Monday, 26 May 2008

The use and abuse of technology in the classroom

Michelle’s post‡ today on laptops in the classroom (in a similar vein to this article I read last month on the suggestion of Glenn Reynolds) reminded me that I had a few items from the past few weeks still in my Google Reader queue of “things to blog about” related to Margaret Soltan’s continuing crusade against the use of PowerPoint* and its ilk, and specifically Timothy Burke’s partial rebuttal:

What’s the difference between bad usage of PowerPoint in lectures and bad lectures that involve hand-outs, overhead transparencies and writing on the chalkboard? Are we just complaining about old wine in new bottles here? Is the real culprit professorial droning at classrooms of 200+ students followed by recite-repeat-and-forget examinations? I think it’s at least plausible that the technology is just giving us a new reason to pay attention to a pedagogy whose effectiveness has been suspect for two generations.

I dare say I’m among the last doctoral students who was “trained”—and I use that word loosely—to teach prior to the widespread use of PowerPoint. Four years of full-time in-classroom experience, mostly with small lectures and seminars, has brought me basically to agreement with Burke on this point—complaints about PowerPoint essentially boil down to complaints about either instructional laziness or the whole nature of lecturing, or as a Burke commenter puts it, ”[e]xactly how does one teach even 80† students at once without succumbing to passive data transfer?” The non-use of PowerPoint or some other form of instructional technology seems to me to be a luxury confined to those who only teach small seminars and graduate students, and while my personal career aspirations lean in that direction the reality is that I’m several years away (in terms of research productivity) from being there—if I ever get there.

Burke in his comments hits the nail on the head, I think, when it comes to any sort of visual presentation in class:

It seems to me that the absolutely key thing is to avoid speaking the slides literally. They’re best as definitions, key concepts, images: the kind of thing you’d stop your flow of lecturing to write on the chalkboard. They’re not the lecture itself.

I think there are three useful aspects to a lecture: what you put on the board (or slides), what you say, and the general outline. If you’re preparing a handout or something to stick on Blackboard for students, the outline or outline-plus-slides is what they need, along with space to fill in the gaps. An alternative approach is to make the slides/board material the outline; several of the more effective teachers I had (my high school history teacher and a political science professor at Rose-Hulman) took that approach. But you can’t shovel your script into PowerPoint and expect that to work well, any more than you’d expect that writing it up on the board, or for that matter reading a paper verbatim at a conference would be a good presentation, to work.

All this discussion leaves aside the question of teaching anything that involves symbols (chemistry, mathematics, statistics) which I think requires a different approach than bullet-points. In class, mathematics and statistics (and, by extension, social science research methods courses) lend themselves to a combination of “passive” PowerPoint-style presentation and more spontaneous problem-solving and brainstorming; for example, one of my early activities is to have the class try to operationalize (define in terms of a measurable quantity or quality) a concept like “globalization,” which you can’t really do with a static slideshow even though you can define terms like “operationalization” that way. Similarly, while you can step through the process of solving a problem in a slideshow I think it’s more effective to demonstrate how to step through the process on the board.

Unfortunately, many classrooms aren’t set up to allow you to present and use a board simultaneously; some of TAMIU‘s lecture halls have a nice design where the projection screen is above the board, so you can write on the board without having to do anything special with the slideshow, but rooms most places are designed for “either-or” which can be a real pain—fiddle with the control system to blank the screen, raise the screen, write on the board, then lower the screen, switch the screen back on. After a few iterations of that in a single class, you’ll never do it again.

I freely admit I haven’t figured everything out yet; my current methods slides are pretty good lecture notes but pretty rotten for projection. One of my projects for this summer (postponed from last summer after I learned I wouldn’t be teaching any methods courses this year) is to work on my research methods lectures to incorporate advice from Andrew Gelman’s book so I can lay the groundwork for my plot to take over the world effort to produce a workable, but rigorous, methods curriculum at both the undergraduate and master’s levels for political science, sociology, and (at the grad level) public administration.

More on this theme from Laura at 11D, who takes note of some of the more positive technological developments associated with academe. And, another of Burke’s commenters links this hilarious example of what not to do with your slides.

* I use “PowerPoint” as shorthand for the use of a computer-projector based slideshow-style sequential presentation of items associated with a lecture, a technique obviously made famous by the Microsoft software package but also available with many other software packages such as Apple’s Keynote, Impress, and several PDF viewers including Adobe Reader, xpdf, and GNOME‘s Evince.
† I’d put the cutoff significantly lower, at around 30–40 students. Beyond that point, one might as well just blow the cap off the class.
‡ By the way, it’s nice to see Michelle’s blog back from haïtus! (Where else would I keep up with current Mexican politics?)


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.
[Permalink] 2. Michelle wrote @ Mon, 26 May 2008, 5:48 pm CDT:

I used to write equations on the board the first few semesters, but I invariably write the equation incorrectly and have horrible handwriting…prompting me to move to .ppt. But the handouts to students are key—I don’t really want them to be frantically copying down the equation filled with mistakes either. And more and more, since I teach in a professional master’s program (at least until we get our first PhD students), I’m less worried about conveying the math and more about the concepts and how to apply the methods to research questions. You’ve seen my imitation of the difference between a normal and student t distribution…and there’s no equation or even drawing involved. :)

In my non-methods classes—I never use ppt, even with ~60 students. We have document projectors that allow me to write at the podium and project above. But I realize then, too, that students are looking at the screen and not me. Not that I’m vain and want them to look at me, but I suspect that for some people, looking at the person speaking is helpful for them to understand what is being said. So that problem would be compounded by .ppt.

The other thing I’ve realized is that if you use .ppt, students think that’s the only important information. If you deviate to write on the board or spend 15 minutes on a tangent about an assignment they are working on, they don’t seem to take notes anymore and certainly don’t follow instructions. So, the switch to .ppt, while originally motivated by my urge to convey the math more clearly, has led me to add more and more text about other things each week in a CYA attempt to make sure they know that the other stuff is important, too.

Really, I should post on my own blog rather than hijacking your comments, but I guess I’m out of blogging touch. :)


Long-form comments are gracefully accepted. Well, I think there’s code in there to cut them off if they get ridiculously long, but beyond that feel free to “hijack” away. I’m all about the page-views, after all.

I really don’t use that much PowerPoint myself, but my working assumption is that there will be significant institutional pressure to do so.


I never use power point, but might if I were more industrious. We have “smart classrooms” (that strange phrase is likely worth of a blog post on its own). The computer is mounted in a podium and the flat screen is on top of the podium (hard drive underneath and key board on pull out drawer at waist height). I don’t have any images from Winthrop, but GIS turned this up, which is very similar: . There is an electronic “pen” attached to the screen and a program that allows you to “write” on it as if it were paper (including erasing, changing colors, highlighting, etc). This is projected on a large pull down screen that hangs over the main white board (formerly “chalk board”....before IT decided that chalk dust was bad for the computers).

So I write the formulae in my methods class and work out unique problems that we create in class. I also use it to write “bullet points” in other classes/lectures and I am a pacer….so the first time I am nowhere near the podium (and obviously not writing) and repeat something slowly, the kids get the message that the stuff said between the bullet points just might matter. I also toggle between the “writing” program and the internet. This is especially good if I want to make a point using some current happening (or show a campaign video in my public opinion or parties classes).

You can also use the “pen” to “write” on the screen any time, so I regularly use it as a “telestrator” when on the internet (or to draw mustaches on the pictures of people who pop up when I pull up a news item).

In Southern Politics, it was great to lecture on the Birmingham Children’s Crusade and immediately toggle over and do a GIS to get pictures of kids getting fire hoses turned on them….or to lecture in public opinion on visual appearance and affect and GIS “Dukakis tank”:

I am still not sure what to do about laptops in the classroom. I’ll have to go read Michelle’s post

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