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Driven to distraction: bringing your own device to school could hinder learning

Technology is everywhere now and it’s beginning to affect learning in the classroom. Technology image from

With technology becoming cheaper, more powerful and more mobile, a new trend in education is emerging – bring your own device (BYOD).

Borrowing from the business world, bringing your own device simply refers to students bringing in their own portable phones, tablets and computers to use in the classroom.

Much attention has been paid to the financial and infrastructure issues associated with this trend, like problems with network security and the toll it takes on wifi networks. There are also important equity issues – after all, not every student can afford an iPad.

But less attention has been given to how it will impact student learning. And there is some evidence that it could be distracting students more than it’s helping them.

The pros and cons

Schools around the world are putting BYOD policies in place, but each school has to weigh up the risks and the potential benefits.

In a practical sense, it can allow students to carry a device with them that they are familiar with and do not need to learn how to navigate. The availability of apps and easy access to information via wifi or the cellular network also opens up a world of possibilities for enhancing the learning experience when students are at school or university.

The downside to students bringing their own devices is that there is a need for better infrastructure and support services that can work across multiple platforms and operating systems. There is also the problem of supporting students in class. Teachers are not necessarily able to troubleshoot any problems that arise across diverse technologies as students undertake learning activities.

Practical issues aside, when considering the implications of BYOD on learning, there are both benefits and drawbacks.

Out of mind experience

The extended mind hypothesis suggests that we are using mobile devices as a way of extending our cognitive capabilities by outsourcing some of the mundane work our minds do. Calendars, to do lists, reminders and other tasks can now be managed by our devices.

More interestingly, the capacity to blog, take endless photos and to share our experiences with others means we are using our technology as a memory aid as well.

These advantages build on the capabilities mobile devices provide for connecting and collaborating between students and between students and teachers. In combination, students’ devices allow them to spend less time focussing on less important cognitive tasks and more time in connecting and constructing content knowledge.

The downside to BYOD is that having constant access to social media, YouTube and other sources of entertainment can be tempting distractions for students that detract from the time they could be spending on assigned learning activities. These learning activities must therefore compete for attention with the mass of information, communication and other distracting elements portable devices now give students constant access to.

This is particularly so in the less controllable environment created when students bring their own technology to class. The most scarce and precious resource that the Internet is designed to capture is attention. The very same resource that is required for students to learn effectively.

Keeping focused

Numerous studies have been conducted with the aim of examining this issue. In some cases, students have been surveyed with more than 80% of them reporting that they use their devices for “non-class purposes” when they are in class.

Surveys of teachers too have found that over 70% believe that students’ devices are having a detrimental effect on their attention span in class.

The overall trends associated with increased use of personal technology in educational settings paint a worrying picture. In a large study including over 1800 students, a negative correlation was found between students who often attempted to multitask, using their devices for non-class related activities, and their overall academic performance.

A further study found that the effect of this distraction also spreads to nearby peers.

Only the beginning

Ultimately having access to portable devices in educational settings seems to influence attention and memory in ways that we are only beginning to understand. But there is still much we don’t know around BYOD’s effects, particularly when it comes to learning.

But we can’t only think of devices in the classroom as a diversion – they can have benefits as learning tools. And as mobile devices become more and more part of every day life, educators need to design learning activities with BYOD in mind.

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