By Doug Ward

A recent study about reading on mobile phones surprised even the researchers.

The study, by the digital consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group, found that reading comprehension on mobile phones matched that of reading on larger computer screens. The results were the same with shorter, easier articles (400 words at an eighth-grade level) and longer, more difficult articles (990 words at a 12-grade level).

A similar study six years earlier found lower comprehension when people read on mobile devices rather than larger computer screens, so Nielsen Norman researchers started with that premise. Pretests showed no difference in comprehension levels, though, and the researchers scrutinized their tests for flaws. They found the same result in larger studies, though: Participants who read articles on phones had slightly higher, though not statistically significant, comprehension levels than when they read on larger computer screens.

woman reading magazine with phone and coffee on table beside her
Hoai Anh Bino, Unsplash

The researchers suggested several possible explanations for their findings. First, the quality of phone screens has improved considerably since the initial test was conducted in 2010. As mobile phones have proliferated, users have also gained considerable experience reading on those devices. Some participants in the Nielsen Norman study said they preferred reading on their phones because those devices helped blocked out distractions.

The study did find one downside of reading on mobile: speed. Those who read on phone screens did so at a slightly slower pace than those who read on larger screens, even though comprehension was virtually the same.

I bring up this study because it focuses on something we need to consider in college classes. I’ve heard colleagues speak disdainfully of students’ reading on their phones. This study suggests no reason for that. For articles up to about 1,000 words, there seems to be little difference on what size screen people read.

This study compared digital to digital, though, and did not include reading on paper. Many previous studies have found that not only do people prefer reading paper texts but that they also have slightly better comprehension with print. They also report feeling more in control of their reading when they have print books, which allow them to flip through material more easily and to annotate in the margins. Other recent research suggests no difference in comprehension between print and digital, with a majority of students saying they prefer digital texts.

I’m not suggesting that college work shift to mobile phones. We must pay attention to the way our students consume information, though, and adapt where we can. If nothing else, the Nielsen Norman study points to a need for an open mind with technology.

Skills for the future

I do a lot of thinking about the future of education, and this observation from Andrew McAfee, research scientist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, rings true:

“Our educational system is well suited to turn out the kinds of workers the economy needed 50 years ago: those that could read, write, and do some math, and also were trained to follow the voice of authority. Computers are much better than us at math, are learning to read and write very quickly, and are unbeatable at following instructions consistently.

“We need an educational system now that excels at producing people to do the things that computers can’t do: figure out what problem to tackle next, work as part of a team to solve it, and have compassion for others and the ability to coordinate, motivate, persuade, and negotiate.”

Others, including Daniel Pink, and Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby make similar cases: That is, technology, computer learning and automation are constantly changing the landscape of work, although education isn’t keeping up.

Davenport and Kirby argue that educators need to emphasize how students can “augment their strengths with machines,” how they can become better decision-makers, and how they can continue to learn and adapt as the world changes and computers take on new roles. That’s a real challenge for colleges and universities, whose teaching generally emphasizes delivery of content and whose instructors and administrators often look for reasons to resist change.

Higher education still has time to adapt, but that time keeps growing shorter.

Briefly …

Universities in the United States aren’t the only ones struggling with how to handle weapons on campus. A security guard writes in The Guardian that in the UK, “some students go around with enough firepower to blow a hole in the walls of Alcatraz.” … The Next Web explores ways that companies are using artificial intelligence in products for education, including AI tutoring, machine learning tied to social networks, and customized content. … Universities in the UK report a growing number of cases of cheating, The Guardian reports, with many of those cases involving electronic devices.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.


Technology is only as good as the pedagogy behind it. I recommend that instructors start with a goal and then find technology that might help meet that goal, not the other way around. Pedagogy must come first, though it also helps to know what types of tools are available to help.

This is a brief list of tools I update yearly and recommend to faculty for helping solve problems related to teaching and learning. It is broken down into these areas:

  • Organization and planning
  • Multimedia
  • Communication and collaboration
  • In-class polling
  • Visualization
  • Maps
  • Screen recording and screen capture

This is just a taste of the many digital tools available to instructors. As I say in the handout, you will find many others at such sites as SourceForge, Free Technology for Teachers and the Top 100 Tools for Learning list. —Doug Ward

By Doug Ward

After a session at the KU Teaching Summit last week, I spoke with a faculty member whose question I wasn’t able to get to during a discussion.

panorama of new classroom in Anschutz Library
A new classroom in Anschutz Library will offer a flexible approach to active learning. It will force faculty members and students to think differently, as there is no front of the room.

The session, Classrooms and the Future of Education, focused on how KU is working to create and renovate classrooms for active learning. Universities around the country are doing the same, putting in movable tables and chairs, and adding nontraditional furniture, whiteboards, monitors, and various digital accoutrements to make collaboration and hands-on learning easier, and learning environments more inviting.

The faculty member at my session said rooms alone would accomplish nothing unless instructors changed their approach to teaching. I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Effective pedagogy must come first, and many faculty members have created active learning environments in classrooms build solely for lecture. The redesigned classrooms are simply a means of providing flexibility in the environment and of allowing students to work together more easily.

Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus at Stanford, made much the same point about technology earlier this month.

Technology, Cuban said, is simply a tool, and its power to effect change is only as great as the person using it. Its ability to enhance thinking, engagement, learning or a host of other things depends largely on how it is used.

He drove that point home by explaining how technology companies have starting using “engagement” as a code word for student achievement. In pushing schools to buy new digital tools, companies rarely promise that technology alone will lead to improved learning. Rather, they say that digital devices and software will improve student engagement, as if engagement alone were a magic elixir.

It’s not.

Engagement matters, Cuban says, but it works alongside elements like classroom structure, student-instructor relationships, varied teaching techniques, and student grit. To those I’d add instructor and student preparedness; informed pedagogy; students’ willingness to learn about and engage with challenging ideas; and meaningful assignments, among other things.

“Anyone who says publicly that student engagement triggered by new hardware and software will produce higher achievement is selling snake oil,” Cuban writes, citing a litany of studies rejecting the idea that more technology leads to improved learning.

We need to help students learn to use technology to search for and analyze information; to solve problems, and to convey ideas. We need to provide more flexibility in the physical spaces of our classrooms to inspire collaboration and creativity.

None of those things matter, though, if instructors ignore the needs of their students, fail to engage them with challenging questions and course material, focus on information delivery rather than learning, and disregard the pedagogical lessons we have learned about a new generation of students.

Learning requires hard work from instructors and their students. Classrooms matter. Technology matters. But neither provides a magical solution.

Another take on classrooms

Edutopia recently published three articles that offer additional perspectives on remaking classrooms. All focus on K-12 education, but they offer valuable perspectives on the types of classrooms our future students will be used to using.

At Albemarle Public Schools in Virginia, students can sit at a table, on a couch or on the floor. They can stand if they prefer or even lie down. Teachers often furnish their classrooms with inexpensive furniture they buy from Goodwill or from college students moving out of town. Parents donate furniture, and some teachers have even used crowdfunding to raise money for furniture. (I’ve never seen those approaches used in higher ed, but I like the idea.)

Heather Wolpert-Gowran, a middle school teacher in California, writes about her switch to a new classroom, saying she moved everything except the tables and chairs. She plans to experiment with various types of seating, and she writes about her journey toward finding the right mix.

Finally, Todd Finley, a regular contributor to Edutopia, writes about concepts and research on classroom design. He also provides links to many examples of redesigned classrooms at elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The online training site announced this week that it was canceling its lyndaClassroom program.

The classroom program allowed instructors to choose up to five online tutorials for students in a designated class to use during a semester. Students then signed up through and paid $10 a month, or about $35 for a semester.

It was an excellent, cost-effective way to help students gain technology skills. The cost was less than most textbooks, making it a useful tool for instructors in many fields.

Lynda offers nearly 4,000 training modules in everything from web development and design tools to photo, video, and audio creation. It began mostly as a site for technology training, and that training is still its mainstay. It has expanded its offerings over the last few years to include areas like business strategy, marketing, teacher training, and even grammar.

Lynda didn’t say why it was ending the program, although the company was acquired by LinkedIn earlier this year. Changes are inevitable after any acquisition.

In a brief email announcement, the company said the classroom program would end on July 17 “in order to focus our efforts on building even better experiences for educators and students.”

That sort of vapid corporate-speak usually means that prices will increase.

I had planned on using Lynda’s classroom program for a class this fall. I emailed Lynda’s customer support on Wednesday in hopes of finding out more about the changes. A representative emailed me back on Thursday saying that the company had been inundated with similar requests and would get back as soon as possible.

I certainly don’t begrudge Lynda’s desire to revamp its approach. I just wish the company had done a better job of communicating the changes and, ideally, had provided more time for educators to find other options.

Briefly …

A third of students in a recent poll said that anxiety about finances led them to neglect schoolwork, Money reports. About the same percentage said they had cut back on their class load because of financial worries. … A growing number of students see textbook purchases as optional even when professors say the books are required, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Notes by hand or with laptops? Sorry, wrong question.

Cathy Davidson raises exactly the right question in the debate about whether students should take notes by hand or with laptops in class. The real issue, Davidson writes, is that instructors should be working to avoid lecture and instead engage students in active learning. Even in a large lecture hall, instructors can use active-learning activities that help students learn far more than they would with lecture. Davidson’s suggestion doesn’t involve digital technology. Rather, she says, a simple notecard will do.

Tom Whitby, in Edutopia, reinforces Davidson’s argument by explaining the importance of collaboration in modern pedagogy.

If textbooks are dead, are universities next?

Educause, an orgranization that focuses on information technology in higher education, held its annual conference this week in Orlando, Fla. Most of the discussions were geared more toward IT than educators, but a few interesting nuggets caught my attention:educause logo

Helping students take control of class discussions

In an article in Hybrid Pedagogy, Chris Friend shares some techniques for letting class conversations evolve organically. He writes, “A class discussion where the teacher pre-determines the outcome is just a lecture in disguise, dressed up to feel student-centered while still being instructor-directed.”

Making sure all group members pull their weight

Li-Shih Huang offers tips on making sure all members of a project group share in the workload. Those tips include designing projects so that students complete them in phases, allowing students to choose project topics that match their own interests, and helping students become better problem-solvers. You’ll find the full post at Faculty Focus.

Number of stay-at-home college students hits 20-year high

National Journal reports that the number of college students living at home has reached a 20-year high. Tuition increases and “an economy that still feels like a recession to many families” have played a role, National Journal writes, saying that the combination “may be turning more students into pragmatists.” That shift can make diversifying the student body more challenging.

What to do when a class has a wide range of skills

In an article on differentiated learning, Christina Yu offers suggestions on helping students with wide ranges of skills in the same class. She suggests avoiding a technique that is often recommended: having students who understand course material help those who don’t. I wish she had explored that area more. That approach can certainly help in some scenarios. Yu doesn’t dismiss it outright; rather, she includes it in a list of “what differentiated instruction is not.”

A trend worth watching

eSchool News reports that tablet use is growing increasingly common in grades 4 through 12. School tablet use has reached 66 percent in grades 4-5, 58 percent in grades 6-8, and 42 percent in grades 9-12, the publication reports. Moreover, 81 percent of students say that tablets help personalize learning. These are students who will be in college in the coming years.