Laptops vs phones: the learning difference

Posted on 07-05-2020

Suppose you have a couple of hundred words of text that you would like your students to read. Does it make a difference if they read it on paper or on a screen?

Yes. In this post here, from last December, I review some of the research that shows students do worse on screen-based reading tests than on paper ones. We also skim and scan more when reading on a screen compared to reading on paper.

But what about different types of screen? Does it make a difference if a student reads the text on the screen of a laptop, or a mobile phone, or a tablet?

We don’t have the same detailed studies as screen vs paper. But there is an emerging field of study comparing laptop use to mobile use which shows that all screens are not created equal.

One study from 2012 by Oulasvirta et al tracked the way people use their smartphones and laptops. The subjects in this study spent twice as much time per day on their phones as on their laptops.  And even though they spent more time on phones than on laptops, they did so in shorter, very frequent bursts spread out evenly across the entire day. The authors call this type of phone use a ‘checking habit’. Another larger-scale study looked just at online usage, and found something similar in terms of shorter but more frequent session durations on phones compared with laptops.

Other research focusses on people’s emotional attachments to their phones. One recent study of adults suggested that mobile phones are a kind of ‘pacifying technology’. People seek out their phones in times of stress, and using their phone reduces their stress more than using their laptop – even if they are engaging with the same material.

Another study showed that students did worse on a test when their phones were in sight – even if their phones were switched off. And another found that the great majority of students reported using their mobile phone mostly for leisure purposes. There are also some features of mobile phones which don’t exist on laptops, and vice versa: for example, ‘pull down to refresh’ is mobile only, but laptops have proper keyboards.

The broader research on connected devices shows that they all have the potential to encourage distraction and multi-tasking, which is bad for learning. But it does seem as though laptops are the least bad option. We’re accustomed to using them more deliberately, for more specific purposes, and not in the habitual or even mindless way we use mobiles. They’re also better suited for content creation, not just content consumption.

The research in this area is also developing and changing all the time, and there are increasing examples of individuals and institutions adapting devices to better serve their aims by using internet blockers, modifying notification settings, or tracking screen time more carefully.

I write more about this research in chapter 5 of Teachers vs Tech. It’s probably the topic on which I have changed my mind most over the past few years. I used to think that the quality of the content was what mattered, and that the medium – book, computer, phone – was just the carrier. I still think quality content is vital: it’s just harder than I thought to neatly separate it from the medium. Even small changes to the way a device works can affect your engagement with the content.

Of course, the focus now is quite rightly on ensuring that students have access to connected devices so they can stay in touch with school, but as we rely on devices even more for education, we have to think even more about how we optimise them for learning.