Cell Phones vs. Learning

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Recently assigned to explore "cell phone policies in schools" and write up some findings, I trained my perpetually strained eyes on academic research of youngsters, college students and adult learners in the U.S. and abroad.

A dozen random articles in, I began to sense an inverted correlation between age or perceived maturity of students and the alarmist heights to which voices were raised about cellphones in learning environments.

Also, the further the learning experience was from institutionalized school, the greater the enthusiasm for mobile technology in learning.

With youngsters and young college students, research I read seemed most interested in how cell phones affect learning. Conclusions reached generally framed technology as devices of distraction and cheating.

With adult learners (and college students treated in their learning environments as adults), research I read seemed most interested in how cell phones enhance learning. Conclusions reached generally pointed to widespread adoption, more creativity and increased learner engagement.

These differences in research focus and outcomes lead me to suspect the questions asked and issues covered have more to do with the goals of educational practitioners in various learning environments than with the actual learners in those environments.

Further Research

In 2011 & 2012, a consortium of European researchers took a practice-based approach to exploring mobile technology in adult learning via a collection of multi-day, activity-driven learning workshops with adult participants in Belgium, Italy, Germany and the U.K.

The 7 workshops included: teaching young adults at a vocational college to incorporate cell phones into their formal learning; training job-seekers to use mobile technology in crafting their professional stories; and educating teachers on the integration of mobile technology into their secondary and higher education classes.

All workshops incorporated the hands-on use of mobile technology. None were delivered solely via mobile technology.

From this 2-year undertaking emerged MyMobile: Education on the Move, a much-needed handbook of scenarios, practice implications and policy recommendations for mobile technology in adult learning, an area of scant research and wide-ranging opportunities.

Bowing to cell phone saturation and representing a qualitative exploration not intended to systematically gather empirical data or develop theory, this handbook of chapters from university faculty and educators is a collection of insights and guidelines for mobile devices as adult learning resources.

Rather than constrained learning rooms, researchers encourage educators of adults to think in terms of learning space and to design curriculum as dynamically interconnected activities instead of calcified, stagnant classes.

Learning space is both a physical and philosophical "open context" where learners contribute to their learning paths. Dynamic activities are building blocks of open learning architecture. Ideas and content contributions from learners shape and evolve these activities into learning that is immediately reflective of and responsive to their experience and needs.

The authors of The "My Mobile" Handbook write that since mobile technology is inherently portable and flexible, mobile learning makes it possible to "teach about the world" as learners encounter content and curriculum in a "completely contextual manner."

Mobile technology strengths, based on learner and educator workshop experiences, include opportunities to widen and connect various learning contexts (e.g. bringing user-generated content into educational settings).

Resulting outcomes for learners and educators include broader capture of informal knowledge, skills and information in learning and greater sharing both among and between learners and educators.

Challenges to utilizing mobile technology in adult learning included lack of digital competency and a resistance, especially among classroom educators, to incorporating into their formal work settings a technology they viewed as a tool primarily for entertainment and interpersonal communication.

Which brings us back across the pond, where academics of late have questioned cell phones’ impact on learning in college classrooms using technology and learning surveys, and simulated classroom experiments.

Researchers from Appalachia State University, SUNY Plattsburgh and Lamar University quantitatively analyzed questionnaires from 882 students (75 percent were 22 or younger) and 96 faculty members (80 percent were 40 or older) at colleges in New York, North Carolina and Texas about their perceived impact of cell phones on learning, confined to classroom lecture-based formats.

With a nod to Marc Prensky’s digital native/digital immigrant dichotomy, the researchers confirmed expectations that students view their cell phones as "integral factors in everyday life" and faculty view cellphones as "take-it-or-leave-it devices that are unnecessary in the classroom."

Asked to rate their level of agreement or disagreement, 87 percent of faculty members expressed some level of agreement with the idea that using a phone to send text messages or check email in class is never appropriate, but fewer than half the students surveyed agreed with this statement. While 48 percent of students supported quiet cell phone usage in class, only 13 percent faculty members were on board with this idea.

Unsurprisingly, faculty and students hold significantly different views about the degree to which cell phones are more or less likely to disrupt or assist in the learning process.

Also unsurprisingly, student are notably disinterested in lecture-driven classes with PowerPoint presentations as the only (overly) utilized technology. The researchers of the cell phone in the classroom survey mentioned student perception of such formats as authoritative, retrograde barriers to learning:

"Classroom education has long been criticized for being disjointed from the real world. Millennials believe that classrooms without an abundance of electronic devices are even more unrealistic and artificial."

Unfortunately, the prevalent negative perception of technology-bereft, lecture-based delivery does not seem as relevant to some academics as perhaps it should be.

Case in point, to investigate texting’s impact on student performance, seven researchers at Sterling College set up prerecorded narratives accompanied by six minute auto PowerPoints. With no hint of irony or critique, the researchers state:

"The presentations simulated classroom teaching."

A 10-item fact-recollection quiz following the presentations purported to measure student learning performance. A random selection of 21 male and 19 female college students gathered for two presentations on pre-selected books none of the students had previously read.

During the presentations, students on one side of the room could send/receive texts, while students on the opposite side of the room could not. Each student participated in both a text-allowed group and a text-free group.

In keeping with notions from cognitive load theory that our brains can only process so much information at any given time, texting students’ quiz scores did indeed drop by 27 percent compared to their non-texting classmates.

Not only did texting disrupt fact-gathering as classroom learning, students expected texting to disrupt said learning but texted anyway, a revelation in the data that led the researchers to ponder why students "pay to become educated, yet choose to engage in counterproductive behaviors."

Inherent in the researchers’ question is the presumptive bias that students do indeed experience the classroom lecture format as productive learning worth the money they’re paying.

Digital Native

If Prensky’s "Digital Native" descriptive is to be believed, students in the past 15 years haven’t changed incrementally. They’ve changed radically. Their educations, for the most part, have not.

Even the design of research on mobile technology and learning (research questions asked, conclusions reached) too often indicate disproportionate focus on the symptoms (digital distraction or cheating), rather than the problem (antiquated 19th Century classroom and instructional design).

If learning participants can’t help twiddling their thumbs across their devices, educators may as well draw that habit into learning. Yes, it means bidding adieu to long-form lecture formats. It’s a long overdue farewell.

As an educator in professional adult learning environments, the research reviewed here (and my critique of it) validates my goal to engage learning participants in performance for understanding without obsessive focus on outcome.

Whatever technology my learning participants are using in their lives, I should be utilizing in their learning. The MyMobile handbook is a happily stumbled upon trove of methods and activities I plan to mine.

I’m also challenged by this research to break free of a "learning rooms" mindset and spread into learning spaces, where I have the wide open world to work with and where learners can attach concepts (e.g. leadership) to context (photo or video samples of leadership in action) for learning that’s personalized, meaningful and memorable for them.

Tammy Sanders is a McKnight Doctoral Fellow pursuing her PhD in Education at Florida International University in Miami.

Current projects include: researching technology and learning for executive, managerial and Digital Age professionals; designing and delivering learning programs for professionals in the U.S and abroad; and developing a teachable concept of intuitive intelligence for professional learning.

Tammy's professional and academic work is accessible via www.about.me/tammyssanders. She's best reached at tsand024@fiu.edu.


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Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.

Ranieri, M. & Bruni, I. (2012). Mobile learning in adult education: Lessons learnt and recommendaions. In MyMobile: Education on the Move. European Union Directorate General for Education & Culture.

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