I came of age academically at a time when PowerPoint was just starting to become a thing in the classroom. I first encountered it in a Biology 101 Honors course at SUNY Rockland Community College, taught by Dr. George Krasilovsky (a fantastic teacher and super human being). In fact, I haven’t seen anyone use of PPT in the classroom to better effect since then. Dr. K would distribute copies of his PPT handouts, three slides on each page with some empty lines next to them, at the beginning of each class. He only ever put graphics on his slides, simple images, diagrams and arrows illustrating biological processes. As he lectured, Dr. K questioned, prodded and led us along a path of discovery. And he expected us to take notes. Dr. K was smart and funny, and his lectures were never boring. Compared to some of my other professors, many of whom lectured on endlessly without ever writing a thing on the board, this seemed like an excellent way of building redundancy into teaching, i.e., making the content visual as well as aural. When I started teaching (at that same institution) I embraced the technology, determined to emulate Dr. K. No longer did I need to spend precious minutes with my back to the students as I wrote important terminology on the board. I spent many hours preparing my slides and was quite proud of them.
In the years that followed, my enthusiasm for PPT gradually turned to ambivalence. I began to realize that even though I was constantly coming up with new teaching ideas and updating my teaching notes, reworking a set of slides was a chore, a project that I planned to get to “at some point.” Sometimes I did. Sometimes I would find myself apologizing for something on my slide that had become outdated since I last used it. Fast forward to the spring of 2015, when I had the good fortune of being assigned, as part of my Graduate Center fellowship, to observe Professor Angela Reyes’ class on Language & Ethnicity at Hunter College. Each day, Reyes would masterfully lead the class in a discussion of the reading, pausing to put useful terminology, interesting points, lists and simple diagrams on the board; incorporating the reading, but also reflecting new ideas that emerged in the discussion. At the end of each class, her blackboard told a story of collaborative concept building. My experience in Reyes’ class was transformative in the sense that it reinforced my determination to reevaluate how and to what extent timeworn teaching technologies can actually be more useful than new ones. When the time came for me to guest teach the class, I challenged myself to come up with a new approach. Taking the visual blackboard depictions that I had come to admire as a starting point, I began by sketching out what I envisioned my board should look like following a productive discussion, allowing room for student input. I then numbered the main points, and jotted down some quick directions about how to arrive there, and what to expand on once we did. I was quite apprehensive about changing things up during a lesson for which I would be observed, but ultimately gratified by the results.
Since then, I’ve been experimenting with different uses of PPT, and with classes where I don’t use slides at all. I’ve also been honing my blackboarding skills by sketching out ideas ahead of time.
I discuss my pedagogical choices with my student and elicit their views on the use of PPT. Below I briefly note several disadvantages that I’ve identified when using PPT in the classroom.
- The linear nature of PPT does not reflect how we think or learn. Knowledge acquisition and concept-building are circular, often chaotic, processes. As we form new connections, we go back and forth between what is known and what is yet unknown. The use of PPT can limit the direction and of this exploration. A recent article in Independent by Bent Meier Sørensen emphasizes this point:
“A PowerPoint presentation locks the lecture into a course that disregards any input other than the lecturer’s own idea of the lecture conceived the day before. It cuts off the possibility of improvisation and deviation, and the chance to adapt to student input without veering off course.”
“The basic problem,” Sørensen adds, “is that a lecturer isn’t intended to be selling bullet point knowledge to students, rather they should be making the students encounter problems. Such a learning process is slow and arduous, and cannot be summed up neatly. PowerPoint produces stupidity, which is why some, such as American statistician Edward Tufte have said it is ‘evil.’”
- PPT-driven lessons are fixed. While our knowledge of the topic and out ideas about how to students learn are constantly evolving, our PPT lessons become fossilized. Having found the “perfect” graphics and examples and identified relevant multimedia supplements, we are loath to “reinvent the wheel” every semester. Why fix it if it works? When we have a “good set of slides,” honed over several semesters, we are much less likely to make changes. Instead of incorporating new information, exploring how a rapidly changing world impacts our content, and opening our minds to innovative ways of teaching, we are content to just tweak our slides a bit.
- Throwing some notes on a PPT gives an instructor the illusion of preparedness. There’s a sense of having been productive and accomplished something, even if little thought has been given to how to best engage students and help them interact with the content on a deeper level.
- Related to the previous point, PPT also creates a dependence on technology. I recall a time when I was co-teaching a class of ESL adults, and my co-teacher, unable to get their PPT up and running due to equipment failure, actually considered cancelling the class. I even had a professor in my current program decline to discuss a particular topic the students brought up because they didn’t have the relevant slides handy.
As for my students, when asked, most responded favorably to the use of PPT. This is not unusual. In a 2012 study by Hill et al., a majority said they preferred its use by their instructors. Should this be interpreted as an indication that students are benefitting from PPT? I would argue the contrary. PPT can give students a false sense that, if they managed to reproduce all the main points from the slides into their notes, they’ve mastered the material. A whopping 82% of the students in the study cited above reported that they generally copy content verbatim from their instructors’ slides. I believe students are distracted from the real goals of the lesson (e.g., comprehension, evaluation and application) by the perceived need to duplicate everything that appears in front of them. Moreover, I would argue that PPT encourages passivity in students and dissuades them from participating in the learning process.
When instructors present what appears to be a “finished product” in the form of a perfect set of slides, students get a message that their only role is to replicate, retain and regurgitate.
In sum, while I believe that PPT has some redeeming value, I have become highly skeptical of its usefulness in the classroom. I am not ready to denounce it completely yet, but I am ready to start exploring how a departure from PPT can enrich the teaching and learning experience in my classes next semester.