Thursday, August 13, 2009

Virtual PowerPoint

Running on summer time here--laid-back as opposed to of-the-minute.

Here's an article from The Chronicle on "teaching naked," that is, without slideshow support.

It maintains that "when computers leave classrooms, so does boredom."

It's impossible to be both thoughtful and also completely enamored with slideshow technology after having read Edward Tufte's "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within." For a demonstration of one of the points, just consider how Lincoln's Gettysburg address might have impressed (or not), had it been delivered in 2005. One of my colleagues assigns Tufte's booklet in his Critical Thinking class. It throws students into an uproar.

(This is not, of course, how philosophers do PowerPoint. Their style is to put 80% of their prepared text onto slides so that it is virtually unreadable and to never use a chart, graphic, photo, or even color.)

The Chronicle article profiles a dean at SMU who alleges that professors "often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool."

Excerpts from the article:
A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw.

The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions.

Here's the kicker, though: The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen's ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods. The lecture model is pretty comfortable for both students and professors, after all, and so fundamental change may be even harder than it initially seems.

"Strangely enough, the people who are most resistant to this model are the students, who are used to being spoon-fed material that is going to be quote unquote on the test," says Mr. Heffernan. "Students have been socialized to view the educational process as essentially passive. The only way we're going to stop that is by radically refiguring the classroom ."

This agrees with my classroom experience. Perhaps this is narcissistic of me, but I think that philosophy is in a unique position with regard to the use of PowerPoint. Many of my colleagues have been more resistant to using it than professors in other disciplines, partly because our material is not readily illustrated with photos, diagrams, charts, or equations. Nor is it easily simplified into bulleted points (though I hardly think philosophy is unique in that!). But the main reason we've resisted slideshow technology is that teaching or doing philosophy is tied in an essential way to arguing about ideas, to give and take, to dialogue. Teaching philosophy is like teaching a foreign language in that the best way of learning it is by doing it. Discussion is not a teaching technique that we abandoned, and that is one of the main reasons that students love us or hate us.

One point in the article, though, gives me pause. The dean whose campaign it describes has been encouraging professor to record videos or podcasts of their lectures and to assign them as homework.
One of [his] fans is Maria A. Dixon, an assistant professor of applied communication. She's made podcasts for her course on "Critical Scholarship in Communication" that feature interviews she recorded with experts in the field. "Before, I was always complaining that I never had time to go in-depth and talk with my students," she says. "Now they come in actually much more informed about a subject than they would have if they had been assigned a reading."

Eh? "IF they had been assigned a reading?" So is the new technique this: discussion replaces lecture and lecture replaces reading? And students are "much more informed" by getting a professor's summary than by reading primary literature? I hardly think that is much of an improvement, in the end.

Indeed it recapitulates Tufte's criticism of PowerPoint, which is that only a fraction of information goes onto a slide than can be put onto a handout or said in the natural words of someone not tied to reading a slide. Likewise, an hour's lecture contains only a fraction of what a person can read (silently) in an hour.

1 comment:

Jim Johnson said...

From the perspective of a social science department I will say that presentations in my field are abominable. And they are WORSE now that people feel they can read their slides to the audience. It manages to be both boring and insulting - as if I cannot read the slide myself.

And of course, it is terrific to find my oh so empirically minded colleagues insisting (against Tufte's quantitative reasoning) that the problem with power point is that it is used poorly. His argument is analogous to the argument about cigarettes - you know, the only product that is deadly when used properly. Power point makes presentations stupid on purpose.