Like too many things today, debate about educational research is polarised and contentious.
I saw this when working as an ‘edtech expert’ on the EU’s H2020 programme; at a meeting, after the head of the programme admitted to wasting €300m, we had a long debate about the need for fast, independent research (not just internal evaluations) of where the money had gone. By fast, I mean annual and published within 18 months using the rapid research model pioneered at Harvard University. “You don’t mean quick and dirty research”, wailed a UK university Professor of Edu Research, “the standard we use takes seven years and is statistically perfect.” Taking seven years to see if you have wasted millions of taxpayers’ money on edtech MVPs (minimum viable, not finished products) is crazy for edtech but illustrates how tricky this issue can be.
I’d argue that one of the most important organisations in education to emerge in the last decade is researchED which aims to help educators be more research literate and to have more educator-led, ‘ground up’ research rather than coming down from academic ivory towers to classroom teachers (they also want to bridge the divide between practitioners and policy makers).
On Twitter Tom Bennett, researchED’s co-founder, complained about a study from Aalto University School of Business that begins, ‘Contrary to popular belief researchers have found there are some situations in which the use of a phone can positively impact student outcomes’.
Aalto is a Finnish public research university founded in 2010 from the merger of three institutions;it ranked a respectable 28th in the 2021 THE Young University category and 112 in the QS ranking system, so it’s a new but reputable institution. The study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, says it had 10,000 participants; the university’s story about it can be found here and the journal abstract is here.
What seems odd to a non-educationalist and non-researcher like me is:
- A hypothesis which suggests that mobile learning is practical and compulsory and therefore not ‘fun’
- The university in the study did not itself have an official online learning or mobile platform
- The conclusion that non-learning apps (games and social media) can trigger nomophobia – a psychological condition where people have a fear of being detached from their mobile phone/connectivity. This is a new psychological problem that seems, even in research papers, to be difficult to distinguish from other medical disorders including mobile phone addiction, meaning any diagnosis is, ‘very difficult to differentiate and may also act as a proxy to other disorders’
- One of the authors (Professor Liu) notes that, “the more time users spend on entertainment apps relates to the level of nomophobia they experience, which in turn affects sleep habits. Changed sleep habits subsequently affect a student’s academic performance”
The story that triggered Tom’s response was in the free online publication Education Technology, part of EdQuarter owned by Wildfire Comms who claim to be a multimedia publisher and agency but who are in my judgement simply a MARCOMs agency. The heading in their story says, ‘Smartphones can boost academic performance when used appropriately’. But if you read even the abstract, what the study actually says is:
- Mobile learning positively affects academic performance
- Poor sleep impacts mobile learning and academic performance
- Mobile learning does not contribute to nomophobia
- News apps have a positive direct impact in academic performance but contribute to the ‘cultivation of nomophobia’
The study tries to disprove the idea that, ‘Despite the increasing popularity of smartphones in our daily lives, their usage among college students has been broadly discouraged because ample studies demonstrate that this usage has a strongly negative impact on academic performance’. It apparently looked at just six mobile apps, not disclosed in the abstract, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t include Facebook/Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp and YouTube.
The crux of their findings is that they,‘reveal positive, direct impacts of using mobile learning and news applications on academic performance and adverse effects of playing mobile games, as well as using social media, music and video, and entertainment book-reading applications’.
Parsing through all the debatable points in the abstract (e.g. insomnia is a medical condition distinct from the generic concept of late sleeping habits) without delving into key issues like the literature review, theoretical background, hypothesis and research framework, etc (only available in the full paid-for document) all this seems to show is that among tertiary students, learning may be improved by using mobile news apps and negatively impacted by social media, games and similar apps. Doh!
I’d take the research and subsequent stories more seriously if they disclosed a lot more about the actual study. Meanwhile, this is the sort of media clickbait that makes the argument for free publication of all academic research from publicly funded institutions stronger.