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PowerPoint in the Classroom

I don’t find PowerPoint to be very effective in the classroom.

There are only two good reasons for PowerPoint: to display an outline, or to show an excerpt from a text or some audio-video. But both these objectives can be achieved by writing the outline on the board, or having a handout, or posting the handout on Blackboard, or simply showing the video directly, without slides. Simple is always better.

Some schools of thought hold that PowerPoint should be about creating images and transitions for your talk/lecture, as a way to convey and strengthen your message, instead of showing an outline and bullet points. But professors are in the classroom a lot, and they simply can’t prep 12 hours of classes in such a manner. Further, lectures tend to be more dynamic, involved, and lengthy than a 20 minute presentation. I’m just not sure it would work as well as it does for tech conferences.

Now, here are the downsides to PowerPoint in the classroom:

  • It makes the classtime wooden. Your slides are in a particular order. What if, as the class unfolds, you want to jump ahead? Or a student’s question jumps ahead? You’re not as nimble with PowerPoint/Keynote. But with a simple outline, a sense of the texts, good questions for the class, a sense of humor, and some class leadership, your classtime is dynamic, interactive, and interesting to both students and the teacher.
  • It invites technical glitches, especially if your battery dies, a cable is missing, the remote to turn the projector on is missing, or the wifi is down, which are all real world scenarios.
  • It gets in the way of a class discussion. It’s the google glasses of teaching, so that something is between you and the students. You end up teaching to the slide deck and talking to the slides, and not the students, and death by PowerPoint is a real possibility. Instead, I see my classtimes as dramatic encounters, as something dynamic and unfolding. Using slides can really damage that sense of creative encounter with a text and its ideas. The less tech in the classroom, the better (unless we’re watching a pertinent video or audio clip, or an image).

I think most instructors use PowerPoint out of habit. It’s become a workflow to prep for class: outline the class as slides, try to grab some clip art if you have time, and dash to the classroom. PowerPoint has replaced the 3-ring notebooks of prior generations as how to prepare for class (when what should be replacing those old notebooks are plain text files, Evernote, or OmniOutliner). The whole situation is ironic, in that our graduate work was not done with PowerPoint slide outlines; instead, we were educated through reading, writing, study, and conversation. It seems, however, that when instructors enter the classroom, with everyone else using PowerPoint and a projector handy, we quickly adopt this style of teaching with little examination or questioning. We have picked up a teaching habit that is more presumed than prescribed, and we can’t seem to stop.

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