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Five ways in which to engage mobile phones as a learning tool

Introducing the Gradescope Mobile app

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager
Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell






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Student assessment has been present throughout time, and so have the venues and platforms through which students submit their work for review. From oral arguments and slates in the 1800s to typewriters and word processors, all the way up to scantron forms and scanners, assessment reflects the changing times of technology and trends.

These days—that is to say, the twenty-first century, students work mostly on computers, tablets, and mobile phones, using them for research and communication and work submissions. Clickers, too, are ubiquitous in higher education lecture halls.

The COVID-19 pandemic increased student reliance on such tools: “Due to the countrywide closure, schools, universities, and companies moved to online platforms for distance learning and remote working. This new lifestyle, enforced by staying at home and under quarantine, has brought new challenges socially, economically, physiologically, and psychologically. One significant lifestyle shift is the complete reliance on the internet and smart devices, like tablets, laptops, and mobiles. During the quarantine, with the necessary social/spatial distancing, the usage of these smart devices increased at an increasingly fast pace” (Saadeh, et al., 2021).

To date, mobile phones have been a controversial addition to the classroom, because they can act as distractions and prohibit student learning, let alone provide shortcut solutions. Studies have shown that they also display troubling inequities and escalate bullying within school environments (Beneito & Vicente-Chirivella, 2020). There have been numerous articles on how to curtail the inclusion of mobile phones within a classroom setting, and ensuing tips on ways to discourage their use (Selwyn & Aargaard, 2020).

But–it’s also important to meet students where they are, try to operate within their workflows, and understand their perspective; and while mobile phones can be problematic, they are clearly embedded in educators’ and students’ lives, and need to be used for positive outcomes. Says Meghan Sullivan, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame: “Finding ways to meet [students] halfway, using what feels normal for them and feels exciting can make your teaching that much more effective, rather than sticking your head in the sand.”

Mobile phones can be used as learning tools, because why? Because students have been using them as learning tools, too.

Here are five ways to use mobile phones to enable student learning:
  • Mobile phones can bridge the digital divide: Students who don’t have wifi at home can still connect to the internet via a mobile phone. While mobile phones can be an indicator of disposable income, in developing countries, not everyone can afford a laptop— as a result, mobile phones are the digital bridge. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, Emzini weCode incorporates mobile phones into their teaching curriculum. Research from the Caribbean also focused on using mobile phones within developing countries and concluded that students appreciated the use of mobile phones in their learning. Paired with guidelines for mobile phone usage, learning outcomes for mobile phones were positive in the Caribbean study, which states, “Also similar to findings in developed countries, we find that a strong awareness of the rules regarding restrictions on use of cellphones in class at 90 per cent with lesser support agreeing to the fairness of the policies and sanctions imposed for breaching the guidelines” (Ahmad, 2020).
  • Mobile phones can enhance student-teacher feedback loops: Numerous research studies observe that students find adoption of cellphones in a classroom environment as a collaborative effort from instructors. Consequently, using mobile phones can increase communication, access, and information sharing, thus increasing engagement within the classroom environment (Stockton University, 2019).
  • Mobile phones can supplement collaborative learning: Students on-the-go can work together more easily, access group projects more readily, and offer feedback in real-time via Padlet or Twitter when they use their phones. Additionally, there are ways to engage with more cohorts online to form study groups and gain insights into study strategies by mobile. Blair Fiander, founder and CEO of Blairs Brainiacs, offers study-lives on TikTok and has found that “the increasing advances in technology have really allowed students to come together in virtual spaces.”
  • Mobile phones increase access to research resources like news and podcasts: The internet has a wide plethora of information and resources. And if access is a privilege–then a mobile phone increases access and thus, can enhance learning when paired with meaningful, explicit instruction. Students with long bus rides to school can hunt for articles, listen to related podcasts, and take notes on their phones. Students with one or no desktop/laptop computers at home can still complete assignments on their mobiles. And because many instructors have seen increased engagement when phones are used purposefully in the curriculum, student learning outcomes ultimately improve (Himmelsbach, 2019)
  • Mobile phones offer apps that can be helpful, like the dictionary and thesaurus for starters. Some popular apps include Memrise, a language learning app with 23 different language options, and Poll Everywhere, an app that allows instructors to poll students to collect direct feedback on things like comprehension and engagement. Using apps on mobile devices can not only make learning instantly accessible, it also makes learning fun.
The Gradescope Mobile app

To that end, we’ve released the Gradescope Mobile app, which allows students to take pictures of their handwritten assignments and upload them directly to their course–a familiar way versus how it’s been done to date– essentially, via a scanner or a third party app. Students can now take a picture like depositing a check via mobile through a bank or upload a file from their phone.

By meeting students where they are, Gradescope Mobile app provides a better, more streamlined process for students–and a reduction in the amount of time instructors support students struggling to upload assignments without a scanner or issues with the third party app.

With effective implementation and use of the right apps, mobile phones can be part of a meaningful, productive suite of tools in the classroom. And with mobile phones here to stay, it is beneficial for us all to enhance the positive potential of phones as a learning tool.