happened to them. "They might think I'm dead." I had trouble with that one. What kind of parents think their adult sons and daughters are dead if they don't hear from them for a day or two? What kind of sophomore in college lives with such odious responsibility?"

Also, check out this piece by a professor of theory and practice of social media at NYU on why he banned  laptops, tablets and phones in his class. The professor writes: "Anyone distracted in class doesn’t just lose out on the content of the discussion, they create a sense of permission that opting out is OK and, worse, a haze of second-hand distraction for their peers. In an environment like this, students need support for the better angels of their nature (or at least the more intellectual angels), and they need defenses against the powerful short-term incentives to put off complex, frustrating tasks."

I just received a link this morning to a new report on cell phones in college classrooms. The report in the Communication Education journal cites the omnipresence of cell phones among college-age Americans, noting:

“In 2009, the mean texts sent/received per day was 29.7, by 2010 that figure had risen to 39.1, and by 2011 the average was 41.5. However, these overall means hide the significant use of text messaging by 18–24 year olds. Within this age group, 95% own a mobile phone and of that 97% actively use text messaging. In addition, this age group sends/receives over 100 text messages per day or over 3,200 per month, which is double the same averages for 25–34 year olds (Smith, 2011).”

Concurring with the Get Schooled posters who say cell phones are now a fixture in the of education landscape, the study, “ Mobile Phones in the Classroom: Examining the Effects of Texting, Twitter, and Message Content on Student Learning,” suggests:

“For better or worse, college faculty may need to accept that students are going to bring their mobile devices with them to class. However, an important consideration is the influence these devices have on student learning. Thus far, several studies have found that students who text, or use other technologies in class, are generally outperformed by those students who abstain from these behaviors (Kuznekoff & Titsworth, 2013; Wei, Wang, & Klausner, 2012; Wood et al., 2012) and some studies have found that multitasking is distracting for those students seated around the multitasker (Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013)

As teachers on this blog can verify, the study -- by Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff, Stevie Munz and Scott Titsworth -- found students don’t willingly turn off their phones when they enter class:

“The use of mobile technology does not diminish when students walk into a classroom or lecture hall. Survey research by McCoy (2013) examined students’ use of digital devices, while in class, for nonclassroom-related reasons. Across six universities and over 700 participants, McCoy found that, while in class, 86% of participants used these devices for texting, 68% for emailing, and 66% for social networking. In addition, that research also found that students engaged in these behaviors for several different reasons, including: to stay connected (70%), to stave off boredom (55%), and simply for entertainment (49%). Perhaps most alarmingly, students readily acknowledge that their use of digital devices causes them to either not pay attention in class (90%) and/or to miss instruction from faculty members (80%). Because of the frequency with which students use mobile devices, faculty at all levels are experimenting with how to leverage that capability for productive classroom uses.

Purcell and colleagues (2013) surveyed high school teachers who taught advanced placement classes or were involved with the national writing project. Their survey research found that 73% of teachers report that their students use mobile phones to complete class assignments or class activities, and 42% of those teachers ask students to use their mobile phones to look up information while in class. Although these approaches appear to turn what was previously considered a distraction into an asset for learning, little research substantiates whether such strategies are beneficial.

Teaching strategies that integrate students’ use of mobile devices should be commended. Those approaches reflect adaptation to an increasingly connected group of students, and appropriately responding to shifting cultural uses of technology. Whether in a K-12 or college classroom, it is reasonable to hypothesize that appropriate use of mobile devices will keep students engaged and will therefore likely have positive learning outcomes.

On the other hand, researchers have observed rather consistent results showing that the use of technology for noncourse-related purposes has a negative effect on student learning. For instance, students report lower levels of attention and decreased perceived learning when they actively text in class (Wei et al., 2012). Other studies have examined laptop use and multitasking to ascertain the impact of digital technologies on student learning (Kraushaar & Novak, 2010). In this line of research, Wood et al. (2012) found that “any distraction, regardless of number, resulted in poorer performance than the no distraction condition” (p. 372). Other researchers (Kraushaar & Novak, 2010; Wei et al., 2012) observed that students who actively used their mobile phones or other digital technologies generally performed lower than students who did not engage in these behaviors.

More recently, Kuznekoff and Titsworth (2013) conducted an experiment to study mobile phones in the communication classroom. Using a control group and two experimental conditions (low-distraction and high-distraction), they assessed the impact of texting/posting to Facebook on student learning through scores on both a multiple-choice and free-recall test, and also measured the quality of notes that students took while watching a recorded lecture. Their study found that students in the control group, who abstained from using their mobile phones during the lecture, outperformed students who actively used their phones. Specifically, their results showed that students who actively posted on their mobile device during the lecture recorded 38% fewer details in their notes, scored 51% lower on a free-recall test, and scored 20% lower on a multiple-choice test. Although those findings quantify the relative negative impact of being distracted by a mobile device while listening to a lecture, the content of the messages students responded to were extraneous to the content of the lecture. Given the increasing use of mobile devices to augment lessons and lectures, exploring whether relevant posting has the same effects would be useful for teachers and students alike.

Here is an excerpt from the official summary of the report:

As mobile technology has become more widespread, however, some instructors have begun to include texting or digital technology in their lesson plans, which begs the question: Is it still distracting to students? Can students reply to and send messages about class content without being distracted?

A new study by J.H. Kuzennekoff, et. al., examines these questions. The researchers tested students using mobile devices in class to respond to messages that were relevant to classroom material; additionally, the researchers varied the form of the messages (responding to another message or composing an original one) and the frequency of the texts.

Students who replied to messages relevant to class material scored higher on multiple choice tests than students who replied to messages that were unrelated to the class. The study authors conclude from this that “sending or receiving relevant messages may allow students to engage in similar processes as those that occur during note-taking. Specifically, relevant messages may allow students to encode lecture content in a manner similar to the processes that occur during note-taking (Peverly 2013).”

The frequency of messaging was also found to be a factor in the interruption of learning: students who tweeted with higher frequency on content not related to the class took lower quality notes than those who tweeted less frequently on non-classroom related subjects, and scored up to 17 percent lower than the control group on multiple-choice tests.

While many instructors assume that mobile devices interrupt learning processes in the classroom — even when they are related to material being studied — this research points to the value that such devices may impart.

That said, the study suggests that texting about content external to the lesson, or texting at a very high frequency, can, indeed, interrupt learning. In addition to helping guide campus and classroom mobile device policies, this research contributes to the growing body of research on how the brain processes information when confronted with multiple, simultaneous sources of input.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.