Examine data from students about smartphone usage and consider how this affects the place of smartphones inside and outside the physical classroom space.

In a previous post, I advocated for taking a “mobile-first” approach to course design, offering 10 teaching practices that benefit students accessing your course from mobile devices.

In this post, I want to take a step back and ask a broader question about mobile devices in teaching and learning: What role should smartphones play in our courses? 

Let’s break this question down into two parts: Outside the Classroom and Inside the Classroom.

What role should smartphones play outside the physical classroom space?

I’ll start here, because evidence is clear that students are using mobile devices to access course content. Educause has been conducting student surveys about mobile devices in learning for more than a decade, and their recent findings are stark

91% of students say that they regularly access the Canvas mobile app, and 81% use their smartphone at least once a week for learning activities. The #1 reason students cite for using mobile devices is to make it “easier to access coursework” (77%). 

In other words, students will be using the mobile version of your course site – to access homework, find readings, check their schedule, take quizzes, and more. This is why I encourage all faculty to think about the mobile design of their courses, such as considering the teaching practices I outlined in that article about mobile-first course design

It’s important to recognize, though, that students generally use mobile devices as secondary screens when completing coursework. This can range from checking assignment requirements to searching for term definitions to verifying a due date. As the authors of the Educause report say, “students are content with small tasks via mobile rather than large ones.” 

Ease of access being the #1 reason for using mobile devices for learning also points to a key consideration: How can you help students fit their education into their lives? Smartphones can help students learn in situations where they can’t sit down at a desk and open a laptop. Whether it’s offering audio recordings of readings or splitting essay questions into a separate quiz, reflect on how you can enable students who are “on the go” to complete coursework directly on their phone.

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What role should smartphones play inside the physical classroom space? 

This is where things get a lot more complicated. Most research into smartphone use in classrooms focuses on test scores. Unsurprisingly, most research has found off-task use of cellphones to result in worse recall and test performance. For example, Kuznekoff & Titsworth (2013) found that students who did not use their phone “wrote down 62% more information in their notes, took more detailed notes, were able to recall more detailed information from the lecture, and scored a full letter grade and a half higher on a multiple choice test than” students who did. 

However, test scores are not the only metric of learning, and few studies have investigated the effects of cellphones in class beyond test scores. Studies in on-task use of cellphones are similarly sparse. 

It’s important, then, to consider not just if you should use smartphones in the classroom but how you use smartphones in the classroom. 

I have long been against cellphone bans in the classroom on several grounds, especially concerns for equity of access (low-income students may only have cellphones for learning devices) and my stance that teaching should not be about policing. However, I fully understand why roughly half of the faculty Educause surveyed had instituted a cellphone ban. 

What’s striking to me, though, is how students feel about mobile devices in the classroom. When asked if they wanted instructors to “ask students to use mobile apps or devices in coursework,” only 36% of students said yes (down from 42% in 2018). 34% of students said no, while 31% said not sure. Students are generally ambivalent about using mobile devices more in the classroom. 

The authors of the Educause report speculate that the drop in “yes” answers could be due to burnout: “they don’t want another screen to work on.” They also speculate the proliferation of mobile apps during the remote learning of the pandemic may have caused students to struggle with some advanced features and essentially sour on mobile learning. 

Whatever the reason for student ambivalence, it’s clear that mobile devices aren’t an unambiguous good when used inside the classroom setting. Whether you prohibit mobile devices, ban them, or adopt a laissez-faire attitude, I recommend doing so with intention and purpose so that students know why they are being asked to engage (or not engage) with their cellphones. 

What does all this mean for me? 

My goal with this post was not to give you clear-cut answers about mobile devices in the classroom. In fact, it’s quite possible I’ve only muddied the waters for you. 

What I do hope is clear, though, is that efforts to make course sites (especially Canvas) more mobile-friendly are incredibly impactful and important. Students will use their phones to access your Canvas site, and it’s worth your time to consider how that use interacts with the design of your course. 

If you’re looking for a primer on mobile design of course sites, I highly recommend checking out the previous article, “Toward Mobile-First Teaching Practices.” It can get you started with some practical tips to make your course site easy to access on a smartphone. 

How do you use mobile devices in your courses? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.


Chen, Baiyun, Aimee Denoyelles, Tim Brown, and Ryan Seilhamer. “The Evolving Landscape of Students’ Mobile Learning Practices in Higher Education.” EDUCAUSE Review, January 25, 2023. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2023/1/the-evolving-landscape-of-students-mobile-learning-practices-in-higher-education.

Kuznekoff, Jeffrey H., and Scott Titsworth. “The Impact of Mobile Phone Usage on Student Learning.” Communication Education 62, no. 3 (2013): 233-252. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2013.767917.

  • Eva Grouling Snider

    Eva joined the Division of Online and Strategic Learning in 2021. Previously, she taught professional writing courses in the English Department, including graphic design and web development. She launched Jacket Copy Creative (now known as Compass Creative), an immersive learning course in which students helped market the English Department (and now the entire College of Sciences and Humanities). She also served as a director of advertising at a social media advertising agency in Muncie. Her interests include UDL, digital accessibility, and design. She’s often busy “hacking” Canvas to do cool things.