Where a decade ago, it was the rare instructor who sometimes used PowerPoint slides in class to show pictures that illustrated a lecture, it is now rarer for students to take a college class that isn’t run almost exclusively on this ubiquitous presentation making tool. What started as a way to create presentations in a business setting has evolved into the second instructor in a college classroom.
As a community college instructor, the question I am most often asked (after “Can I turn this in late”?, which is an entirely different blog post) is “Are these slides available online?” The answer, more often than not, is yes—and in many cases, the slides for future lectures are available as well. It’s no surprise then that students have come to rely on PowerPoint, not only as a means of getting information, but of conveying it. Gone are the days of poster boards and puffy paints—here, computer generated bullet points rule the day. But as we slide headlong into the paperless era (at what seems like break-neck speed), are we doing more harm than good by allowing our students to use PowerPoint to show us what they’ve learned?
Rick Maurer, in his article, One More Time, Why is PowerPoint a Bad Idea? tries to answer this question by identifying two of the largest problems with the program: 1) it oversimplifies data and 2) it is a poor tool for influencing others. As he explains, when influencing others it is important that “People get it (Level 1) People Like it (Level 2) and People Like You (Level 3).” PowerPoint, he argues, only addresses the first level of presentations—it allows the user to translate all of the information they wish to share into a visual format.
As a result of this, we’ve all seen students who, time after time, use PowerPoint as a way of copying and pasting large blocks of text on a slide and showing them during the presentation in lieu of actual analysis or discussion. It is enough for them that the information is visible—it is quite another thing for that information to be digestible.
A quick search of the literature reveals that most of us, at least on some level, buy into the idea that PowerPoint is an important technology and that its uses in the classroom are boundless.
But what this search also revealed is that at some point, we stopped using PowerPoint as a means to an end and it instead became the end in and of itself. Instead of a group project for a history class, for example, students are now being asked specifically to create a PowerPoint as the outcome of the project. Instead of explaining how a particular chemical reaction in the body takes place in a biology class, we are asking students to use a PowerPoint to illustrate that reaction. By making the focus the technology itself, we get even further away from the original intent of the assignment.
There are certainly good ways to use PowerPoint, and with the influx of newer, even more interactive presentation tools like Prezzi on the market, it’s clear this technology isn’t going away. But how can we manage its use in the classroom to ensure that the focus stays on the material, and not the way we can make that material dance across a slide?