Most people think that smartphones are wonderful devices. “Look, I have a mini-supercomputer in my pocket,” they say. “I have the entirety of recorded history at my fingertips!” And while most would say it’s great to have all that power, others would say that it’s detrimental.

Researchers from Rice University and the U.S. Air Force teamed up for a research paper titled: “You Can Lead a Horse to Water But You Cannot Make Him Learn: Smartphone Use in Higher Education.” The purpose of the paper was to see how effective the use of smartphones were in higher learning.

“Smartphone technology is penetrating world markets and becoming abundant in most college settings,” said Philip Kortum, assistant professor of psychology at Rice and the study’s co-author. “We were interested to see how students with no prior experience using smartphones thought they impacted their education.”

Each user was given a smartphone without any direction on how to use the phone. You’re probably thinking that nowadays everyone and their mother and grandmother has and knows how to use a smartphone, so what kind of study is this? This experiment was done in 2010, back when iPhones were first released. So, the 24 users that were given smartphones were first-time users who’d probably heard amazing things about the smartphone. Each of the users was asked what impact the phones would have on their studies and every single one said the impact would be positive.

At the end of the study, however, the results were markedly different from the expectations. Here’s a handy list to describe how each participant felt about their brand-new smartphone a year later (one is strongly disagree, while five is strongly agree):

  • My iPhone will help/helped me get better grades – In 2010 the average answer was 3.71; in 2011 the average answer was 1.54.
  • My iPhone will distract/distracted me from school-related tasks – In 2010 the average answer was 1.91; in 2011 the average answer was 4.03.
  • The iPhone will help/helped me do well on academic tests – In 2010 the average answer was 3.88; in 2011 the average answer was 1.68.
  • The iPhone will help/helped me do well with my homework – In 2010 the average answer was 3.14; in 2011 the average answer was 1.49

“Previous studies have provided ample evidence that when smartphones are used with specific learning objects in mind, they can significantly enhance the learning experience,” Kortum said. “However, our research clearly demonstrates that simply providing access to a smartphone, without specific directed learning activities, may actually be detrimental to the overall learning process.”

Source: Kortum P, Tossell CC, Shepard C, Rahmati A, Zhong L. You Can Lead a Horse to Water But You Cannot Make Him Learn: Smartphone Use in Higher Education. British Journal of Educational Technology. 2015.