It has been suggested that few students graduate with the skills required for many ecological careers, as field-based learning is said to be in decline in academic institutions. Here, we asked if mobile technology could improve field-based learning, using ability to identify birds as the study metric. We divided a class of ninety-one undergraduate students into two groups for field-based sessions where they were taught bird identification skills. The first group has access to a traditional identification book and the second group were provided with an identification app. We found no difference between the groups in the ability of students to identify birds after three field sessions. Furthermore, we found that students using the traditional book were significantly more likely to identify novel species. Therefore, we find no evidence that mobile technology improved students’ ability to retain what they experienced in the field; indeed, there is evidence that traditional field guides were more useful to students as they attempted to identify new species. Nevertheless, students felt positively about using their own smartphone devices for learning, highlighting that while apps did not lead to an improvement in bird identification ability, they gave greater accessibility to relevant information outside allocated teaching times.