PowerPoint-Induced Trends in Higher Ed

eBay Time MachineIf you want to be a well respected blogger with a contingent of loyal followers, you need to be entertaining and relevant, and you also need to back up your posts with legitimate data and references. Taking my own advice, and not to be outdone by my peers, I decided to do some serious research for this post. I wanted to find proof that PowerPoint is the driving force behind a number of trends in higher education… trends that adversely affects a student’s ability to learn. So naturally, I bought a time machine on eBay, and traveled 50 years into the future to witness the results of these trends with my own eyes. What I saw was frightening, yet predictable. Here is an excerpt from my time travel journal:

March 6, 2063 ~ Textbooks are officially dead, and word on the street is that they were killed off systematically and without mercy by well-placed PowerPoint bullet points and stylish clip art. Student are building bonfires Ray Bradbury style. White board markers are outlawed in universities across the nation, and instructors are required to use government-issued PowerPoint templates and laser pointers when lecturing. I have been hiding out with a small contingent of outcasts who call themselves Citizens Against PowerPoint Abuse (CAPPA for short). They organize regular demonstrations against PowerPoint and advocate for a return to the good ‘ol days of group projects and learning games. In their eyes, the world is coming to end, and on the day of reckoning, it will look like this:

PowerPoint template slidesBut seriously folks [insert laugh track], it is 2013 and PowerPoint is already changing the way instructors teach and students learn. Some of these trends are good, but many are not. In this post, I’d like to highlight a few of the more prominent trends, and then pose a few ideas for reversing them… before it’s too late!

Trend #1 – PowerPoint slides are the primary source of study.

  • Description: Before or after class, instructors provide students with copies of the PowerPoint slides that are used during class. In the weeks that follow, students pour over those slides meticulously, searching for clues to solve the classic mystery, “what’s going to be on the next exam?” In some cases, an instructor’s entire curriculum is provided to students via PowerPoint.
  • Issues: A PowerPoint slide deck can either function as the backdrop for a well-executed presentation (synchronous), or as a useful study tool that is consumed in solitary study (asynchronous), but not both. Presentations that contain too much detail can overwhelm and confuse an audience, and handouts that don’t contain enough detail are not very useful for study.
  • Ideas: The strategy that I recommend is a two-step process. First, create detailed handouts that contain prose (paragraphs and sentences), data, and complex images that can be studied methodically. When the handout is complete, transfer only the most important elements to PowerPoint, and represent those elements with direct, bold, and simple imagery.
  • Question: If we can all agree that scanning an entire page out of a textbook and pasting it into PowerPoint is bad practice, then why isn’t the same true for replacing textbook pages with PowerPoint slides?
  • Additional Resources: Standardized testing is our educational system’s primary method for assessing student progress, and those tests rely heavily on multiple-choice questions. We are finally beginning to realize that this method is, at best, flawed. PowerPoint is the perfect compliment to this flawed strategy because it allows instructors to quickly and easily create a series of giant flash cards that explain the “what” but not the “how” or “why” of a topic. For more on the subject, check out this interesting article from The CaliforniaReport: The end of d) all of the above?”

Trend #2 – Lectures are information dumps.

  • Description: Classroom lectures provide the instructor with an open-ended opportunity to share everything they know about a topic. The only limiting factors are the clock and the rate at which they press the forward button on the presenter remote. Slides are filled wall-to-wall with text and data. The instructor operates under the assumption that more slides are better than less. Some students may even doubt an instructor’s abilities if the PowerPoint presentations are not lengthy and complex.
  • Issues: When an instructor chooses quantity over quality, they are setting everyone up for failure. Presentations that aren’t targeted at the audience, don’t provide context, and lack insight are not memorable. This issue is even more common in scientific talks given by researchers. We all want to impress and win the approval of our peers (and even our subordinates), so we may compensate by over-explaining things. Rather than spoon-feed our audience with tasty, memorable morsels of information that leave them begging for more, we cram the entire plate down their throats all at once! PowerPoint encourages this tendency by making it all-too-easy to just plop down slide after cookie-cutter slide with the click of a button.
  • Ideas: There are many ways to combat this trend, and one way is with another trend! Have you heard of “flipping” a classroom?” The buzz-word is new but the concept is not. Essentially, a flipped classroom is one that requires students to complete passive learning activities before class (viewing recorded lectures, reading assigned material), and then uses class time for active learning activities that reinforce important concepts (group work, discussions, game-based learning, role playing, practice). If you are interested in flipping your classroom, we can help you choose a strategy for recording lectures. And let’s not forget that the key to delivering a truly insightful presentation is to simply spend more time on development. Yeah I said it! Begin by taking a step back from the details of your presentation to identify the message you’re trying to convey. Purify that message until its easily stated in one sentence, and in plain English. Now you can put your PowerPoint presentation on a diet until it’s lean and mean. Extra details that don’t directly support your message get trimmed off, important points are highlighted, and then end result is a presentation that is targeted, highly visual, and easy for the audience to digest. (What’s with all the food metaphors?!)
  • Question: What makes a presentation truly memorable?
  • Additional Resources: This is a great article from a faculty member in Stanford University’s School of Medicine, calling attention to this issue as it affects research presentations: Opinion: Communication Crisis in Research. And for some more info on the idea of Flipping, you can start here.

Trend #3 – Class time is scripted.

  • Description: Most higher-ed classes follow the same pattern. The students walk in, grab their usual seat, pull out a notepad/iPad, and gaze up at the projector screen just in time for the instructor to begin unleashing a full-frontal assault of PowerPoint slides chocked full of bullet points, tables, charts and images. The information keeps coming, too, only slowing on occasion to allow for questions, until the scheduled end of the class period. Rinse and repeat.
  • Issues: PowerPoint, by design, practically forces linear movement through a topic. Slides are created and presented one-by-one, and in order. This structure of predictability can easily suck the life out of a room, and places too much emphasis on the need to “get through all the slides” (I actually die a little inside every time I hear an instructor say those words), instead of placing the emphasis on ensuring the audience’s comprehension of the subject, by whatever means necessary.
  • Ideas: I challenge all instructors to conduct at least one class per semester without PowerPoint or a laptop. This forces you and the students to get creative, and the change of pace can be refreshing. You can also mix things up and continue to use PowerPoint. For example, you can simulate branching in your presentation through the use of hyperlinked text or buttons, allowing you to move on a non-linear path that is dictated by the student’s needs. If you want to get a little crazy, skip PowerPoint and use Prezi, which completely debunks the idea of linearity by allowing you to create one, giant canvas of objects that can be freely explored in any direction. Another interesting idea is to completely replace informational slides with slides that pose questions to the audience, encouraging a discussion and discovery of the answer. This technique also serves to creating a pause in the action to allow for thought, and absorption. And don’t be afraid to abandon your PowerPoint completely to attack a question head-on with a white board and marker (“B” key to black-out the screen, “W” to white it out, these keyboard shortcuts works in PowerPoint and Keynote).
  • Question: Learning doesn’t occur in a straight line. Instead, learning happens on a series of simultaneously-occurring tangents (say that three times fast) that include questions, answers, experimentation and in the end discovery. If this is true, then why do we discourage these tangents in the classroom?
  • Additional Resources: In the 21st century, is the “factory model of teaching” really the best we can do? Check out this interesting article from Ken Carroll: Linear and Non-Linear Learning

So, now that I’ve thrown down the gauntlet and systematically blamed everyone and everything for ruining the fragile minds of our youth (sorry about that), I want to know what you think! Are you an instructor, or a student? How do you feel about these trends? Are there other trends that you’ve seen? Do agree or disagree with the points presented in this article? How do YOU think PowerPoint should be used in higher education?

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