(Courtesy of Rice University/ThinkStockPhotos.com)

When a group of college students were given smartphones for the first time, researchers at Rice University and the U.S. Air Force asked whether they thought the devices would help them learn.

Yes! the students responded, saying that the phones would likely help them with homework, help them do well on tests and get better grades — and wouldn’t distract them from schoolwork.

But a year later, when they were asked the same questions in the past tense, the results were entirely different — the college students felt the phones had distracted them and hadn’t been helpful, after all.

“I was surprised,” said Philip Kortum, an assistant professor of psychology at Rice. “I thought this group of students would immediately grasp the educational benefits of this technology and use it.”

He also knew that quite a lot of research has shown that structured use of mobile technology can provide lots of benefits in higher education, as when a professor asks students to find and discuss passages from the Gettysburg address, say, or see a demonstration of a physics problem on an app.

“At the beginning they were very excited about it,” he said, “but at the end they were much more concerned.

The researchers — including Chad Tossell, an assistant professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy; Clayton Shepard, a graduate student at Rice; Ahmad Rahmati, a senior research scientist at Broadcom Corp; and Lin Zhong, an associate professor at Rice — sifted through large amounts of data about how the students used the phones and found, not shockingly, that academic journals and organic chemistry Web sites weren’t their go-to’s. The students were spending lots of time with music, instant messaging and social media.

In the longitudinal study,  funded by the National Science Foundation and published in the British Journal of Educational Technology, students were asked to answer on a scale of one to five, with one signifying “strongly disagree” and five signifying  “strongly agree,” with the following statements:

“My iPhone will help me get better grades.”  The average answer was 3.71.

A  year later, the average response had dropped to 1.54.

“My iPhone will distract me from school-related tasks.” The average answer was 1.91

A year later, the average answer zipped up to 4.03.

“The iPhone will help me do well on academic tests.” The average answer was 3.88 and by the following year, the average was down to 1.68.

“The iPhone will help me do well with my homework.” The average answer was 3.14.

Nope. By the next year, the average answer was 1.49.

Just providing access to mobile technology wasn’t enough, they concluded; educators would need to offer more structure or guidance if they wanted phones to enhance students’ academic experience.