Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Is there a ppoint?

Since there's been some mention of PowerPoint over in Nathan's post about lecturing, I thought I'd draw everyone's attention to this pro-con discussion of PowerPoint over at the the NEA Higher Education Advocate. The discussion is too brief to settle much, but let's talk about this technology

Confession: I'm not a PowerPointer. For me, it's not a pro-tech/anti-tech issue. (Heck, this is a teaching blog; how much more high-tech can you get?) And as the pro- piece argues, PowerPoint can (like every technique or technology) be used well or badly. But here are my main reasons for my PowerPoint abstinence:
  • Dim lights = dim brains? If your students have any inclination whatsoever to ignore you (or sleep!) turning the lights off won't help.
  • Note taking: Writing on the board takes time. With PowerPoint, the text is already there, so to speak, and as a result, instructors sometimes go far too quickly for students to keep up and take notes. I also believe (though I concede my evidence is minimal) that students perceive PowerPoint to be somehow more authoritative than written text, with the result that they write down only what the slides say. It's only a hunch, but I suspect PowerPoint might discourage a more active or detailed approach to note taking.
  • Engagement and dialogue: Again, this is very unscientific, but when I walk the halls of my university I see the blue glow of PowerPoint in classrooms and rarely are those classrooms filled with much interaction. It just seems like so long as the slides are up there, they're what matters (not the reactions, questions, concerns, etc. that the slides' content might prompt in the audience). It's as if PowerPoint artificially confines interaction and discussion to those moments when it's not in use
Of course, I'd be delighted if people find PowerPoint useful, but I remain something of a skeptic for now.


  1. I hardly every use it. I pretty much agree with your remarks. The way I see it, if you use PowerPoint, either you're putting up slides that you slapped together pretty quickly and which therefore don't contain much info, or you spent quite a lot of time putting together high-info slides. If the former, then why use PP at all? You could just write up that stuff on the board. If the latter, then there's probably way too much info on your slides, and the students will stop paying attention to you and start trying to just write down everything that's on the slides. (I guess you could make the slides freely available to them. But then you take away a major reason for them to come to class at all.)

  2. It depends very much on the subject matter. For some of my Religious Studies classes, Power Point is extremely useful for showing maps, archaeological data and images of worship. For Philosophy classes, I hardly use it at all, and when I have done so, it has been to demonstrate scientific material that is essential background information.

    We did have a vigorous debate about this at a faculty meeting. One of my colleagues argued that anyone who fails to embrace new technology such as Power Point is a luddite, and this should be held against them in an annual pay-review. I, of course, was strongly opposed to this: it is a useful way to display images, but not every subject requires images. Text-books are a useful guide: most good philosophy books don't come with pictures or diagrams, because illustrations would only be a distraction. For some other subjects, images are essential.

  3. I use it sparingly, and usually when I do, I'm unhappy with how the class went. The focus of the class shifts to the slides rather than a discussion of the reading or a critical analysis of the argument under consideration in class. However, there are times when it is useful. I've used it for in-class case studies, discussion questions, and especially long arguments.

  4. I haven't used PP much recently -- mostly because my school doesn't have mediated classrooms yet. So I'd have to schedule a projector and so on. But at my old school, I used PP a lot. I find it useful for various tasks. For discussions, it can be useful to post questions, topics, and/or scenarios. For lectures, it is a good place to put definitions of technical terms; but mainly I like it as a way of outlining the lecture. I've found that students follow the structure of the lecture better this way.

  5. I've tried PPT -- and each time crashed and burned for one reason or another. Mostly, I've found two things:

    1. Students hone in on the PPT, and not on what we're talking about. They're so busy writing things down that they lose the forest for the trees. This even happens, oddly enough, when you tell them that the slides are online.

    2. It always made ME feel hemmed in by what was on the slide, and by what were on subsequent ones not yet shown. It always felt very restrictive to me as an instructor.

    Basically, I never use it. But it could be that I'm not very good at using it. I'll bet there are some instructors out there who really do well with PPT and can avoid (1) and (2). I'm just not one of them.

    Ben: I'm amazed by what your colleague said. Stunned actually. Those are usually the sorts of things that people might think, but always catch themselves and recognize that it's just too stupid to say it out loud. Among other things, not using PPT in a class hardly makes one a luddite.

  6. "I also believe (though I concede my evidence is minimal) that students perceive PowerPoint to be somehow more authoritative than written text, with the result that they write down only what the slides say. It's only a hunch, but I suspect PowerPoint might discourage a more active or detailed approach to note taking."

    Michael, my wife is currently taking classes as an undergraduate, and last term signed up for a note-taking service (offered through the university's accessible learning office), as she isn't always able to make class and isn't always at her best when she can - bad back. She found that even in pain, she took better notes than her note-takers, since they tended to do precisely what you describe.

    Some of her profs make their slides available, and honestly - most of them are horrible. Leaving aside issues like dark text on a darker background (picture, sometimes, even worse) they tend to be packed full of points, sometimes seven or eight to a page. *I'd* likely feel tempted to scramble to copy them all down, if the slides weren't available online.

    And the slides that *are* available online... well, they're never something most students can probably find, like Powerpoint. They're always in WordPerfect Presentations format, and usually an old one that resists printing and takes five to ten minutes to try converting to PPT. (I say "try" because I spent a couple of hours with my wife in one of the computer labs doing just that. Sometimes the slidesets would convert, sometimes they wouldn't, with no apparent rhyme or reason.)

    In her case, I don't think the department is serving their students very well at all. Granted, she's a history student and not a philosophy major (I'm working on her), but I can't expect the results are terribly different from what I would expect in most arts disciplines.

    Students in her classes have the usual ADD approach to lecture, most have laptops on which they tend to play games in class. I can't blame that on the PPT though, as I'm attending undergrad lectures as part of a part-time degree, and my profs tend not to use electronic aids. Many students bring laptops, and the ones I can see are rarely just taking notes and listening.

  7. Minimal Power Point slides are useful when you have several sections of the same course -- that way you can make sure each class covers the same material. There is nothing worse that putting something on an exam that was covered in one section and not in the other --

    Naturally, the trick is to construct discussion prompts and not to put whole arguments into the slides.

    The advantage to letting the students have the slides in advance is that they can print them before class (many do) and then take their own notes AND they can use the slides as a reading/study guide. Students have a very difficult time figuring out what any given philosopher is saying, so having the discussion prompts in advance can help them to be prepared for class.

    Besides, I think re-use of power point slides is much better than some of my profs who gave the same stuffy lectures from yellowed and dog-eared notes that haven't changed since the 70s...


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