Posted tagged ‘teaching innovation’

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…

Re-imagining university teaching

November 3, 2008

It is a frequently made comment that while the world around us has changed dramatically over the past 100 years, university teaching has not. You could, so some would say, enter a typical university classroom anywhere in the world and take away more or less the same pedagogical experience you would have had in 1908. I think we need to take such comments with a grain of salt: university classes are now conducted in facilities which, often, are quite different from their Edwardian counterparts, and we have access to (and use) technology that was not even dreamt of back then: bear in mind the ubiquitousness of Powerpoint, for example. And then again, think of all the modularisation and credit transfers and goodness knows what that have transformed the university curriculum.

And yet, there is some truth in the assertion. Behind the façade of innovation lurks a pedagogical dinosaur. The lecturer addressing a mixed-background class attending his module and backing up his or her key arguments with Powerpoint slides may be using new(-ish) technology and may be encountering different assessment methods, but the students will be faced with learning processes that are not that far removed from those of past eras.

I am not suggesting that what we are doing is bad, just that it’s not particularly new. And there is, I think, a curiosity in that: the last 20 years or so have seen an avalanche of new initiatives, new quality monitoring, new technology, new teaching methods, new assessment, new expectations by students; and yet, all this ‘new’ stuff has left only a very small footprint in the history of education, if really any at all. Much of the innovation has been driven by bureaucracy rather than pedagogy, and therefore, perhaps predictably, its intellectual impact has been minor.

But the ingredients are all there for a revolution: we have various pedagogical think tanks, including this significant one in Australia, or this one from Britain. And some individual universities have developed really innovative units to explore the possibility of teaching and learning reform, such as this institute in the University of Hull, or the Teaching and Learning Laboratory in MIT.

I suspect that one of the reasons why the impact of the work of educational researchers and innovators has been so limited is because the regulators seeking reform don’t know what they really want and are overloading the system with procedural requirements that actually inhibit, and occasionally even punish, real intellectual innovation. When that is put alongside the naturally conservative professional instincts of academics, we get nothing very radical in the classroom.

It is therefore time to scale down the procedural quality monitoring a little and to focus much more on learning enhancement and innovation. This requires an open mind on the part of both academics and their leaders and regulators. It is time for that debate to begin properly.