Posted tagged ‘PowerPoint’

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

August 16, 2009

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…

The highs and lows of PowerPoint

September 24, 2008

Almost exactly 28 years ago I began work as a full-time university lecturer. That same month, there were some 15 or so other new lecturers starting in the university, and to get us into the mood we were given an induction course. I don’t remember all that much about the course now, but one session was all about the use of ‘overheads’. Back then it was a reference to the use of acetate slides on an overhead projector. To me this always seemed to be a hugely clunky tool – a big machine that tended to make noise and overheat, requiring either pre-prepared slides (and I cannot even remember how the printing on these was undertaken), or using felt pens to write on a roll of transparent sheeting resting on the projector. Most annoyingly of all, it was thought to be good practice to put a piece of paper over those parts of the slide that were not yet to be exposed, and to pull down the sheet gradually to reveal each new bit of wisdom.

In the years that followed I often saw speakers giving a lecture or at conferences struggling with this equipment, including the time when a spectacularly boring speaker at one event knocked over the projector – though it must be said that this rather enlivened an otherwise tedious event. I tried occasionally to use overheads at lectures, but rarely.

And then along came PowerPoint. At first, it was a computerised way of creating slides for overhead projectors (at least for me); and then, gradually,  it became a way of producing an electronic presentation sent directly to a projector. It revolutionised the whole idea of how you could present a topic and make it memorable. And a decade and a half later, PowerPoint, and its competitors, are everywhere.

The problem now is that, all too often, the medium has become the message, and the presentation doesn’t so much illustrate the point as obscure the fact that there isn’t one. So now, often when you go to a particularly interesting event you may find that a selling point is that computerised displays are prohibited.

In fact, PowerPoint can still be a very valuable tool, but it must be used with discretion and intelligence. The standard approach – 26 slides spelling out all the key points, with the presentation printed out for everyone in the audience – increasingly represents bad practice, as it may actually inhibit the intellectual connection between the presenter, the topic and the audience, creating an automated process of very little value. What I try to do now is to use it for the purposes of punctuation rather than summary: to emphasise certain key issues; sometimes even in an interplay between what I say and what I put on screen, with one providing an alternative perspective to the other.

There probably isn’t a ‘right’ way to use PowerPoint, but there are some wrong ways. Most will make better use of it if, for a while, they give it a rest, and reflect on what this particular medium can do best.


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