Driving Society Forward.
PowerPointlessness in Higher Education
Glenn Rikowski, London, 17th June 2007
In the Beginning – was PowerPoint
I believe I was the last member of staff to get into using PowerPoint in the university department where I work. Everyone else seemed to be using it. We had been encouraged to use it. Yet I held out until the summer of 2005. I thought it must be really difficult to use, and I figured that I would definitely need to go on some kind of training course to master the basics. Some people seemed to almost revere it, and for students it appeared to be a learning fashion accessory that all competent and cool teachers must know how to use. I was resigned to using it; and I was in awe of PowerPoint and all those who could use it. But I kept putting off actually learning it.
My gut instinct was that it was all froth. I also feared that using it would affect negatively my capacity to communicate with students. In my time I had also seen some dire PowerPoint presentations, mostly at conferences. It seemed that for some speakers, the flashiness of the presentation was more important than the content; it was style over substance. People like Jonathan Guthrie (2005) supported my prejudices regarding PowerPoint. He argued that:
“If you follow the model presentations in PowerPoint, you are almost guaranteed to give a bad presentation.”
In addition, noted Guthrie:
“Another siren quality of PowerPoint is that it tempts you to structure your talk around the slides as you prepare them.”
The effect of this is that you end up ‘just showing people your notes’ (Ibid.). However, perhaps standard models can be ditched, and truly creative possibilities might be opened in PowerPoint?
In the summer of 2005, our middle son, Victor, was working on an epic PowerPoint story called The Ockress. He is still working on it, in fact*. It now stretches to five episodes and takes around six hours to present. It is certainly not a model presentation, and is clearly creative and entertaining whilst also featuring a story line – in the way that some lectures do. The Ockress is rather like a moving cartoon; with speech bubbles but where the characters also move. Anyhow, I was impressed with it, but it did make me think that if Victor could design such complex PowerPoints then surely I could surely master the basics. He said he could teach me these basics in ten minutes. Actually, it only took me five! I was disappointed; it was just so easy! The menus more or less told you everything.
I set about converting my lecture notes to PowerPoints. Spinning titles, zooming letters, various backgrounds and colours – I got really carried away. On a few, Victor put in some movement and animation. I was hooked.
By the summer of 2006 I was starting to have doubts about PowerPoint; specifically how it appeared to be affecting my ability to relate to an audience. Rather than enhancing what I had to say it seemed to be an increasing barrier between the audience and myself. My powers as an orator were in decline, it seemed. I spent less time thinking about what I was saying and how people were reacting to it. I spent considerable time creating mega PowerPoints. When it came to performing, I found myself looking at the screen (at my own creations) too much rather than at the audience. I was loosing touch. A couple of disastrous PowerPoint presentations at conferences consolidated my doubts about the technology, or at least my use of it. The importance of what I had to say was being lost in a bunch of gimmicks. But if the gimmicks were not present – the spinning letters, zooming, and so on – and PowerPoints were presented in a simple, conventional manner, what, then, really was the point of PowerPoint?
Research is the Clincher
Recent research from Australia stoked my worst fears about PowerPoint, for:
“Now, research at an Australian university has proved that PowerPoint and the human animal are not the best of collaborators. Apparently, evolving on the savannah on a diet of half-rotted ox and at constant risk from sabre-tooth tigers did not provide us with brains properly wired to read and take in information that comes at you in a pincer movement, as the spoken word and as a series of letters, lines and graphs on a screen. It is the end, they say, for the PowerPoint. The research, from the University of New South Wales, suggests that we process information best in verbal or written form, but not both simultaneously. … Trying to follow what someone is saying while watching the same words on a screen is the equivalent of riding a bicycle along a crowded train” (Waller, 2007).
Professor John Sweller of the University of New South Wales has argued that:
“The use of PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched” (in Waller, 2007).
Less seriously, Michael Gove says that:
“There are few words that have a greater capacity to chill than “I’ll just take you through this on PowerPoint” and there are fewer surer guarantees of daytime slumber than the gentle shuffling of slides as what was once a compelling argument becomes a computer-aided anaesthetic” (2007).
So, perhaps by using PowerPoint I am being less interesting. The interesting bit is perhaps creating the PowerPoint; not presenting it.
The Economics of Convenience and Cost Shift
All this comes back to why higher education managements are so keen on PowerPoint. My answer is quite simple: economics. If lectures are given on PowerPoint then it means that lecture notes are cheaper. Rather than typed out notes, students get frames of bullets points, and perhaps six-frames-to-a-page, which becomes something of an eye test. This cuts down the cost of printing. Better still, put your PowerPoint slides, and even lectures notes where these are still written, onto an Interactive Learning Environment (ILE). Then students can download these and print them out. But then that is their ink, their paper, their electricity and their time: the costs are being downloaded onto students.
Also, some managers seem to believe that a bank of PowerPoints is useful for when staff are ill and others step into the breach. However, using someone else’s PowerPoint is an unsettling experience. The bullet points are there but not necessarily the story and background to connect them convincingly.
However, if the lectures were stripped down of context and intellectual content as much as possible then using PowerPoints designed by someone else would more likely to yield faithful reproduction. But of course this would come at the cost of ‘dumbing down’. Students would also be getting a bad deal if this was the end result if PowerPoint usage in the university.
The essential point for me is that in higher education teachers should have something to say. They should not just be recyclers of knowledge, mere knowledge distributors; but knowledge creators. Even if knowledge is not created directly in lectures the significance of knowledge creation and the ‘cutting edge’ should be communicated. However, if technology gets in the way of teacher-student interaction or inhibits the teacher, or comes to dominate the proceedings – then a rethink is in order, in my view. PowerPointlessness in higher education is an educational sin. I am rethinking.
Gove, M. (2007) Why speechmaking is still the way to persuade, The Times (Times 2), 18th April, p.5.
Guthrie, J. (2005) Don’t be seduced by the siren call of PowerPoint, Financial Times, 19th January, p.13.
Waller, M. (2007) PowerPointless, The Times (Times 2), 18th April, p.4.
*The Ockress was completed by Victor Rikowski in January 2008, see: http://www.theockress.com
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