Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Adam Smith on Laptops in the Classroom

Professors have a mixed view of student laptops in the classroom. They are useful tools for taking notes and, if connected to the internet, can also be used to quickly research things relevant to classroom discussion while the discussion is going on. But they can also be used to exchange email or instant messages, view pornography, play games, do any of a wide variety of things unrelated to and distracting from what is supposed to be going on 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.

11 Comments:

At 7:10 PM, January 23, 2008, Anonymous Midgick said...

"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."

They also might have been restraining themselves because they knew you were back there.

 
At 8:13 PM, January 23, 2008, Anonymous Robert S. Porter said...

In theory I don't have a problem with people bringing laptops to class. If someone wants to waste their money on the internet instead of paying attention, that's fine by me.

In practice, I think there are two major issues which I have seen and continue to experience in class. First, the typing is amazingly annoying, especially on certain laptops, once quiet keyboards are ubiquitous this problem will go away. The second, and more important issue, is distraction. It is nearly impossible to pay attention when the person in front of you is using the internet because you see it in your peripheral (paracentral?) vision. This is exacerbated in less than interesting classes. For this reason I would support the banning of laptops or making them sit at the back of the class.

 
At 8:26 PM, January 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

This reminds me of a story I once heard about your father (a personal hero of mine, BTW).

According to a professor of mine who was present the event, your father was to deliver a lecture at Oberlin College in the mid- or early-60s. The subject was conscription.

Although it was already a left-of-center campus, Oberlin at the time maintained a policy of mandatory attendance at Friday Night (?) lectures.

According to my professor, your father prefaced his remarks by saying that anyone who did not truly want to attend the talk should be allowed to leave without penalty. Apparently he said something to the effect of "I cannot advocate the abolition of conscription in front of a captive audience."

Despite being given the opportunity, not a soul left the auditorium.

 
At 9:17 PM, January 23, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

In response to Midgick:

I'm pretty sure that they mostly didn't know I was there and at least one--the woman I was sitting next to--didn't realize I was a professor rather than a student.

 
At 9:42 PM, January 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In a recent physics class William Godwin instant messaged Adam Smith on this issue:

>Let us consider the effect that coercion produces upon the mind of him against whom it is employed. It cannot begin with convincing; it is no argument. It begins with producing the sensation of pain, and the sentiment of distaste. It begins with violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to be impressed. It includes in it a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs coercion against me could mould me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.

I'm with Godwin: his argument is better because it comes with an explanation. Smith's is like a physics theory with arbitrary constants and unexplained exceptions (12,13, 'duty')

-- Tom

 
At 3:47 AM, January 24, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somebody sufficiently stupid not to be voluntarily interested in education (e.g. a very young child) can quite easily be manipulated into learning. Coercion is thus never necessary, and is only employed when the educator is as intellectually weak as the student.

 
At 7:37 AM, January 24, 2008, Anonymous A.B. said...

In this case there are two uses for a laptop, doing something unrelated to the course or taking notes. I think neither belong in the classroom. Taking notes is waste of time... the whole point of having a teacher is to communicate ideas in a lively manner. Taking notes - especially on a laptop - defeats the purpose. During my schooling, nothing enraged me more than the need to fake note taking.

 
At 4:53 PM, January 25, 2008, Blogger Les Cargill said...

I believe some schools now put lectures online. MIT has put it's curriculum materials online. The advantages to both seem self explanatory.

 
At 12:19 AM, January 27, 2008, Blogger Jonathan said...

Reminds me that, when I was at school, there was some discussion about whether to allow slide rules in examinations. Of course that was an entirely different argument. I don't suppose many people were playing games with their slide rules.

 
At 8:52 AM, January 27, 2008, Blogger Vadim Iaralov said...

a.b.,
In 'Arts'/'Humanities' classes laptops are invaluable because the blackboard is underused and lecture notes are frequently unavailable. Typing and handwriting are in different leagues like an automobile vs. a horse. Typing saves enough time to listen more carefully to the present, rather than trying to handwrite down points from the previous idea by hand. [I have never owned a laptop or used one in class but I know some who had pre-programmed templates for lecture notes that save a lot of time, reducing time spent on notetaking to a minimum]

In sciences or math, laptops are rather useless where graphs and algebra are present (very few can type in LaTeX fast enough).

 
At 8:25 PM, January 27, 2009, Blogger Jackline said...

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