Thursday, 23 July 2009

Projecting unto others

Timothy Burke revises and extends the argument over PowerPoint in the classroom today (a theme also of previous interest at Signifying Nothing). Echoing Frequent Commenter Scott’s observations in the comments yesterday, Burke writes:

Many of the criticisms directed at information technology in the classroom get hung up on a misattribution issue. Eric Rauchway makes this point very effectively: the problem with bad PowerPoint presentations is often not the software, but the presenter.

The professors who get up and drone their way through slides would get up and drone their way through written notes if you took away the technology. There’s some truth to the point raised by Kid Bitzer in the comments to the Rauchway thread, that PowerPoint exacerbates or aggravates some of the underlying issues that a mediocre or poor lecturer carries into the classroom. Still, dealing with the technology is just a case of treating a symptom, not the disease.

My concerns with this line of argument are twofold: first, while “bad lecturers will be bad lecturers” may be true in relative terms, I think a bad lecturer using PowerPoint will be a worse lecturer—in the sense of perhaps inadvertently getting the students to stumble across the point of the material—than a bad lecturer sans PowerPoint, for the simple reason that PowerPoint’s default passive presentation mode reinforces bad lecture habits. I don’t think I’m a “bad” lecturer*, and I know I am less effective with passive projection than I am without; I almost don’t dare imagine how it would affect some of the more horrific lecturers I’ve had the dubious pleasure of sitting in the room with.

Second, and I think this may partially be explained by differences in student populations served, I think passive presentation tech—and perhaps any presentation technology—reinforces bad student habits by promoting verbatim transcription of slides at the expense of active listening and taking notes of points emphasized by the instructor. I suspect the student population that Burke serves at Swarthmore is far more adept at information consumption than the one I face here and thus able to learn something from a lecture accompanied by a pre-organized screen full of words. I’d imagine the student without that background benefits more taking notes of a slide-free lecture since they have to process the lecture in real-time to separate the wheat from the chaff, rather than what I suspect goes on in PowerPoint world: assuming the “wheat” is what’s on the slide and the “chaff” is what the instructor is saying.

* I freely concede I have a distracting mannerism (not looking people in the eye when talking, probably picked up in lecture because most of my early classes teaching were in large auditoria) in the classroom that bothers some students, but I don’t read slides or notes verbatim—usually I work from a self-prepared outline.

1 comment:

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.

I tend to get frustrated by such debates because I have never read any that discuss what is actually on the PPT slides, and how many there are. Power Point is a tool, which can be wielded effectively or ineffectively, no matter the skills of the lecturer. I even think a poor lecturer could use them well by highlighting key points that might otherwise get lost in a wandering lecture. A good lecturer might also use them poorly by clicking every 45 seconds before anything sinks in.

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