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Mobile devices: “If you can’t beat them, teach them”

By May 12, 2015June 13th, 20162 Comments

Mobile tech distraction_000020297594_LargeAs you start reading this, stop and take note—how far away is your smartphone? When did you last check it? Did you check it just now?

You’re not alone. In just a few short years, many of us have become addicted to our mobile devices. They’re nearly always within arm’s reach, and many of us cannot help ourselves from checking them (or fixating on them) regularly, no matter where we are, what we’re doing, or who we’re with.

What does that mean for students and learning? Bryan Goodwin, president and CEO of McREL, takes a look at what the research says in his latest column for Educational Leadership. What he finds is that, while we know some educators are doing great things with mobile device technology in the classroom, such approaches are too new to have been subjected to rigorous study.

What the limited research so far tells us is cautionary: 1) laptop use in classrooms may actually diminish attention and focus; 2) interruptions caused by texting decrease attention and comprehension, and 3) mobile devices and the Internet may be habit-forming. Further, researchers are concerned that our ability to concentrate, in general, is decreasing and that mobile devices may cause students to think they are multitasking successfully—which they’re not.

However, as Goodwin notes, whether we like it or not, mobile devices are a “fixture of modern life.” So he suggests teaching students how to live and learn with them. For example, research supports two key ways students can fend off technology distractions: by focusing learning in short sprints, followed by brief breaks, and taking hand-written notes.

Read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • I subscribed to this mantra a few years ago and recognized that mobile phones could be used as tremendous tools for learning. I tried to use the apps like Socrative with students, but had limited success because of various reasons. Now I just let them use them for research, especially when doing group work. I found that students tend to be engaged with the lessons more. I don’t get too strict with them if I see one check a message or two, as long as they are doing their work. If they go overboard, I will let them know, but I usually don’t. I wish I had a smartphone when I was a student, I would have been driving the teacher with questions.
    I also like to use it as a tool for myself, because I don’t know everything. Sometimes I will confirm or check an answer on google, in the middle of class. It let’s students know that it is okay to check and that no one is perfect. Even the super (inside school joke) teacher likes to get help.

  • Clara George says:

    I appreciated the insights you shared on the use of mobile phones in schools. Currently, there seems to be a struggle between allowing students the privilege of using their mobile devices at school and preventing the utilization of these devices due to fear of possible distractions and other unfavorable effects. I completely agree, that when catering to the needs of our 21st-century students, it is important to focus on the greater good than on our current fears. We can no longer expect to reach our students with the very same tools that were used when we were their age. “If you can’t beat them, teach them” is a very candid statement. As educators, it is important for us to see the benefits mobile devices can add to our educational system and the opportunities it opens for student learning and engagement. I recently spoke to a group of teenagers and asked them why they believe the use of cell phones has become so addictive. Their response was that it allows them to stay connected. Immediately, I saw it as a learning opportunity, to have them “connect” with other students like themselves, who live in other parts of the world. Rather than the traditional way of writing letters on paper and posting them, the students were much more interested in the activity. As mentioned in the post, our focus should shift from banning mobile devices to a more reasonable approach to using the tools for learning opportunities. Excellent Blog!

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