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…