Smartphones & Tablets: Educational Distractions or Bicycles for Our Minds?

The short answer is YES!  Yes, smartphones and tablets can be a huge distraction if unskilfully used, and yes, they can be wonderful learning tools, or bicycles for our minds if used skillfully. A recent study describes how disruptive smartphone notifications are when students are concentrating on a task, even if they don’t click on the notification and launch the app that interrupted them (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert, 2015). That said, let’s start by looking at how we can configure our devices so that they are less likely to distract us when we want to concentrate on learning.

Reducing Distractions

One of the keys to reducing the number of distractions in decidedly non-technical. A good place to start is by talking to our children, and eventually negotiating how they are to use their electronic devices are to be used during focused learning time. You could start by discussing and then coming to an agreement around the following three interlocking strategies:

  1. When working on homework or assignments, the phone and/or tablet should be used for research and homework related tasks, not for socializing or gaming.
  2. To help reduce distractions, the phone and/or tablet should be put into the “Do Not Disturb” mode (see “How To” section below for details). This will significantly reduce, but not eliminate, the number of distracting popups and chimes from installed apps.
  3. Lastly, turn off popup notifications and alerts for social media apps like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, etc. At the very least turn off notifications while in do not disturb mode (see “How To” section below for details). There’s no need to turn of text message notification as the do not disturb mode with silence those potential interruptions.

While using do not disturb mode and turning off notifications will help reduce distractions, it will not stop someone from opening up a social media app on their own to manually check it, but at least they won’t have distractions popping up in front of them every couple of minutes.

Bicycles for the Mind -> Top 10 App List

Back in 1990, Steve Jobs said that the computer is “the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds” (Popova, 2011). I’d argue that the same can be said for smartphones.  With the right tools, we can do things more quickly than by hand.  Yes, we can solve a differential equation by hand, but a computer can help us solve it so much more quickly. When sailing I could use a sextant and pencil and paper to calculate my position, but it’s much faster and accurate to use the GPS on my phone. Let’s look at some ways smartphones and tablets can be a be bicycles for our minds:

  1. Google Science Journal: This android app turns your phone into a science data collecting machine. Using built in phone sensors it can measure, light, sound, motion (using the phone’s accelerometer), and atmospheric pressure. It captures the data you specify, and allows you to attach notes to make it easier to present your results later on. One example of it’s use would be to attach your phone to your dog (very securely), and then measure how quickly she can accelerate towards a treat on the other side of the room. This is a very cool app, unfortunately this is an android only.
  2. Wikipedia & Google for Quick Reference: Probably one of the most useful features of a mobile internet connected device is its’ ability to look up basic facts and figures very quickly; much more quickly than visiting the library. Google and Wikipedia may not provide us with definitive answers, but they are often “good enough” for settling a bet, or provide a good starting place for further research.
    E.g. Q: “When have there been famines in China?”
  3. Calculator & Accelerometer: With a tape measure and smartphone, you can measure the height of almost anything. For example, start by measuring from the base of a tree to a distance where you can see the top of the tree. Use a level app (like the “Ridged Digital Level”) to measure the angle from where you’re standing to the top of the tree. Then launch your scientific calculator app on your phone and use the following formula:  height = (Tan(angle) x distance) + eye height level (Hemery, 2011).  I can’t think of a more interesting and practical way to introduce a relatively advanced geometry concept like a Tangent.
  4. Google Translate: Google translate can be very helpful in certain situations. It has more often than not does a good job at translating individual words, and an ok job translating sentences and paragraphs. As recently as the fall of 2016 it’s translations became much more natural due to it’s use of new machine learning software (Nieva, 2016). Whether it’s talking to an international student, translating a news article, or taking a picture of a menu, Google Translate can be a huge help.
  5. iMovie or Premiere Clip for Video Projects:  In interesting way to change how learning outcomes are recorded and assessed is by using a video assignments. Fortunately, anyone with a smartphone or tablet has both a video recorder and video editor in their hands already. You can use the built-in camera to record video, and then install an app like iMovie for iPhone or Premiere Clip for android to edit the video. The good news is that there are many tutorials available on YouTube to help you learn how to use your favourite editing app to complete the technical part of your assignment.

  6. Kahn Academy: Speaking of YouTube, there are hundreds of wonderful tutorials on math and science topics that the Kahn Academy have posted on YouTube. Beyond the Kahn Academy there are thousands of tutorials on how to do a wide array of tasks from making pop-bottle rockets, to learning how to cartoon.
  7. Google Scholar for Serious Research: While a regular Google search might be good enough for preliminary research, if you want more reliable and accurate information, Google Scholar is where you should be doing most of your searching. Most of what Google Scholar indexes is journal articles that have been reviewed by experts in the academic field of research (peer reviewed), which if used in an essay or project, will warm the heart of K-12 teachers.
  8. Evernote, Your Second Brain: Evernote is an app that runs on the iPhone, Android, Mac, & Windows computers. It helps you record & remember text or photos, whether you be on a laptop, lab computer, or out and about with your smartphone. You can capture interesting articles in your laptop’s web browser, annotate it, and then access it (and annotate it further) on your smartphone or tablet. You can take pictures of things you want to remember & store them in Evernote. For example you can take a picture of class notes, and Evernote will make the text in the picture full text searchable for you.
  9. Google Drive: The thing I like most about Google Drive is the ability that it gives you to log on and access your documents anywhere you have a web browser, and collaborate with others in creating & editing a document.  It works on both your smartphone in an app and in your computer’s web browser.  If I was in school right now, this would be the only tool I’d use for group assignments. I’ve had video conference meetings where we took group notes in a Google Doc, and I believe that we all had a better understanding of what we agreed to at the end of those meetings than many of my face-to-face meetings.
  10. Ebook Readers: For students who are building vocabulary or a reading a more advanced book, reading the Ebook has the significant benefit of the built-in dictionary. If you’re unsure of the meaning of a word, simple point at it, and a definition will pop up for you. The most popular eBook reader on the iPhone is iBooks and on Android phones is the Kindle Reader.

Focus on Results, Not Tools

We are fortunate to have a steady stream of interesting new smartphone apps and digital tools we can use for teaching and learning. With all these new options, we need to be mindful to not reflexively try to use every shiny new tool into, but make judgements as to whether or not the new tools will help us achieve the learning objectives that we have already set out.

Links: How To Make Your Phone Less Distracting


Hemery, G. (2011, May 15). How to calculate tree height using a smartphone. Retrieved from

Nieva, R. (2016, November 15). Google Translate just got a lot smarter. Retrieved January 23, 2017, from

Popova, M. (2011, December 21). Steve Jobs on Why Computers Are Like a Bicycle for the Mind (1990). Retrieved from

Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., & Yehnert, C. (2015). The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. Journal of experimental psychology: human perception and performance, 41(4), 893.

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