PowerPoint, with neither power nor a point – better to be naked?

Nearly a year ago in this blog I wrote a piece about the use of PowerPoint, Microsoft’s presentation software, and argued that it was too often being used badly, and was certainly being over-used more generally. I was reminded of this recently when I turned up for a public event to which I had been invited that was to consist of a major lecture. As I entered the room I was handed a print-out of the PowerPoint slides the speaker intended to work from; I stopped for a moment and glanced through the 64 slides (!), concluded immediately that this lecture held no interest for me whatsoever, and left again immediately (though taking the hand-out with me, just in case). Instead I repaired to a rather nice coffee shop where I had a cappuccino and a rather good pastry and read an article in an academic journal I had with me. Damn it, I thought as I left the cafe, I was wrong, PowerPoint has its uses.

But if it does have its uses, it increasingly has to battle with the sceptics. It seems that more and more doubts are being expressed about whether PowerPoint has a useful place in the university classroom, where it has become totally ubiquitous. These days it is almost impossible to go to a university lecture in which there isn’t a PowerPoint presentation that takes the student through every point the lecturer is making. Admittedly I have seen this done rather well, but have also experienced occasions when the lecturer seems to be merely reading off the words from the screen, sometimes sounding as if he or she were encountering them for the first time.

But now, according to the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education, there are the beginnings of a campaign to bring this to an end. One US college, the Southern Methodist University, is removing all computers from classrooms; and a survey undertaken in England by the University of Central Lancashire found that 59 per cent of students found lectures were becoming dull and that this was connected with the use of PowerPoint. So what is increasingly being proposed is that lecturers should get used to ‘teaching naked’, which I hasten to add is the practice of not using technological props, but to return to the concept of a university class as a forum for intellectual interaction between faculty and students; this, it is felt, has been inhibited by the use of PowerPoint.

I suspect there is room here for questions about babies and bath water, but it does seem right that we should remind ourselves that technology, including PowerPoint, is not an end in itself but at best a tool. Its use has probably had some positive effects, such as persuading lecturers to structure what they are saying, but on the other hand it has become so much the expected thing that too many teachers no longer think properly about what value it is adding, and have allowed it to stifle debate rather clarify content. I had already reached this conclusion ten years ago, as I was embarking upon my last year as a lecturer: back then I decided to ensure that in every second lecture I used no technology at all and focused instead on interactive discussion. So maybe I was ahead of my time…

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16 Comments on “PowerPoint, with neither power nor a point – better to be naked?”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    NPR mentions this idea at SMU but it seems to be less further along than your blog implies – and as for the picture attached of the bloke proposing it…


  2. Aoife Citizen Says:

    There is no question but that students, well science students anyway, prefer being lectured at a blackboard: blackboard teaching is harder, less forgiving of lazy preparation, but better, the students learn more and enjoy learning more. Why then do universities conspire against blackboard teaching, ruining site lines with obtrusive audio-visual equipment, replacing blackboards with white boards and setting up teaching centres to preach teaching methods that are ill suited to large group science teaching.

    • I would tend to agree with you, Aoife – except for this question: why do you think blackboards are better than whiteboards?

      • Hugh Hackett Says:

        The gentle cadence of the chalk on the blackboard complements the subject matter being taught, stimulating the student’s brain aurally!

        • Oh Hugh, I am one of those who find the sound of chalk to be hugely grating – makes my teeth go on edge. Which is why I probably prefer whiteboards…

          • Wendymr Says:

            And I also hated having chalk-dust on my hands, and therefore all over my clothes – and the quality of blackboards where I used to teach was abysmal. No, whiteboards for me every time!

  3. Vincent Says:

    Surely, this is a bit of horses for courses. The study of Palaeography would be vastly more difficult if the Reader had to chalk the lettering.
    But I do agree with you, there was a point a few years ago where these presentations were little more than an annex to loads of meaningless bullshite.

  4. Jilly Says:

    I agree with Vincent, no technology is inherently good or bad, it’s all about how you use it. I’ve also had to sit through those presentations with 64 powerpoint slides, all printed onto little handouts, and you feel your brain shut down as they begin.

    On the other hand, powerpoint or similar software can have its uses. I use a lot of images and video-clips in my lectures, for example, and powerpoint is great for showing those. An infinite improvement on the 35mm slides and carousel projectors we were still using when I first started teaching 10 years ago. They were cumbersome, prone to jamming, and even sometimes decided to spit out a slide, which was then fired across the room at great speed (on one memorable occasion hitting a student in the face. She was very nice about it). Also, although I agree with Aoife about the benefits of blackboard teaching, my handwriting is so bad that my boyfriend can barely decipher a note on the fridge asking him to buy more milk. This doesn’t bode well for students deciphering complex terms on the blackboard!

    I think there are some basic rules for using powerpoint well in lectures:

    1) only use it for essential text, such as quotes or specific terminologies, real names etc. The text on the slides isn’t there to be ‘talked through’, it’s there to be talked around and massively expanded on. I probably use only about 50-100 words of text on powerpoint for a 1 hour lecture.

    2) never, ever use those awful clip-art illustrations. Ever.

    3) try not to use the standardised formats, colours and layouts, because they make everything look so generic. You can actually strip them all out, and make your own background colours and layouts. It only takes a bit of practice, and then you can make presentations that look good and aren’t standardised (they don’t even really look like powerpoint at all).

    4) never print out the slides and distribute them in class. Even if there’s very little text on them, it seems to stop students from taking notes, which is a disaster.

  5. Aoife Citizen Says:

    People write more clearly on black boards because the chalk is thicker and slides better, black boards are easier to erase and, most importantly, chalk runs out when its no longer their; most white board talks have people juggling half finished and fully finished white board biros and who hasn’t had the embarrassment of filling of white board with calculations during a seminar only to find your host has accidentally, in the scramble to find one that works, given you a permanent white board biro.

    Anyone who makes the chalk squeak is an amateur, the squeak is a resonance, avoided by snapping off the first half-to-one cm of a new stick of chalk, that’s adult chalk, the dust free kind; I’d don’t know where the resonance is for children’s chalk.

    And yes, there is the romance, the great pedagogical tradition, the timeless method, the time honoured stage for your teaching talent. You have a piece of chalk, something _mined from the ground_, a black board, fashioned from timber, and with these tools and your skill, you entertain and educate 200 teenagers for an hour; “Yet this will go onward the same\\ Though Dynasties pass.”

    • Oh my goodness, Aoife, how very retro! I do hope you manage occasionally to stand at the blackboard in a Victorian dress 🙂

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        . . . a part of our glorious trade’s which stretches back to Greek sages illustrating geometry by scratching with a stick in student-circled dirt . . .

  6. kevin Says:

    i am sympathetic to the view that technology esp powerpoint is overused and detremental to learning. i teach large classes in a well known irish university. so i use technology less and less, in particularly reducing the material that is made available electronically for them to download (so they actually have to show up). guess what? they hate it, after all it actually makes them work in class. so go naked if you wish but prepare for lousy ratings.

  7. Neal McQ Says:

    I always have a memory of classes where the lecturer gave out the full slides as being terribly boring, it was always a psychological switch to know that you had exactly what he was reciting sitting in front of you. Having said that, the classes where some info was given (and you had to add your own notes) led to an actual attempt on my part to stay involved/awake/coherent (depending on your perspective 🙂
    An interesting discussion and reminder for myself as I take up secondary teaching (admittedly in ICT) in the coming weeks as a change of career!

  8. Niall Says:

    PowerPoint is just a tool as are blackboards, whiteboards, overhead projectors etc. Like any other tool it can be used well or badly. Putting the entire lecture as a series of bullet points may make a good handout but reading from those slides makes a dull lecture. IMHO lectures should be used to engage with the students – not just 50 minutes of one to many presentation by the lecturer. If the student can get the entire benefit of the lecture by reading a handout, the lecture may not be worth attending in the first place.

  9. Aoife Citizen Says:

    . . . and lets be frank; it is hard not to associate whiteboards with that whole idiocracy of teaching workshops and brainstorming and strategic planning meetings. Almost everything I have ever seen written on a whiteboard has been trite and trivial and annoying, but, ah, blackboards: I have great scientists and great mathematicians, great men and women with names that will endure a thousand years, explain their beautiful, deep and perplexing thoughts in chalk on a blackboard. Nothing is better.

  10. Nikita khambhata Says:

    It’s true that ppt is little boring method,but in other hand,it provides more knowledge & comfort.I’m from indial,here mostly blackboard is used.But by ppt we can revice anything easily.

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