Saturday, February 16, 2008

Is PowerPoint Evil?
UD's Crusade Continues

Since blogging first began, UD has been on the warpath against the use of PowerPoint as a teaching tool. See for example her recent self-described bitch: "All Important Trends Start in California." Here she mostly cites an article from USC's Trojan "PowerPoint presentations leave students snoring."

According to UD: "Sometimes she’s felt all alone out there, pointing out the obvious: Professors who use Powerpoint on a regular basis are lazy and irresponsible."

But she is not exactly a voice crying in the wilderness and there have been a number of high-powered academics who have blasted Power Point including the sainted Edward Tufte, doyen of data display, who does the dirty on PP every chance he gets, e.g. the Wired article: "PowerPoint Is Evil, Power Corrupts. PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely."

It seems to be pc to cry about PP. Real profs just stand there and spiel, in an engaging and mind-melding way. They don't need the crutch of PowerPoint. They interact with each and every student in the class, no matter how big, in a personal way and inspire them to... what?

Now it may well be that Mr. Bonzo and UD see PowerPoint differently because she is a professor of English and I am a professor of chemistry, crudely speaking. I fondly remember great classic lecturers from college as well as examples of the Socratic method and of the learning through discussion genre. All done well and effectively. I started out teaching chemistry at the blackboard, went through the overhead phase and am now using PowerPoint. As for being lazy and irresponsible, I think it is fair to say that the easiest time of it for me was the lowest tech one, the blackboard.

The problem is that if you teach science there is no getting around it, you have to cram a certain amount of material down the throats of students. There is no way you can learn organic chemistry without knowing what a benzene ring is and a lot of other supposedly useless facts. Now there are hard ways to do this and there are easier ways. My job is to try to make it easier. If I have to stand on my head and spit nickels to do this, so be it.

There are good ways and bad ways to use PowerPoint. I will not bore the reader with the usual technical stuff about font size and color schemes. Of course, you don't read the PowerPoint slides to your audience. If possible you put the slides up before the lecture so that students can take notes, which they will do if given the opportunity.

If you use movies, keep them short, no longer than five minutes. Make sure they have a point that can be discussed. In a lot of ways these serve as a substitute for the old lecture demonstrations in science classes. Nowadays these are ni kulturney, but the old explosions certainly used to keep people awake.

Finally make sure to keep the lights on. With modern projection equipment and a little thought about the color scheme it should be possible to do PP with ambient lighting. Make sure that you wander around the classroom and try to make eye contact with people in the front and the back of the room. It usually isn't too difficult to spot the puzzled look on student's faces. Once they realize that you are not going to bite their heads off, you can usually coax them into telling you what is bothering them.

Over the years I have taught in good liberal arts colleges. At the University I have mostly taught advanced undergraduate/graduate courses and clinical chemistry in the upper division medical technology program. Maybe I have been lucky in having motivated students, but for about the last ten years PP has worked well for me. I'd put what these students have learned up against the results from most other teaching methods of which I am aware.

Ciao, Bonzo

1 comment:

philosoraptor said...

I usually find the vox clamantis in desertis, "Oh, woe, why am I the only one who cares about this?" way of framing things to be suspect, and I'm sure that SOS -- as opposed to UD -- would rightly scoff at the use of that tired rhetorical strategy. So, I'm glad to see that you take issue with it, too.

More to the point of your present post: as a humanist, I don't want the anti- and not-anti-PowerPoint discussions to end up mirroring the Humanities and not-Humanities divisions. There are so many things that need to happen in a classroom that it seems bizarre to me to rule out any of the tools that can help make those things happen. It also seems bizarre to speak of the "regular use" of PowerPoint as if that meant that the entire class period consisted of a slideshow presentation given in the most rote, most boring, most disengaged way possible. For example, I use presentation materials (overheads, software, sock puppets, whatever) to diagram, and help walk my students through, intricate philosophical arguments, which they can then discuss in small groups as I circulate the classroom and talk to the groups while the material remains on the screen. That's followed by a whole-class conversation.

Furthermore, even if one is teaching small, upper-level, primarily discussion-based courses, it takes an extraordinary degree of, let's call it "self confidence", to think that one is reaching, being heard by, and "engaging on a human level" with all or even most of the students in the room simply because the lights are on and you're looking at them instead of at a screen.

The real battle is against lazy, uninterested instructors who put as little effort as possible into their courses and classes, and lazy (or not-knowing-better) students who want to put as little effort as possible into their courses and classes. And that's why I think that the conversation ought to be more like the one you've started here: tips and suggestions for how to use pedagogical technologies -- from chalkboards to podcasts to discussion questions -- in ways that are neither lazy nor uninterested!