Do Smaller Screens=Bigger Learning?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

As the infographic from the Google report The New Multi-screen World: Understanding Cross-platform Consumer Behavior below illustrates, we now live in a multi-screen world where our attention, Web browsing, and almost everything we do virtually is split between some combination of tiny screens (smart phones), really big ones (computer monitors and TVs), or something in between (tablets, ultra-portable laptops, etc.).


The Google report about multi-screen habits and consumer behavior sheds some additional light on the phenomenon.But what are the implications of more diverse screen options and the resultant time spent on each type of device for education?

Dividing Our Screen Time
There are, according to the Google report, two primary ways in which consumers divide their screen time:

  • Sequential Screening – Users move from one device to another to accomplish a task.
  • Simultaneous Screening – Consumers are either multitasking on unrelated activities such as surfing the web while watching TV(78%), or they are using multiple screens for a single task  or multiple related activities such as searching for travel information on one device and making reservations on another (22%).

For sequential users it is most common to start activities on a smartphone or similar portable device, then to transition to a larger-screened platform either immediately or at a later time to complete the task. What drives this use is not any personal preference, but rather the context and timing of the intended usage.


Context is King – Initially
The Google study found that the context and the intended duration  and purpose of the device use is what dictates the type of tool used and/or the sequence in which multiple devices are accessed. The most important variables are:

  • Amount of time available – Consumers tend to use the smallest devices for the shortest duration.
  • Goals – Objectives that have potentially quick outcomes such as searching for a fact, checking some piece of information, or a small social media activity such as sending a text message or Tweet, tend to start on smartphones. Activities that require more in-depth work often begin on or quickly transition to larger devices.
  • Location – Obviously where a user is limits the possibilities for which device they will choose.
  • Attitude – Whether an individual is working or relaxing has an effect on the type of device they prefer.

However, the most telling variable in terms of determining which type of device an individual consumer will turn to when there is not a context required choice is the purpose of their intended use.

Different Devices Have Different Purposes
The researchers found that, between the three main interactive technology devices – computers, smartphones, and tablets – there are distinctive types of usage that consumers prefer for each type:

  • Computer: Users prefer to work on computers when they are in a fixed location, performing a task-oriented activity that will require a longer duration to complete because it requires intense focus. Computers are most often used for serious purposes like research (24% total daily usage).
  • Smartphones: Consumers’ smallest devices are used when mobility is essential. These devices are used primarily for their connectivity to the Web for social interactions, entertainment, and other short burst activities, or when there is an immediate need for information (38% total daily usage).
  • Tablets: Users turn to their mid-sized devices in non-restrictive locations within the home mainly for entertainment during free/unbounded time in which they want to take a relaxed or leisurely approach to doing something (9% total daily usage).

These three distinctions provide some interesting and potentially problematic contrasts with the ways in which these devices are most commonly used in academic settings and for BYOD (bring your own device) policies.

Multi-Screen Implications for Education
In K-12 and university settings there tends to be only one purpose for the use of any connected device – serious inquiry and learning. If the results of the Google research are accurate, there are potential disconnects in education between the optimal uses of each category of device and their intended use in schools. According to the findings, the three tiers of devices should be used in distinctly different ways for learning. For example:

  • Smartphones: Because of their small size, portability, and the preference to use them for shorter durations, iPods, smartphones and other similarly sized devices are ideally suited for attention grabbing activities, as supplemental screens, as SRDs (student response devices), to promote social learning, and to do point-of-use research to answer targeted questions or to look up specific facts.
  • Computers: Generally the go to devices in schools and on college campuses, the laptop or desktop is ideal for focused, sustained activities such as detailed research or writing where location is less important than the focus of the work.
  • Tablets: In education, tablets are best equipped to bridge both types of use from social interaction to more sustained research and writing. Their flexibility, portability, and connectivity makes them better choices than either smartphones or computers for location-based learning and activities which require computing beyond the classroom.

Interestingly, while tablets are most often used for casual or recreational purposes in the home, they are potentially the most-well-suited devices for academic use. In contrast to the flexibility of the tablet, smartphones and larger computers have significant limitations that make then less viable for learning. Uses of these devices outside of their optimal contexts, while possible, may be either failing to utilize the capabilities of a specific device, or may be turning off students because of the non-standard usage.

With the increasing school budgetary crises and consequent moves towards BYOD policies the reality of student technology may create a disconnect between the intended purpose of having students use connected devices and the actual applicability of those devices for education. The general assumption is that most students have access to smartphones.  BYOD proposals are particularly troubling when they intend to rely on students using smartphones as their primary technology access. Planning for students to use these smallest of connected devices for purposes that they do not customarily use them for and for which they are not particularly well-suited could be a serious problem for implementation of any BYOD plan.

The best compromise in budget-conscious schools may be to strive to provide each student with a tablet computer. They are more flexible than either larger PCs or smaller smartphones. While this may represent a somewhat jarring change from the normal consumer usage of tablets, the format is new enough that heavy use in education could redefine the standard use for tablets in general, and redefine what educational computing looks like in the process.

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