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I began my university teaching career in the years B.P. (Before Powerpoint). Blackboards, chalk, & overhead transparencies (often hand-written & hand-drawn) were the order of the day. Since then, Powerpoint has become an almost universal tool & ‘chalk-&-talk’ is a rarity. But Powerpoint is just a tool, & using it doesn’t guarantee a good presentation. (Slides that simply present large blocks of text; blocks of text in tiny fonts; lines of text that ‘fly’ in from one side or the other; typewriter sounds as letters appear on the screen – don’t do it! Please don’t go there!)

Anyway, a colleague has just given me a copy of Yiannis Gabriel’s 2008 paper looking at the use (& abuse) of Poweroint as a teaching tool. And it’s really got me thinking.

Gabriel begins by noting that Powerpoint “accomplish[ed] what earlier technologies did (overhead transparencies, slides, chalk and blackboard) only more efficiently, more stylishly.” However, it’s probably had more widespread, more pervasive effects: Powerpoint has become the basic lecture  tool, but simply relying on it without thinking about how it’s used can have some far-reaching effects on the nature of the learning that goes on in lecture theatres. One of his concerns is that, while Powerpoint is great for showing information in visual form (graphs, diagrams, photos, embedded videos), it may also affect students’ abilities to analyse & think critically about information. (It can also act as a prop – how many lecturers these days would feel comfortable giving a lecture without powerpoint, if the power goes down or the technology fails?) In fact, he expresses his own concern that “Powerpoint inevitably leads to comfortable, incontestable, uncritical, visually seductive and intellectually dulling communication.”

Now, like almost all my colleagues I use Powerpoint on pretty much an everyday basis, & so Gabriel’s ideas gave me considerable food for thought. It’s easy to slip into using this technology routinely, in a way that’s really just ‘chalk-&-talk elevated to another level. I try hard to avoid this: I use images & phrases as something to talk around & as cues for students to think about concepts, & I try to encourage discussion around the ‘big ideas’ of each lecture, using things like pop quizzes to start things off. (I really enjoy it when students ask probing questions that require a bit of thought for me to answer properly, not least because it lets me model how scientists think about things.) But is this enough?

Certainly the technology has its shortcomings, although these tend to be in how it’s applied rather than inherent in Powerpoint itself. You’ve planned your lecture in advance, all the images & words are assembled onto your slides – how easy is it to deviate from this if during the course of the lecture it becomes obvious that some in the class don’t understand what you’re saying, or want to ask questions around a particular issue? It could be argued that you just have to get through that material – it’s needed as the basis for the next lecture or some other paper – & the students will have to come to tutorials or ‘office hours’ to fill the gaps. But by then the moment’s passed.

Myself, I don’t see the value in that. Better by far to address the issues that students raise, on the spot – after all, how can I expect them to understand the material that follows if they haven’t ‘got’ what I’m talking about at the moment? You can deal with this with Powerpoint, as you would have done in the ‘old days’: I had the experience a few weeks ago where it became clear that many in the class hadn’t a clue about meiosis, & without it much of the rest of the lecture wasn’t going to make much sense to them. We ended up with an impromptu tutorial, with me using the computer mouse to ‘draw’ on my slides (having changed it from the usual arrow to a virtual felt-tip pen) to illustrate the points we were talking about. Yes, we didn’t get through everything I’d intended to for that class – but I was able to do an extra panopto recording later that day for the students to follow, & there were always the tutorials…

So I thought I was doing OK – & then Gabriel mentioned bullet-point lists… These are pretty much the standard way to present information in Powerpoint, but Gabriel points out that they contain some fish-hooks for teacher & student alike: “many people (and most  students) confronting a list will assume that it is exhaustive, that the items on it are co-equivalent…, and that they are mutually exclusive. In reality, few lists meet these requirements, and yet they block thinking into precise areas of overlap or items that are absent from the list.” There’s also a risk that students will see the lists as completely authoritative where they may actually be tentative. And it’s easy to use them to gloss over things that the lecturer’s not sure about, or doesn’t want to discuss – just don’t put those items on the list! 

When I think about it, I can see some of these things coming through in students’ test papers. For example, in teaching about the different ‘major phyla’ of animals, it’s easy to list the key features of each phylum in a series of bullet-points. I make the point in lectures that there may be other interesting features in a particular phylum – but in a test, for many students it’s as if I’d never said that; the bullet-point items seem to be all-important. This suggests to me that these students haven’t thought about other things that were said in lecture, or maybe those other things didn’t even register. And it’s made me wonder if there are other steps I could take to get this information across in a meaningful way that prompts the class to think carefully about what’s being said & why it matters.

Gabriel criticises images as well. And I agree with him – it’s quite easy to put together a sequence of images that can engross the audience, to the point where they don’t actually think critically about what’s being said. But I also strongly agree that it can enhance student learning & understanding of things like anatomy or physics. Diagrams, too, are a double-edged sword. Used simply to present large amounts of information they can be both boring & overwhelming – but they can “also open up new possibilities of creative thinking, communication and learning.”

I can see that I’ve got a lot of thinking and reorganising to do. I’d like to re-jig my Powerpoints to encourage a number of skills in my students, to enhance their learning – and because many of the skills that Gabriel identifies as desirable emphasise aspects of the nature of science itself:

  • filtering out the irrelevant & focusing on the memorable and significant;
  • tolerating uncertainty;
  • coping with ambiguity;
  • recognising & enjoying the fact that we don’t have clear, permanent solutions to every puzzle & problem;
  • developing the capacity for analytical, critical thought.

Using Powerpoint in a way that goes beyond it being merely a tool for presenting information can only enhance students’ learning (& – speaking personally – my enjoyment of teaching).

Y.Gabriel (2008) Against the tyranny of powerpoint: technology-in-use and technology abuse. Organisation Studies 29: 255-276. doi: 10.1177/0170840607079536. Document available online at http://oss.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/29/2/255