6 Trends in Students’ Use of Mobile Devices In and Out of the Classroom

Apps & Mobile, EdTech

Seth Reichlin, Ph.D., and Liane Wardlow, Ph.D.

Tablets, smartphones, laptops, notebooks, Chromebooks, hybrid computers: each passing year expands the pool of mobile devices from which schools, parents, and students may choose.

Five years ago – soon after the iPad launch – Pearson worked with Harris Poll on the first survey about the ownership and use of mobile devices  by college students. Three years later, we added a second survey, looking at students in grades 4-12.

The tracking poll results have provided keen insights into the impact that students believe mobile devices can have on learning; their device preferences; and what they would like to see in the future. This year’s surveys were no exception.

The top findings from the 2015 college and grades 4-12 studies include:


  • Students of all ages think tablets will transform learning. Both school and college students continue to have very high expectations of the potential of tablets to transform learning. Ninety percent of students in grades 4-12 think that tablets will change the way that students learn in the future. Seven in 10 college students agree that tablets help learners study more efficiently, and that tablets will effectively replace textbooks as we know them within five years.


  • A disconnect exists between college students’ expectations of the potential of tablets for learning, and how much they actually use them. Although most college students believe that tablets are efficient and effective for studying, laptops are still the most commonly used device for learning. Among college students aged 18 and 19 (generally freshmen and sophomores), only one in 12 use a tablet every day for school work, while two out of three use a laptop daily for their school work. About one in four college students aged 25 and older use tablets every day for school work.


  • Elementary, middle and high school students are learning with tablets. The use of tablets for learning continues to grow in grades 4-12. In 2015, nearly 80 percent of elementary students reported using a tablet regularly for school work compared with 66 percent in 2014. Nearly 70 percent of middle school students used a tablet regularly in 2015 compared to 58 percent in 2014. Almost 50 percent of high school students use a tablet on a regular basis versus 42 percent in 2014.


  • Mobile device preference depends on students’ age and stage. This year’s surveys also provided interesting insights into the relationship between students’ ages and the devices they prefer. Elementary and middle school students most enjoy doing schoolwork on tablets. High school students and college students prefer laptops, notebooks and Chromebooks. Then, interestingly, tablets become more popular with adult students with about one in four college students age 25 and higher use tablets every day for school work.


  • Students own smartphones, but don’t generally view them as learning tools. Smartphones are a bit of a different story for school and college students. While smartphone ownership for college students has stabilized at 85 percent, ownership among students in grades 4-12 has risen since last year, and increases with grade level. For example, 81 percent of high school students own a smartphone. Yet, while smartphone ownership is up for school students, use for learning has increased only nine percent over 2014.

    And the story is the same for HigherEd. Despite the higher usage/ownership of smartphones, students don’t necessarily think they are best for learning. When asked which device they learn best on, only six percent said they learned best on a standard smartphone.


  • Access to Wi-Fi at home approaches 100 percent for all students. Wi-Fi connectivity at school lags woefully behind home. Nearly all the students in grades 4-12 (96 percent) surveyed reported having Wi-Fi access at home. However, only 68 percent of those same students said they can connect to Wi-Fi at school, presenting a significant stumbling block to realizing the potential of mobile learning.

There are many more data points that provide insight into today’s students and their uses and preferences related to mobile devices and learning in the full survey reports, which can be found on the Pearson website – school and college.

When you look at the reports, you will see that what the nearly 3,500 students that participated in our 2015 mobile device surveys shared with us offers a lot of food for thought for those of us working at companies to develop learning tools, as well as education leaders and policy makers. One thing that has been crystal clear since we started doing the surveys five years ago is that all students have a distinct vision of the powerful ways that mobile devices can transform learning.

Moving forward, it is critical that we all continue to create solutions, increase access to connectivity and provide opportunities for that shared vision to be realized.

For more check out:

Seth Reichlin, Ph.D., is Pearson’s Senior Vice President of Market Research for Higher Education.

Liane Wardlow, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Scientist in the Center for Learning Science & Technology at Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network. Follow Liane on Twitter, @LianeWardlow.

Follow Pearson on Twitter, @PearsonNorthAm.

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