Adam Smith on Laptops in the Classroom
I recently had the pleasure of sitting in on a class taught by a colleague who did a brilliant job of keeping his students' interest and attention—and mine—while covering material usually considered less than entrancing. I was at the back of the classroom and so could see quite a lot of laptop screens. With one or two brief exceptions there was no color on them, which I took as evidence that they were being used to take notes, not to browse the web or play games.
It occurred to me that the question of whether to permit students to use laptops connected to the web during class was merely a new variant on the older question of whether class attendance should be compulsory. In this context as in others, the net lets one be physically in one place, virtually in another, physically attend class while corresponding with your friends or reading the newspaper. There are, of course, other ways of doing that—some of us remember reading concealed books during boring high school classes, or simply retreating into thoughts unrelated to what we were supposed to be learning—but the new technology provides a more convenient tool for the purpose.
On the subject of compulsory attendance, I cannot improve on the words of Adam Smith:
No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given. Force and restraint may, no doubt, be in some degree requisite in order to oblige children, or very young boys, to attend to those parts of education which it is thought necessary for them to acquire during that early period of life; but after twelve or thirteen years of age, provided the master does his duty, force or restraint can scarce ever be necessary to carry on any part of education.
(Wealth of Nations Book V Chapter 1 Part 3 Article II)
As demonstrated by my colleague.