October 21, 2014

Get Smart: Smartphones to Complement Classroom Learning

by Jessica Pyhtila, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, VA Maryland Health Care System

"The advent of the smartphone ushers in a myriad of possibilities for its use in education to complement classroom learning," I narrate into the Siri app of my beloved iPhone 5. It’s the opening sentence to this blog essay regarding smartphone use in education for a graduate school class I’m taking.  It’s by no means the first time I’ve used my smartphone as a tool to facilitate my academic work.  It’s not even the first time I’ve used it in this class, a decentralized internet-based class that meets online via Blackboard Collaborate. I’d like to take decentralization one step further by using my iPhone to participate in this class (or any class) from any location of my choice.

I am far from the only person who sees the potential for smartphone use in education, which has become a hot topic among educators. Long lists of educational activities have been published over the past year, encouraging teachers and learners to use smartphones to complement classroom instruction.1,2 Ideas on these lists include everything from “remembering notes” (e.g. allowing students to photograph the chalkboard/whiteboard) to “blogging” to attendance-taking using location-based apps.1,2

Smartphones are also being used in health profession education, both inside and outside the classroom. One study found 55% of medical students and 75% of medical school faculty reported that smartphone use had a positive impact on medical education, and 41% reported they used smartphones every day for clinical self-education.3 Further, 75% of medical students reported using smartphones for medical calculators, and 70% of reported using smartphones to access online textbooks.3 Another study of undergraduate health professional students found that smartphone use for educational purposes was focused on accessing medical reference material, and that smartphones were used for this purpose inside the classroom, outside the classroom, and between patient visits.4 Yet another study showed that more than 50% of medical students use smartphones to assist with drug information, clinical guidelines, point-of-care information, calculations, and differential diagnoses.5

Smartphone prevalence is increasing as well. In the USA alone, 71% of the US population owns a smartphone, according to Nielsen—a percentage that increases to 85% for people age 18-24 and 86% for people age 25-34.6 Additionally, there is a negligible gender divide, with 70% of men owning smartphones vs. 72% of women, as of 2014.6 Use is believed to be prevalent even among young children, with one estimate that 20% of children age 5-7 use a smartphone, generally belonging to their parents.7 That number increases to 70% of children age 13-17.7 Furthermore, the top-selling iPhone education applications are generally apps which have been designed for children.7 As of this blog post, 9 of the top 20 selling paid education apps on iTunes were aimed at children under the age of 11. Children and teens can be heavy users of smartphones and are highly reliant on phone-based communication and networking.  A 2012 Pew study showed that the average teen sends 60 text messages a day.8

Corporations are taking note. Textbook companies such as Pearson are leaping on the trend, offering not only digital versions of graduate-level medical textbooks and textbook auxiliary material, but also flashcards and educational games aimed at young children. McGraw-Hill is also offering flashcard applications aimed at young children to enhance their academic skills. Smaller companies have invested in this trend too, with a wide array of products aimed at both teachers and learners of all levels. Products include everything from free polling apps for teachers to simulate multiple-choice questions on tests, to social-networking style apps for student collaboration that leverage the theory of social learning, which postulates that learning takes place within a social context and construct.

With the use of any new technology—particularly one with such a wide variety of applications available—comes the need to appropriately evaluate its value using it for educational purposes. Carly Shuler, a Cooney Fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, advocates a “3 Cs” approach to evaluating the appropriate use of smartphones to complement education.9 (This approach was initially developed by Lisa Guernsey to evaluate children’s media).9
  • Content – what is the design of the application? Is it appropriate to the age group and education level of the learner? Is the data contained therein trustworthy?
  • Context – how is the learner applying what they are learning from the app? Are they learning a skill which they can then translate into a different activity? Is there a discussion period after the app use has been completed?
  • Child (or, more broadly, learner) – what types of apps work best for this particular learner? Is there a type of app that seems more efficacious and engaging? Is the learner able to engage with others when not using the app?
Taking this approach into consideration alongside the real-world studies that have incorporated smartphones in teaching and learning, we should pose a few questions teachers should ask as they evaluate whether smartphone use can complement their classroom instruction. First, educators should evaluate the educational needs that might be served by smartphone use—such as remote access. Second, they should evaluate if the need is present in the classroom itself, or outside the classroom. Third, they should evaluate what types of resources and applications might best complement these needs. Lastly, they should consider evaluating smartphone use in the classroom using the “3 Cs” approach.

  1. 40 Simple Ways To Use A Smartphone In The Classroom [Internet]. Te@chthought. 2012 Oct 10 [cited 2014 Oct 5].
  2. Heick T. 50 Reasons It’s Time For Smartphones In Every Classroom [Internet]. Te@chthought. 2014 Jan 27 [cited 2014 Oct 5].
  3. Wallace S, Clark M, White J. ‘It’s on my iPhone’: attitudes to the use of mobile computing devices in medical education, a mixed-methods study [Internet]. BMJ Open 2012 [cited 2014 Oct 10];2: e001099.
  4. Davies BS, Rafique J, Vincent TR, et al. Mobile Medical Education (MoMEd) - how mobile information resources contribute to learning for undergraduate clinical students - a mixed methods study [Internet]. BMC Med Educ. 2012; 12: 1
  5. Boruff JT, Storie D. Mobile devices in medicine: a survey of how medical students, residents, and faculty use smartphones and other mobile devices to find information [Internet]. J Med Libr Assoc. 2014; 102: 22-30.
  6. Ring the Bells: More Smartphones in Students’ Hands Ahead of Back-to-School Season [Internet]. Nielsen. 2013 Oct 29 [cited 2014 Oct 5].
  7. Mobile Millennials: Over 85% of Generation Y Owns Smartphones [Internet]. Nielsen. 2014 Sep 05 [cited 2014 Oct 5].
  8. Lenhart A. Teens, Smartphones & Texting [Internet]. Pew Research Center. 2012 Mar 19 [cited 2014 Oct 5].
  9. Hoffman T. Can Smartphones Make Kids Smarter? [Internet]. Education.com. 2013 Aug 27 [cited 2014 Oct 5].

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